Assessing the challenges: Understanding
agile working practices
The following is a guest post written by Melissa Marsh, Senior Managing Director of Occupant Experience at Savills Studley, the leading commercial real estate services firm specializing in tenant representation. Melissa is also Founder and Executive Director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm dedicated to shifting workplace metrics from ‘square feet and inches’ to ‘occupant satisfaction and performance.’
Today’s workplace is taking on new responsibilities: building relationships between business teams, enabling a culture of collaboration, attracting and retaining the best talent, boosting productivity, and supporting innovation. It all adds up to a pretty tall order—one that’s especially tough to accomplish within a traditional office space.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking at agile working practices and/or activity-based workplace design for ways to meet the objectives above, but wondering how you can make such substantial change within the foreseeable future. It could be years before your organization will be in a position to build a brand new, modern facility—or maybe you’re thinking that day will never come.
Certainly, it’s ideal to kick off your workplace transformation with a fresh start: a signature architect-designed building with an impressive list of amenities, not to mention open staircases, near-exotic work settings, and tons of natural light.
If it’s not feasible for your company to construct a big-ticket facility now, that doesn’t mean you have to forego the benefits of these practices altogether! In fact, it’s smart to do so even if (and especially if) you have longer-term plans to move to a new building. Keep reading to find out why.
Before we get started, a bit of vocabulary will help get us on the same page. Though they have a lot in common, agile working practices are generally characterized by the premise that “work” is an activity, not a place, and therefore it can happen at any hour of the day, in any location, and with help from any number of technologies. Activity-based working (ABW) is a design typology that eschews dedicated desks and seats in favor of activity areas made for different tasks: private phone booths for calls, a lounge for impromptu conversations, standing desks for independent work, etc.
Many workplace consultants (or architects) may hesitate to tell you this, but it is possible to make the move to agile working practices and activity-based work settings within your existing space, likely without making a huge investment in its architecture or interior design.
There’s no denying that there are challenges associated with implementing agile working practices in a space that’s not currently set up for them. However, in the right circumstances, and with proper planning, you can convert a traditionally designed space into an activity-based environment with non-assigned seating.
Assessing the challenges: Understanding agile working practices in an existing space
1. Mobile technology is essential
If there’s a single biggest physical prerequisite to implementing agile working practices within existing office space, it’s technology. Your company needs to have a level of technology that allows people to be mobile where they work, full stop. Mobile phones and laptops make it much simpler for employees to embrace the new way of working and allow them to make full use of different types of space. In some cases, you can get by with existing technology—for example, desk phones that allow employees to log in to get their calls, or simple softphone programs that let people use their tablet or laptop as a phone.
Mobile technology is likely the most important investment you’ll make in your initial workplace transformation efforts, so it’s smart to plan for it up front.
2. People are creatures of habit
One big advantage of moving to agile working practices in a brand new office is that the space itself will help catalyze behavioral change. Switching between different spaces and working more collaboratively are still new concepts and behaviors to many workers, but they don’t feel so awkward when attempted in a new environment where nothing feels familiar. It’s more difficult for people to change the way they work in the same space where they’ve already developed habits and adapted to the status quo.
So if you’re not going the brand new office route, and are instead planning a redesign of your current workplace, how can you harness this same principle of sweeping change? With a carefully-planned change management program. See number 3, below.
3. Communication can make or break your efforts
The centerpiece of your change management plan must be proactive communication that includes the right messaging for your employees. Let’s be very clear: your message should not be about all the money your company stands to save by moving to agile working practices.
While that’s certainly good motivation for your CFO, it’s not going to fly with employees. Citing a happier ending for the company’s bottom line won’t gain you any fans from within a group that feels they’re being asked to give something up (in this case, their desks, and the sense of ownership that goes with them). If you go this route, you’re very likely to be seen as shifting responsibility for your workplace’s finances from yourself onto your employees.
Instead, your messaging to employees needs to explain “what’s in it for them”—how their own individual workplace experience will benefit from these changes. Stress that people who adopt agile working practices report being more productive, having more helpful “collisions” with their colleagues, and feeling a more empowering sense of agency within their surroundings.
4. Agile working practices are complemented by ABW
Don’t focus solely on moving to unassigned seating to increase your occupancy and utilization levels. If you do, you may reap the oft-cited cost-savings, but you won’t get more productive employees, or any of the other benefits mentioned above. In fact, if you ask people to give up their desks without giving them better choices, you may find employees giving you the emperor’s new clothes treatment.
Providing choice means addressing diversity within the workspace. A choice between a desk at a window and a desk in a hallway is not really a choice. If your new space is unassigned but still homogeneous, it won’t work. Instead, create different space types that align with the way your teams want and need to work: quiet areas, collaborative areas, private areas, social areas, etc. Make these spaces uniquely different, too, by varying elements like wall and accessory color and furniture style between them.
5. Start moving sooner rather than later
Most organizations tend not to experiment with their workplaces for learning purposes, so when it comes to design, it’s easy to become static. Then, when a lease is expiring or they need to add more space, the change can easily feel cataclysmic.
With that in mind, consider taking this opportunity to conduct a pilot that can show you how agile working practices might work for your company (see more in number 2, below). A pilot will help you figure out the types of spaces that work best for your people, and the policy changes that might be needed to make them work better. As an added bonus, the lessons you learn from your pilot-scale experiments with existing space will make you more successful if and when the time comes to invest in a larger design/build project for a modern facility.
At PLASTARC, we call this process “fail fast workplace planning.” Read about how Mozilla did it: Mozilla’s Open Source Workplace: Failing Fast, Creating, Succeeding.
Remember, it’s not only the CRE team that will learn from your initial efforts: your employees will also gain their first understandings of agile working practices and how the modern office can help them work smarter. So when you finally do open that fabulous new building (or even just unveil that fabulous new floor plan), they’ll be much more ready, willing, and able to jump right in.
Making the leap: How to set the stage for & begin tracking agile working practices
1. Start with a pilot
A manageable move for your foray into agile working practices could start with a pilot of 30 to 40 people; for larger companies, not more than 300 to 400 (for most large office buildings, that’s 1 to 3 floors). Convert a discrete existing space first, and measure success by whether or not people use it. If they don’t, there might be a problem with how it’s designed or allocated. Once you know, you can address the issues on this pilot-level scale, before you’ve spent too much time or money.
2. Mix it up
While most businesses spend a lot of time and money restacking to accomplish clustered adjacencies (similar teams working together), now’s your chance to try something different: encourage complementary teams to work together. In the agile environment, you’ll no longer need to move people around in the traditional manner; you can empower them to move themselves to the optimal place for cross-team collaboration.
3. Plan smart
It can be tricky to figure out how to rework a floor to create a pilot space that will test your ideas without disrupting business or incurring major moving expenses. Serraview’s scenario planning and relocation tools make the process simpler, faster, and less expensive, and help companies think differently about their space from top to bottom.
4. Use technology to measure results and refine
To make the best use of your initial efforts as a learning experience, it pays to invest in utilization tracking technology like sensors. Such technology can provide a wealth of data about how your people are using the new space (or not), which can help you repeat your successes and identify and correct problems. Hopefully, since your pilot is taking place in a small area, this won’t be a prohibitive investment. But even if sensors can’t make it into your budget, you can at least take a new look at data you’re probably already tracking, such as badge swipe information, to help you measure space utilization.
Ready, set… Get to work!
If you employ all the steps above when you’re ready to make an investment in your workplace of the future—whether that’s a brand new building, or just brand new interior design—you’ll be in a better position to confidently plan for that future. Because you will have experimented with and refined your agile working practices, you’ll already know what’s needed to meet your KPIs for utilization and enable the top-notch employee experience you’re after. Plus, you’ll have the data to prove that your agile workplace really works.