kitten on a laptop
PHOTO: Paulo O

As many people adapt to working from home, businesses need to think about it being more than just using conference calls to replace meetings and turning your kitchen into a cubicle. Getting it right can boost productivity and lower the feeling that work has become an endless stream of video calls.

A while back I outlined a model for workspaces called "Hubs, Hives and Hangouts." At ClearBox Consulting, we use it to help organizations understand that virtual spaces need to be just as nuanced as physical ones. Here I’ll give some practical advice on how to create these for a dispersed workforce.

Hubs, Hives and Hangouts

We can think of physical offices as typically supporting six different working modes:

  • Huddle: A small group working intensively on one task.
  • Hive: A small to large group working on related tasks.
  • Hub: A high traffic area for chance encounters.
  • Hangout: A social area.
  • Hermit: Quiet, individual working.
  • Harbor: A place for safe exchange with third-parties.

Each mode of working typically has a unique layout in the physical workplace. The way seats and tables are arranged, barriers for sound, even the choice of décor between a meeting room and a recreation area signals how they should be used. We’ve evolved these naturally in the physical workplace over many decades. The challenge now is to recreate them digitally.

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Use This Model to Help Your Organization

Think about how people used to work in the office and what they may be missing now that they work from home. Although one tool might cover multiple scenarios, the trick is to configure it correctly to optimize it for the outcome you want. Set up templates or proof of concept digital areas, then coach project leaders and managers on how to execute it for their teams.

Hives

In the physical world, Hives are typically open-plan offices where the buzz is intentional because overhearing information and quick exchanges help people coordinate. They suit work where multiple people do tasks around the same workflow such as processing orders or a newsroom.

A digital hive looks like a steady stream of chatter. People don’t have to tune in all the time, but working out loud in a shared messaging stream delivers ambient awareness about what is happening and allows people to jump in. Teams, Slack and Workplace all replicate this well, but make sure membership isn’t too broad, as one person's awareness is another person's noise when they're working on a different task. Some companies even use always-on video streams to keep people connected.

The equivalent to walking over to somebody’s desk with a quick question is to do an ad-hoc screenshare in one of the collaboration tools above. This is where the ability to switch from text to voice without having to schedule it in a web meeting system is invaluable.

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Huddles

The huddle is a small teamwork mode where everyone is concentrated on a common task. Think of it as a dedicated project room or an operations room, where you walk in and everything is set up to cooperate on a task. Unlike the Hive, people may work in different Huddles during the week.

The simplest form of digital Huddle is a private and persistent collaboration space such as a Microsoft Teams area or Slack channel. It should go beyond the chat element and also give access to live documents and status or progress tracking (e.g. by highlighting or pinning key documents).

If you think of a sophisticated control center, it probably also has big dashboards that everyone can see. Most chat-based tools are poor at structuring information display. Instead you can reproduce that element by adding an intranet ‘front door’ to the Huddle, so that you can put charts and key information on a published page. SharePoint team sites are ideal for this (embedded within a Team if you wish).

Hubs

Hubs are all about chance encounters. The water cooler, cafe and corridors are all hub spaces in a central office. When everyone works from home, this mode is often the first victim because people have to be more proactive to move out of their default work mode (usually Hermit or Huddle). Lure people out of their Hermit mode with digest emails or cross-posting in other channels.

Enterprise social tools such as Yammer or Workplace communities work well for this, but even a discussion area on an intranet fits the bill. Unlike Hives and Huddles, Hubs should be open to everyone by default. The tool should allow an element of serendipity, for example highlighting trending topics and allowing people to follow individuals and not just projects.

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Hangouts

The hangout is explicitly for non-work. It’s where you find the table tennis and comfy chairs. It should signal that different rules apply. Its value is in employee wellbeing and a feeling of connectedness.

Digital hangouts can often just be non-work use of collaboration tools, such as organizing a quiz night or sharing pet pictures. However, it is important to segregate hangouts so people don’t get alerts that are a mix of project deadlines and baby videos. For this reason, a wholly different tool such as WhatsApp or Facebook may be the way to go.

Hermits

Isolated time can be invaluable for deep thinking and focus on a single task. In theory, we’re all hermits if we work from home and unplug the internet so recreating this should be easy.

In practice, home workers may suffer distractions from other occupants. Headphones and flexible work hours can help. They may also suffer digital distractions if the work PC is set to "do not disturb" but a personal phone keeps trilling alerts. Coach employees to be mindful of the need to have time blocks of proper focus. I find a simple pomodoro app invaluable for this.

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Harbors

Think of "Harbor" as a safe port for exchanging goods. Some offices have meeting rooms next to their reception so that visitors don’t have to go through full security to collaborate with employees. You want to work with guests, but do so securely.

Digitally, many organizations struggle with this. The fallback is always email, but file size limits can be a barrier. Without it, employees find workarounds like WeTransfer and personal Dropbox accounts that punch holes in corporate security. It’s far better to set up a secure extranet if you can, or a corporate file-sharing service that is managed and has ediscovery in place. If you still rely on VPN, a digital Harbor can be an ideal first step into a more flexible cloud-based approach.