It's popular to credit the pandemic with resetting employees' expectations of what a workplace looks like, but the trend toward agile workspace was unfolding even before the 2020 lockdown. Agile workspaces, with their flexible in-office environments and open plans, are often associated with the tech sector. However, as organizations across industries reconsider their real-estate needs, agile workspaces are a possible solution – an approach that takes into account both the variety of employees’ needs and the increasing popularity of hybrid work arrangements.
What is an agile workplace?
Agile workplaces move away from layout designs focused on offices and cubicles, said Bill Thrasher, vice president of workplace solutions at AV-Tech Media Solutions, which provides audio and video solutions to business clients.
“Instead, an agile office has ‘plug and play’ setups where employees can bring their own devices and plug into conference systems monitors and more, seamlessly,” Thrasher said.
One key component of agile design is the ability for employees, wherever they’re working at the time, to connect with workplace resources and each other as needed. This approach allows employees to work in a variety of spaces in the workplace, designed for the different types of work they might need to do or ways in which they might need to get that work done.
“An agile workplace is one that can shift and change but can still stay focused on getting work done and reaching goals,” said Eric Czerwonka, co-founder of Buddy Punch, a payroll-tracking application.
Think about a typical week on the job for a knowledge worker. Over the course of five days, a variety of different work formats are likely needed. Some tasks might be solo and require a space supporting concentration and deep focus. Other solo work might be more administrative or rote and could happen in a more social space with colleagues nearby– for example, an area with more casual seating. Collaborative work also requires different work settings and resources, from a boardroom table or a wall with a large whiteboard to a room with technology to involve remote employees or clients.
Agile workplace upsides
One of the potential benefits of an agile workplace is psychological – when done well, this type of workplace design helps foster a workplace culture of openness, trust, and transparency. Allowing employees to make decisions about how they work and where they work sets them up to make choices supporting the tasks at hand.
“An agile or flexible workplace allows those with physically different workstyles – standing, sitting, collaborative, quiet – to find a space that works for them, as well as move around when they need to,” Thrasher said. That flexibility facilitates collaboration, allowing people to work together without needing to reserve specific space to do so, he said.
This approach naturally extends to hybrid or remote work arrangements. TOPdesk has an agile work culture, and the approach informs its office design, its workplace culture, and its management approaches.
“To me, the work office is a benefit we offer to our employees to make use of as they please, as well as a responsibility for us as an organization to make working in the office worthwhile,” said Ruben Franzen, president in the U.S. for the company, which makes enterprise service delivery software.
Offering intentional, adaptable spaces in the workplace means employees can find a space that works for their needs and requirements on any given day. This could vary with someone’s work responsibilities – for example, people may make different choices on a day when they have multiple meetings than on one where they need to do a lot of deep, focused work. It also provides additional flexibility for employees who have different working styles, or have accessibility needs.
There can also be financial benefits to agile workplace design. When this design is put in place with hybrid work arrangements in mind, the reduced need for dedicated workstations or offices can cut real-estate expenses while also fostering internal collaboration and horizontality.
Agile workplaces require different managerial skills
Agile workplaces do come with their own challenges for both managers and employees, Franzen said.
“In the old days, you could monitor everyone in the office: when they came in, when they left, you could get an impression of if they were actively working, etc.,” he said. “Now, you simply have to trust all of that happens as expected.”
Franzen suggests using a management style focused more on individual and team dynamics, combined with hiring for culture fit and a focus on building trust between management and employees. If you’re concerned about productivity in an agile work environment, pay less attention to actual hours spent in the office and more to the quality of work produced. Are tasks being completed on time and to the standards for the role? Is your employee in communication, and reachable as needed? Does your employee foster relationships with colleagues in support of their work?
There are also some logistical challenges to consider. Agility in the workplace can be part of the hunt for a new space, or a large redesign, but neither is necessary. That said, implementing an agile workspace design with intentionality likely will require some investment in a new space, or to rework existing spaces.
It might also be necessary to purchase new equipment – for example, laptop computers – to make it possible for employees to work in multiple settings. If you take a bring-your-own-device or BYOD approach, investment will be needed to ensure access to all necessary software and to implement adequate security measures. It will also be necessary to equip collaborative spaces like conference rooms and huddle spaces with audio-visual equipment and solid wired or wireless connections, Thrasher said.
“An easy way to stop problems before they start here is to ensure that not only are employees trained on how to use your interface systems but also certain employees are trained on simple troubleshooting fixes,” he advised.
Best practices for agile workplaces
If agile workplace design is new to your organization, effective communication about the change will be needed to get reluctant employees on board and ensure all employees understand how the change can or does affect their day-to-day experience at work.
If this represents a change for your organization, the move to an agile workplace may be preceded by a significant organizational shakeup like the departure of a key leader or a significant change in staffing numbers (upward or downward). Some organizations might require larger-scale changes to move to an agile workplace structure, or decide to make big changes in support of that design and culture. Potential examples include switching from an in-person work arrangement to hybrid or remote, or a large-scale office redesign that works in more transformable or communal spaces.
Designing an agile workplace can involve large and small changes. Your own organization likely already incorporates some agile aspects into the workplace. For example, consider hot desking, shared meeting rooms, or transferring employees from one project to another as needed.
“At the smallest level, these things depict an agile workplace and are contributing factors to being this sort of company,” Czerwonka said.