Put simply, agile working is a set of values and principles originating from a flexible approach to software development, which has been adopted by businesses in other sectors. Agile working is a concept that encourages greater productivity and collaboration amongst employees. It applies flexibility to workspaces, furnishings, and tools – giving staff the freedom to work in the ways that best suit them.
The agile workspace has many names. It’s known as smart working, activity-based working, collaboration-based design, and the flexible office. The agile concept is about providing a variety of options for employees so they can choose when, where, and how they want to work. It means offering mixed-use spaces with a variety of services, workspaces, and environments. It’s a design concept which encourages spontaneous conversations and interactions, breaking down walls between departments and boosting mobility within the office. Agile working gives employees the flexibility to work where they want, testing out what works for them on a day-to-day basis and readjusting to suit their needs.
Agile office improvements are achieved through the delivery of a high-quality, modern, and optimised working environment that promotes adaptation to change. This boosts employee engagement, motivation, and empowers staff – helping businesses grow.
Agile working allows teams to freely experiment with different working practices to find out what suits them. This allows better communication and more movement between teams around the office, which generates a cohesive sense of community. Agile work environments are by definition flexible, allowing for quicker meetings, better collaboration, and stronger communication amongst staff. They facilitate autonomy, providing brilliant people the freedom to innovate faster, better, and more efficiently.
Office designs have been gradually changing ever since US mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor created the first layout more than 100 years ago. Based on his methodology – Taylorism, his design emphasised a rigid, linear, and hierarchical way of working. It tightly packed in endless rows of desks for white-collar workers, with executive offices around the outside — mimicking the factory floor.
Later on, more collaborative designs were developed within an organically geometric, open-plan layout. This layout became known as the Bürlondschaft movement. This design was popularised in the mid-20th century – soon spreading across the world.
Then came the dreaded cubicle farms of the profit-hungry 70s and 80s. The less said about those the better. By the 2000s, flexible, colourful offices started emerging, placing a greater emphasis on the work-life balance.
In recent years, there has a been a shift toward employee focused workspaces. No longer are businesses focused on profits and results, they’re starting to prioritise the needs of their workers too. In the modern office, it’s economy, communication, collaboration, and engagement that take precedence. Agile office design is born out of this concept, empowering employees to work how they want to achieve the best results possible.
The idea of agile working was initially developed from software developers' need to fix bugs quickly and get their software to market as fast possible. Today, agile working is used in lots of different industries, by enterprises big and small, with the aim to remain flexible and productive in the ever-changing business world.
An agile workspace can be whatever you want it to be. The static desk and stationary office are a thing of the past. With hot-desking, mobile working, and home offices becoming ever-more prevalent, your workspace needs to be ready to cope with constant changes. An agile workspace can be tailored to your specific wants, needs, and business requirements.
Agile environments are unique to each business, but that’s not to say there aren’t common features found across the growing number of agile workplaces. A typical agile workspace will include mixed-use zones that allow for individual focus, collaboration across teams, socialising, learning, and meetings. Agile offices seek to achieve the perfect balance between results, freedom, and creativity – so they’re often comfortable, community-focused, and well-connected.
Plus, nearly all of them include break-out spaces to encourage communication, providing areas for impromptu meetings and collaborative work. Expect to see multi-purpose areas for meetings, leisure, and socialising. Agile workspaces provide employees with a better work-life balance. So, they’re equipped for the day-to-day grind, as well as providing space for kicking back and enjoying a well-deserved break.
An agile workspace can be tailored to your specific wants, needs, and business requirements.
Whilst open-plan office design has been a source of debate throughout the years – its basic premise is what agile is built on. An open-plan office is an office floor plan that’s centred around a wide, open space with little to no enclosed areas or private meeting rooms.
By physically (and metaphorically) tearing down the walls that divided up older workspaces into private offices and cubicles, many companies utilise the open design to increase communication. This is to instil a more profound sense of collaboration amongst staff, in its new, inclusive space. Agile office design builds upon the open office and takes it one step further.
Open office design only promotes a singular style of working. As its layout forces socialisation, it limits the types of work that can be completed at any one time – with private, focused activities taking a backseat. Agile, however, aims to create a work environment that is flexible enough for individuals to perform any task, anywhere, with ease.
Whether it’s an important client meeting, a post-work catch up, or a team planning session, an agile workspace allows your staff to fully engage with their workspace, enabling them to use the space as they see fit. Rather than being confined to one style of working, an agile office gives you more freedom to choose how you get your work done – providing all the tools to work however you want.
Are you finding it hard to bring in new talent or keep current employees engaged? Does your company have lots of under-used, vacant work areas or desk space? Do you want to effectively prepare your organisation for forecasted growth challenges? If your answer is yes, then it might be time to consider going Agile.
But the benefits don’t stop there.
Agile office design ensures your business is future proofed against any potential issues, challenges, and forthcoming difficulties you may face. It attracts new, exciting talent to your business while keeping your current staff happy.
Your employees are the best asset your business has, and providing them with a workplace that’s inspiring and motivational is a smart investment. By providing them with a well-designed and functional office space, you’re ensuring they have all the tools they need to deliver their best work – for years to come.
So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and want to start adopting agile working practices across your business. That’s great, you’re well on your way to a more productive and functional workspace. But where do you start?
Before starting any planning or design, you’ll want to consult the experts. Undergoing a workplace consultancy can bring a whole host of benefits to your organisation and is an essential first step in implementing agile working. Consultants will work with you to gain a better understanding of your business at its core, undertaking space occupancy research, staff surveys, observations, and workshops. This provides you with the crucial feedback you'll need as you implement your agile office.
You’ll uncover things you never knew about your business, identify which areas your staff value, and discover what changes will bring the most benefits.
Your office design is what fuels how your employees work, making it the most important part of any agile workspace. Agile working is all about providing an adaptable, productive environment that inspires creativity, so your office design should reflect this. Aim to create spaces that cater for every kind of activity. Whether that’s internal meetings, collaborative work or private sessions – flexibility is the name of the game. Plan ahead to maximise the potential of your space and ensure the layout is optimised for quick, seamless access to everything it offers.
Design your office with future growth in mind and the rest will follow.
Now for the fun part: bringing your planning, design, and vision together. At this stage you’ll have chosen an interior design company to handle your fit-out and refurbishment and will be in the process of replacing, updating, or completely re-fitting your existing office.
Make sure you work closely with your designers to ensure everything slots effortlessly into place.
An often-overlooked part of agile design, office furniture plays a crucial role in bringing your workplace together. Tailor every piece to your specific needs. Remember that functionality and aesthetics don’t need to be mutually exclusive, look for ways to incorporate your specific style and designs without losing the practical elements of your equipment.
You’ll find it easier and cheaper to hire one office design company to take care of all of the above steps.
Alongside your office design, fit-out, or agile transformation, it’s important to manage the cultural shift that comes with adopting a new way of working.
First, you’ll need to explain to your team why you’re introducing agile working into your organisation. This shouldn’t be hard, there are many compelling reasons that companies go agile, so find yours. Set out your future plans and share them with the rest of your company, making sure everyone is aware of the proposed changes and they’ll affect them.
Set your own company objectives, goals, and decide exactly what you want to get out of your agile transformation.
Successfully applying the agile way of working requires a complete shift in mindset from everyone on your team. It’s often the cultural shift that’s the biggest obstacle to overcome when attempting to implement agile, so you’ll all need to be on the same page.
Change has to come from the top. Once you have senior management committed, it’ll be much easier to convert the rest of your company to the new way of working. It’s natural for some people to be apprehensive at first, so take extra care in reassuring anyone that’s struggling to adapt. Appointing change champions can help immensely. They can provide a friendly face to voice any concerns to, plus they’ll be able to report back so you can deal with issues as and when they crop up – win-win.
Alongside any business plans, you should consult with your staff and find out what worked well in your current space and what areas to focus on improving going forward. Take employee surveys and hold meetings and sessions dedicated to discussing any potential uncertainty they may be experiencing.
The needs of your workforce should be prioritised, as they’re the ones who are going to be affected day-in-day-out by any upcoming changes. As such, it’s important to maintain a dialogue throughout the entire process to keep them updated and prepared for the shift.
A fundamental part of ensuring your staff fully-embrace agile changes is effective and thorough training. You should aim to provide staff with a full induction into the new philosophy, principles, and updated working practices so they can properly get to grips with your new space.
Remember, even if you respond to all feedback and involve staff as much as possible, there will always be some employees who remain sceptical and resistant to change. It’s an ongoing process so don’t expect everyone to be onboard straight away. New ways of working will always be met with opposition, because of course, on the surface, no-one likes change. But, if the process is managed effectively, the benefits on both a business and personal level will out-weigh any temporary disruptions.
A fundamental part of ensuring your staff fully-embrace agile changes is effective and thorough training.
Let’s explore how companies across the world are embracing agile.
Spotify’s journey best illustrates agile’s influence on workspace design. The music, podcast, and video streaming service has been using the agile development approach since it launched in 2008.
They created small, cross functional, and self-organising teams – of usually less than eight people. They sit together and have end-to-end responsibility for the projects they’re developing, deciding what to build, how to build it, and working together toward that aim. The squads are aligned with the company’s bigger vision with each having their own long and short-term goals.
But here’s the important bit. Their offices are optimised for collaboration. The team members work closely together with adjustable desks with easy access to each other’s screens. Right next to their desks there’s a lounge where they gather for planning sessions and retrospectives and a huddle room for smaller meetings or quiet time. Almost all walls are whiteboards. Spotify’s use of agile is manifested in the physical environment of its teams. The results are clear: Increased growth, collaboration, and creativity – all thanks to Agile.
Another example of a company adopting agile offices is Google’s ‘garage’. As Google program manager, Mamie Rheingold, quotes “Google Garage is its hacker-maker-design space where Googlers come together to learn, create and build”.
Power cords drop down from the roof, everything is within reach and no-one is confined to one place. Google’s design evangelist Nadya Direkova says: “The garage is kind of like my playground. When you come in you can write on the tables, you can write on the walls and you can reconfigure the tables to be in any position you want. Everything is on wheels and that allows people to be more flexible and to be more playful in a way that the typical space and the typical conference room just wouldn’t. The space doesn’t need to be fancy in order to be functional but what it really needs to be is flexible.”
A consultant was placed in the office from 7.30am to 6pm for two weeks to work out the average and peak occupation. They monitored the hours the staff worked across the office floor, from the meeting rooms to the breakout areas. Using high-end software, heat mapping, and employee surveys, we were able to calculate the current usage and future desires for the space.
Through employee surveys, we also calculated the number of introverts, extroverts and ambiverts. This helped us work out how many people will thrive in a shared environment and how many will need their own private space. We worked out we could increase head count by 16%, from 320 to 371 people, by using agile workspace design. The study highlighted numerous ‘dead spots’ — areas that were barely being used. It also showed that workstations were occupied less than half the time (44%); meeting room utilisation was also relatively low (49%), with 85% of meetings having no more than four people attending. Breakout areas showed the least usage, being utilised just 17% of the time. As part of a complete redesign, fit-out and change of furniture, Rhino added new collaborative zones and reduced desks to 0.8 per person.
For the refit of its Northampton premises, the firm incorporated agile working principles into the design strategy to make the workspaces adaptable and fluid. Staff can now move from one space to another and work in the environment they need to in order to thrive. With no barriers between the ‘social’ and ‘work’ areas, employees no longer feel part of a divided workforce. The offices include a custom-designed, fully flexible auditorium with an interactive screen, a steampunk cafe zone, and a games room.
The “lively palette” reflects the insurer’s multicoloured branding, with an “eclectic and unexpected” selection of furniture and fittings which add to the “dramatic, futuristic surroundings,” says William Bayley, head of change management at the insurer. “The most interesting or unexpected insight uncovered from the consultancy process was how we used the space previously and how ineffective it was. Previously we had a dirty, cramped and dark space that was not much fun for everyone. We wanted to move away from the standard desk and meeting room spaces configuration, and into something with wider uses which is more engaging and appealing. “Now we have an open and bright space that is inviting. We saw an almost instant change in the atmosphere. Both the working areas and breakout areas are far and away significant improvements on what we had before, and everyone enjoys the space. We specifically aimed to get as far away as a contact centre we could have everyone really appreciated that. The breakout space, steam punk bar, and auditorium have been a particular hit. “As well as this, we now think having a much more modern office will help us attract and retain the best people. The previous environment was definitely a turn off for some potential employees, but now the environment is a much better reflection of our culture. People have a much better idea of what we are about and what it is like to work for us when they walk through the door”.
Agile workspace design will help attract and retain talent, reduce real estate costs and grow any business. But beware of the pitfalls. Here are our top seven tips for agile success:
Any change to environment can be disruptive to people who spend half their lives in it. Some will feel it more than others. So, most agile refits go hand-in-glove with a culture transformation to some degree.
To help you avoid employee culture shock, get employees involved at the start of the process. It will make it much easier later on. If your employees feel like they have a say in what’s happening they’ll feel like they have some ownership.
A major aspect of what we mean by agile workspaces is the variety of levels, spaces and settings. ‘Putting in the levels’ is what we call it’. This ensures you don’t have a sea of desks the same height. Instead, you’ll have low sofas, high desks, benches, booths, stools, coffee tables, sit-stand desks, and community tables. You’ll have different spaces and settings too, spread across four essential zones (focus, collaboration, social and learning/meeting).
So, you’ve consulted the people before the design, you’ve had the refit, and everyone has moved back in. From here it’s not business as usual. We advise conducting a satisfaction survey and appointing a champion (for people to talk to) in the office for the six months after the refit. It doesn’t have to be a new role, just someone who people can confide in about the new changes. As change disrupts some people more than others, you need to ensure that any questions or potential issues are dealt with effectively.
Lots of factors will dictate how far you go with the agile approach. The percentage of introverts and extroverts in your workforce is one. Headcount forecasting is another. Budget, obviously, is crucial, but don’t let that stop you creating an environment where your staff want to be.
If you can’t afford the upfront workspace consultancy element you can assess occupancy and employee desires anecdotally, update furniture and reduce headcount desk ratio accordingly. Also, a lot of older offices still have clumsy, dated furniture that was designed for huge PCs and monitors, so you may be able to improve the aesthetics by bringing in more modern furniture, which will not only help provide a boost to morale but also will save you some space.
Agile workspace design has its origins in the values and principles of Agile working. If you’re contemplating an agile workspace fit-out, you might be considering some agile working ideas. But, remember, there is a huge difference between ‘doing agile’ and ‘being Agile.’ To get the best from it you need to adopt an agile mindset, not just pick and choose practices used by agile teams. That said, it couldn’t hurt to look at visual project management (think Spotify and Google), hold more quick stand-up meetings in temporary areas (when it makes more sense than booking a meeting room) and use your new collaboration furniture, social sofas and focus booths.
Long gone are the days where everyone and everything was crowded into one big space (or herded into cubicles) with no real research behind it, and without offering any choice. Today’s agile workspace designers have thought of everything, from sound-absorbing wall panels and acoustic ceilings to zone planning and proxemics. We know about the effects of noise on concentration for introverts and extroverts, how it impacts productivity on different job tasks and, most importantly, we know what workers actually want (because we ask). Today’s Agile workspaces feature better acoustics, more options for working environments and, as a result, better creativity, productivity and employee wellbeing than ever before.