The workplace has been evolving long before the pandemic, transforming into smarter hubs of technology and space for people to use.
But over the last two years, as office working came to a dramatic halt, the change already in the works was significantly accelerated. Now, as we return to a very new way of working, the office has changed beyond just layout and design – its fundamental purpose has changed too.
Audible, the leading provider of premium audio storytelling, has reimagined the office with this renewed purpose in mind. Designed to best serve our new way of working – a mix of hybrid and remote – Anne Erni, chief people officer at Audible believes the office now exists to offer improved flexibility, collaboration and productivity.
“Not only does the location and layout of an office impact how teams commute, communicate and collaborate,” says Anne. “These things also have a significant impact on how a company presents itself to its employees and the public at large.”
“We have redesigned the office to reimagine ‘use cases’ that are different from what the office offered in the past. This will act as a draw to bring employees back into the physical environment.”
Over the last year, Audible has spent considerable attention on adapting and rebuilding their physical spaces for the future. The business has drafted a hybrid return to the office called Hub + Home which will prioritise employee mental wellbeing and assure the workplace presents diverse and flexible workspaces for all.
Hub + Home
“Hub + Home” is Audible’s workplace model that reimagines the future of work. Essentially a hybrid model, Hub + Home offers people flexibility while the offices also undergo a redesign that reflects its new purpose.
“Hub + Home designates the office as a place for collaboration and community building – physically remodeling our spaces to reflect this – and remote work as a time for heads-down thinking,” explains Anne.
“For the past year, my team has been hard at work redesigning Audible’s office spaces to better reflect what we see as the new purpose of in-person work: collaboration, relationship building, cultural activities etc.”
This redesign looks exciting for Audible, with more space allotted for communal brainstorms and scrums, while getting rid of personal private desks (although some are still available for reservation) to reinforce the collaborative purpose of Hub offices. Tying back to Audible’s roots in audio, Hubs will also feature multi-purpose listening rooms for employees.
At Audible’s Newark headquarters, the company is also piloting an art initiative called the Newark Artist Collaboration that showcases work from local artists throughout its refurbished office spaces, providing employees with inspiring visuals as they go throughout their day.
“The overall goal of our hybrid work plan is to allow our employees the flexibility to do their best work,” explains Anne.
Audible aims to marry the in-person advantages of working from an office such as relationships and connection with the inclusive and accessible benefits that virtual meetings have brought us during the pandemic.
But Anne cautions against a ‘Zoom-flattened world,” the idea that online communication can never replace the benefits and connection of in-person work.
“It’s nearly impossible to replicate in-person meetings or coffee break chats over Zoom, and it’s difficult to fully convey a company’s ethos or develop a sense of community through email,” explains Anne.
With this in mind, to make up for nearly two years of being physically apart, Audible plans to launch a series of efforts throughout its hub cities, coined “The Hubbub.” This is designed for employees to reconnect, catch up and forge new relationships through activities and experiences.
In Newark, the company is also launching a new food delivery service for employees to order lunch from a selection of locally-owned restaurants to introduce them to the city’s unique food culture and support its economy after years without employee traffic.
As such, Audible’s hybrid plan gives a good mix of the advantages of in-person and remote work. It allows employees to work from home at least two days a week, with many more employees such as parents given further flexibility. It will also provide all employees the opportunity to work remotely within their hub country for up to 4 weeks per year – giving people flexibility if they want to work from a different location for a longer period of time.
What’s more, Hub + Home as a hybrid model has been solely shaped by employee feedback, so Anne is confident in its long-term success for both business and people.
“We knew it was crucial we hear from our employees before drafting any type of return-to-work plan,” says Anne.
“In our May 2021 survey, we asked how many days our US employees would ideally come into the office per week in the future. 93% indicated they wanted to work out of the office 1-3 days a week, with only 7% wanting to be in the office 4-5 days a week.”
Thinking with the employee in mind
As an organisation , Audible places great importance on the power of listening, both to their audience and employees.
“While the importance of employee mental health has moved increasingly to the forefront of public discourse during the pandemic, the wellbeing of our staff has always shaped Audible’s business,” says Anne.
Studies have found that depression directly impacts an individual’s ability to complete job tasks and can cause a 35% reduction in cognitive performance.
“We believe that if employees feel like their company is truly looking out for them, through their ups and downs, they’ll lean in more to their work and give it their best.”
This level of support aligns with Audible’s “People Principles” – a guide to how Audible’s employees work together for their customers. One principle is “Activate Caring”, a principle that respects and celebrates the glories of the human spectrum.
“By having feedback from employees across the company to guide our thinking,” says Anne, We ensured our return to work plan was as equitable as possible and reflected the broad identities, beliefs and experiences held by Audible’s community.”
But while a return to the workplace is in full swing, the pandemic hasn’t quite left the building either. Safety concerns surrounding variants still control many of the decisions to open offices around the globe. And as a global organisation, Audible has had to stay very close to these updates.
“We have developed specific Hub + Home plans for each region Audible operates in, taking into account differing pandemic conditions location by location,” explains Anne.
“We want to ensure that all local guidelines and cultural nuances are taken into consideration. We are deeply committed to our employees’ wellbeing and will only commence office reopening plans in areas where it is safe to do so.”
But as much as the pandemic controls decisions to open the office, mental health is now the key driver for people’s decisions on what they feel comfortable doing, i.e. going into the office.
“We recognise that every employee is approaching this return with different circumstances – from parents that still have children learning at home to young adults who have been working out of small apartments for the past two years,” says Anne.
“And while we strongly believe in the advantages of in-person work, employee’s hybrid plans will be determined on a case-by-case basis. For instance, those with children still at home will likely be allowed more flexibility when it comes to remote work, while interns and entry level employees who are learning the ropes will be asked to come into the office more often to interface with managers and other employees.”
But there are more complexities at play than simply assessing people by their individual circumstances. Audible offers further flexibility on a departmental basis, recognising some teams, such as content or legal, may require more in-person time than others, like coders.
The overarching message though is quite a simple one: the benefits of in-person work taking place in the office is paramount and coupled with individual flexibility and initiatives such as Together Tuesdays, wellness days and meditation offerings, Anne is confident as they continue to evolve the hybrid work plan.
Communication and feedback
The pandemic caused a shift in how we approach work. The ripple effects of this encompass everything from reshaping the workplace, prioritising employees and realising that flexibility is no longer a perk.
Communication has also needed to be transparent and regular to ensure employees feel supported and stable, while also understanding the direction of the business they are a part of.
For Audible, “this learning has broadly informed our strategy over the past two years and resulted in us investing deeper into communication opportunities to keep our community updated, as well as receive feedback from our staff,” explains Anne.
As a result, Audible has increased the number of surveys to receive more regular feedback, using this to inform business decisions. For example, employees said that there were too many meetings and not enough time for heads-down work, so the organisation instituted shorter meetings as well as meeting-free Thursday afternoons.
They also increased the cadence of the All-Hands meetings, integrating company updates to employees as well as a time for questions from staff. This is all geared towards equipping their people with the confidence to enter what is still going to be an uncertain year ahead.
For Anne, Audible and other organisations should have one focus if they are to be successful in this new version of normal: agility.
“I’m convinced agility is going to be the key for the future of work,” says Anne.
“The past two years have done a good job of proving this – from the initial pivot to remote work [in March 2020] to figuring out how to virtually communicate amidst the current social justice movement and drafting ever evolving return to the office plans.”
“We must take the lessons learned from the pandemic and continue to prioritise testing, iterating and adopting.”
For HR, this means adaptability and a wider lens of focus. HR leaders should determine the use cases for employees coming into the office, asking the question of what truly moves the needle for their organisation and culture.
For Audible, it’s new hire orientations, mentoring interns, cross functional brainstorms, Impact Group meetings and activities, and volunteer opportunities in line with their People Principles.
HR leaders should also consider decisions from both the global and local perspective if they are a part of an international organisation like Audible.
“While it’s crucial that companies have consistent frameworks, it’s also important to remember that each practice, each team and each region are different,” says Anne.
“Keeping this in mind, in some cases, it’s best to allow managers and leaders who are closer to certain issues determine what is best in specific situations.”
Audible has certainly been on a journey over the last two years and have had to adjust their mindset and approach along the way. But the organisation values learning, and with more changes yet to come in the upcoming year, Audible is keeping an open mind for the future.