The Formula for Creating a Successful Agile Working Environment

For companies transitioning to an agile workspace, WSP USA’s Herbert Els created a formula that can help guide the development of an environment that boosts productivity.

Workspace real estate is a cost consideration for every enterprise. Nearly every real estate and facility management department is being asked to do more with less.

One of the growing trends in office real estate is the concept of an agile working environment. The challenge is not to end up with less – and with that I do not mean less real estate cost, but most important for any enterprise – less productivity!

Employees are often uneasy when told they are transitioning to an agile workspace. It’s not surprising, as initial thoughts usually center around what they will lose – a desk, cubicle or office where photos and other personal items can be displayed; that perfectly calibrated chair; and the comfort of knowing there’s a familiar destination and surrounding environment that will always be available when they arrive at work.

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There are certain benefits when creating an agile workspace, and it should be more than just the optimization of real estate. Finding universal support among employees takes advanced thought, planning, flexibility and communication to make sure they don’t feel like they are making sacrifices to improve the bottom line without reaping any benefits for themselves.

That perception can create a significant drag on morale that will prove to be detrimental to today’s highly competitive market for top talent and directly affect productivity.

Technology firms were among the first to adopt the modern concept of not only open work spaces, but shared (unassigned) working spaces also known as agile working. For many of those firms, employees were already comfortable and thriving in a mobile “work anywhere” culture. Armed with a laptop, a tech-savvy building with comfortable common spaces and an ability to access private spaces when needed, these firms managed to maximize their workspace using denser, cost-effective work areas, with employees that appreciated the flexibility.

One way those companies helped employees adapt to that environment was by creating some amazing amenities spaces. You are probably aware of some of the creative, sometimes eccentric ideas put forth by the large tech companies—indoor putting greens, jungle-themed spaces, firefighter poles to travel from floor-to-floor, and common spaces with foosball tables and dart boards. While these examples may not be practical for most workplaces, they do demonstrate how an agile workspace, combined with an understanding of the needs and interests of the employees, can encourage a more productive workforce.

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Herein lies the true recipe for a successful agile working environment: Create working spaces with an atmosphere that generates a feeling within each employee that “my company is looking out for me.”

For companies considering transition to an agile workspace, I have created a formula that can help guide the development of an area that enables productivity without the bad connotations:

(Agile Working – Scarcity) + (Convenience + Control) = Productive Environment

Let’s take a closer look at these elements to see how they interact to create a productive work environment.

Agile Working Minus Scarcity

One of the most striking characteristics of an agile workplace is its flexibility of space. With permanent workstations reduced or eliminated, employers create opportunities to provide features and benefits to employees that they might not otherwise experience.

Naturally, when walls and doors are removed and desk space is reduced or eliminated, it’s important to compensate employees for what they perceive as a significant loss. Most of us are creatures of comfort, and it can be jarring to sacrifice that confidence of knowing every day where we are going when we come to work.

From the onset, this scarcity of space and privacy must be addressed. When we put many people together who no longer have their own personal space, it results in a scarcity of privacy. Now in a collaborative working environment, privacy isn’t a constant requirement. But when someone needs to take a confidential call with a client, meet with coworkers over delicate matters, or simply avoid disrupting coworkers, allowances must be made for that person to be able to move into a quiet location – both scheduled and unscheduled.

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Balancing collaborative and private space requires an understanding of who needs this space and how often it is needed to provide sufficient private space without overcommitting to it in places where other functions might be of greater benefit. Agile working means denser occupancy, resulting in a greater need for quick access to private or quiet spaces. Striking the perfect balance between occupancy and available spaces to avoid scarcity is the first part of the equation that must be solved.

It is also important to the real estate and facilities departments to fully understand how people are using the space, when they are using it, and how much value the workplace features are providing to the bottom line.

Implementing Internet of Things (IoT) sensor technology and an analytics platform is a critical tool in occupancy trending that provides real estate and facilities operators insight into striking this balance. But this is only one side of this equation.

Convenience Plus Control

What has changed? Not only can we collect data from the new sensor technologies, but real estate and facility operators can now collect valuable feedback data so that employees can continually demonstrate what they like and use—and what they don’t like or use—without doing any more than a typical day’s work. That’s a more accurate and immediate assessment versus employee surveys, which are lucky to garner 10 percent response rates … most of which are going to be complaints, overlooking assessments of what works well.

Up-front strategic thinking is an absolute necessity to provide employees with greater control of their agile environment, as well as access to conveniences that allow them to work efficiently. Agile working should not add stress and worry to employees during their commute, wondering if they will be able to find a place of their preference or task needs to sit and work that day.

Employees bring an expectation that their work environment should be as good as or better than what they have at home! Innovative solutions in mobile platforms, location-aware technology, and integrated automation that provide data analytics to enhance the facility operation and deliver on that expectation, are available right now.

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Being able to reserve your workspace or collaboration space is one the most important items when giving control back to someone in an agile working environment. Many firms already provide room reservation mobile phone apps that make it simple to reserve meeting rooms and other private spaces. But those benefits can now be taken even further.

If you’re like me, you aren’t keen on taking 15 minutes to figure out how to set the audio-visual (AV) systems, lighting, blinds and air-conditioning system before a meeting starts. Today there are systems available that allow users to control their environment by using an app to set the specific temperature and lighting preferences. Now, every time someone reserves a room, the system automatically factors in those settings, and when they arrive, the temperature and lighting are right where they need to be.

In addition, advanced multi-sensors can be installed integrated with the room reservation system that can providing instant adjustments for last-minute occupancy. Just by walking into that unreserved room, the system automatically recognizes the employee and will reserve the space for the next 15 minutes—naturally adjusting the environmental preferences and lighting levels without lifting a finger. We may still be unable to control the weather, but this is about as close as we can get!

We know that agile working spaces can get a bit loud, and many times those making the noise don’t realize how loud it is getting, until a co-worker has to make that awkward, uncomfortable request that they keep the noise down. With sound pressure sensors, when pre-set noise levels are exceeded, the system will flicker the lights as a subtle suggestion to the occupants that they should use their “inside voices.”

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By giving convenience and control to the employees, it sends a clear message: That you value their comfort, their insight, and that you understand what they need to increase their workplace experience.

These systems also have a tremendous benefit for safety and security. Ask yourself this: How quickly could an employee connect with the appropriate person, should he or she encounter a leaky sink or a suspicious package? The same workplace app could now be used as a security or deficiency reporting tool. With a quick photo of the concern and a click of the button identifying the issue, it will arrive immediately to a work order system or emergency responder.

Maximum Productivity

It’s important to crawl first, then walk, then run. You don’t want to overwhelm the workforce, so doing things in phases will help acclimate people to the changes.

At minimum start by installing the necessary infrastructure, such as multi-sensors, some of which will be required anyway by code. Look for “easy wins” like the workspace/room reservation system integration, which provides control and convenience and will lead to high adoption rate among employees. Then integrate various building systems (occupancy sensors, HVAC, power metering, lighting control, AV systems, etc.) that can be used for facility trending. Eventually, you can introduce additional features to set preferences, or report deficiencies and security concerns.

If you can balance the formula, you can create a better user experience and a more productive environment. If one thing falls out, it will risk becoming less productive.

The message should remain focused on what agile working is providing for them: that increased control over their working environment is a worthwhile exchange.

By framing things in a way that shows the benefits and advantages, then the transition to an agile workplace is going to be smoother—and even embraced—by those who recognize and appreciate those advantages.

Also note that current employees aren’t the only concern: You are also in competition to attract top talent to the company. Firms that focus too much attention to the cost- and space-saving aspects of the agile workspace risk losing good people to the companies that have given employee benefits greater consideration.

You can’t guarantee productivity; you can only strive to enable the best productive environment. But with proper preparation, I believe the return on investment into an agile workspace can be realized within two years. Top talent is attracted to a collaborative, innovative atmosphere that inspires creativity.

This equation is an excellent way to find that path toward creating that atmosphere for your workers and give your company a greater competitive edge in your market.

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