Now we know how agile working has transformed the office, we need to explain what it means in the design world. In our second agile article, here’s our take on what agile workspace design means, including the benefits, and how to apply it.
In case you missed it, agile working is a set of values and principles originating from an approach to software development, which has been adopted by business in other sectors. When we speak of agile offices in workspace design we mean a different thing, sort of. Let’s spell it out.
Agile workspace design has many names. It’s known as smart working, activity-based working/design, collaboration-based design and flexible offices. None of these do it justice.
The agile label has been adopted by the office design industry more and more in recent years, as Rhino Interior Group’s head of business development, Hannah Floyd, explains: “People misinterpreted this agile term a couple of years ago but it is getting to become a pretty common denominator now in the office refurb discussion. Mentioning agile working to a customer six years ago they generally would not have heard the term. But now you mention agile working and people pretty much have an idea about it. It’s become a much-reported term in the workplace.
“In its most simplest form, the agile concept is about providing options for employees so they can choose how, where and when they want to work. It means mixed-use spaces with a variety of levels, workspaces and settings, including breakout areas and areas for community and hospitality. It’s a design which creates casual collisions and breaks down barriers between departments by increasing mobility within the office; it’s about replacing some meeting rooms with impromptu meeting areas.”
This fits in with agile working methodology in that it allows employees the flexibility to switch working locations within the office (and outside of it), try them out and change if need be. Some can do this with more autonomy than others. In a similar way, agile working allows teams to experiment freely and autonomously, then change what they’re doing at short notice, making incremental improvements as they go, all the while feeding back internally and externally.
Agile working focuses on high visibility within and between teams. An agile office allows better communication and more movement between teams, around the office, breaking silos and building a sense of community.
Agile workspaces by their definition are flexible. Like agile working, they allow for quicker meetings, more collaboration and stronger social ties. They facilitate the notion of autonomy (which is still a big ask for many businesses), affording brilliant people more freedom to do amazing things.
In short, what agile offices take from agile working is the ability to allow people to innovate faster and better.
Workplace strategist, interior designer and managing director of WK.Space, Hannah Nardini, says adopting an agile approach to workspace design can reduce real estate portfolios, running costs, absenteeism and attrition, while improving business productivity and overall agility.
“For employees, it brings improved wellbeing, a sense of personal achievement as well as a better work-life balance, an increase in friendship groups and improved morale across the organisation,” she says. “By taking into account people, place, process and tech, we can bring empowerment, freedom and productivity.”
Agile workspace design can “dramatically” reduce real estate costs, says Rhino’s Hannah Floyd. “According to our research, it can reduce footprint typically by as much as 15-35% or allow corporates to increase head count within the existing space.”
Hannah Nardini is quick to dispel a myth of agile working: “It’s not just a way for you to cram more people into a much smaller space. We use the theory of proxemics, which is about understanding peoples’ personal space. The design of an agile office needs to respect a person’s personal boundaries and reinstate them, giving more back to the occupant.”
WK.Space breaks the office into four zones: focus, collaboration, social and learning/meeting. [These are the four elements highlighted in our first agile article around autonomous teams.] The focus zone is for concentrated activity and includes pods, booths, libraries, cables and offices. This area overflows into the collaboration zone, which is set up for casual collisions, idea sharing and group working. You’ll see lots of big tables and shared working areas here
Connected to this zone is a social area which simulates the homely feel, so lots of resimercial (residential-commercial) and community elements go in here, like sofas, comfy chairs, large tables and benches and games. The learning and meeting zone is easily accessible from the social zone and should include a variety of spaces and settings such as open-plan stand-up meeting areas, high-backed sofas as well as booths, pods and cabins for private meet-ups.
Wk.Space’s approach is supported by research from the Agile Alliance, a global, nonprofit organisation dedicated to promoting the concepts of agile software development as outlined in the Agile Manifesto. In the Agile Power Of Place presentation — designed to help organisations create physical environments to support agile teams — Rochelle Ritzenthaler, design strategist at Gensler, and Jorgen Hesselberg, director of agile transformation at MacAfee, say that top-performing companies design their workplaces to support all four of these modes: socialise, focus, collaborate, learn.
One example of where agile workspace design can help is by making a more efficient usage of existing space, such as meeting rooms and breakout spaces, which have “shockingly low occupancy rates,” says Hannah Floyd.
“What agile does is makes you look at your meeting room utilisation. On average, 80% of short meetings — less than two hours — have 2-4 people. Also, not every meeting necessarily needs to be private. So substituting some meeting rooms with areas where people can go (such as higher table area, high-backed sofas or a booth) to have those quick meetings not only increases productivity but also optimises occupancy.”
Also, break-out areas and eating areas are rarely used outside of the hours 12-2pm. “So if you turn it into a work cafe you can increase the occupancy in those kinds of areas as well as increase collisions, boosts community feel and enable collaborations in a neutral place.”
In a recent consultancy for a leading UK employment agency, Rhino conducted a study on the way the 320 people work in the 18,000-square-foot office. A consultant was placed in the office from 7.30am to 6pm for two weeks to work out the average and peak occupation. We monitored the hours the staff worked, especially the meeting rooms and breakout areas using high-end software, heat mapping and employee surveys around current usage and desires for the space.
Through employee surveys, we also calculated the number of introverts, extroverts and ambiverts. “This helps us work out how many people will thrive in a shared environment and how many will need their own private space,” says Hannah Floyd. “We worked out we could increase head count by 16%, from 320 to 371 people, by using agile workspace design,” she says.
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. 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 zones and reduced desks to 0.8 per person.
A leading online broker of business insurance with over 450,000 customers. 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 move from one space to another and work in the environment they need in order to thrive. With no barriers between the ‘social’ and ‘work’ areas, employees don’t feel part of a divided workforce.
The offices include a custom-designed, fully flexible auditorium with interactive screen, a steampunk cafe zone and games room. The “lively palette” reflects the insurer’s multi-coloured 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.
“We wanted to create a space that was inviting and engaging and provided a wide variety of working and relaxing spaces to allow our teams to enjoy working here and achieve great results,” he says.
“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 people and 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.”