Office Design

Agile working: what is an agile environment?

Patrick Holloway
November 11th, 2021

Agile working is quickly growing in popularity thanks to the pandemic. When companies embrace agile working, they are often rewarded with much happier and much more productive team members. But what is an agile environment?

Embracing agile practices often requires a radical shift in mindset and company culture, pivoting to a flexible and constantly changing model. 

But making the shift to an agile workspace requires skill and leadership from the top. It also requires facilities managers (FMs) who are ready to meet increasingly complex demands and initiatives. 

Companies will see the most benefits of agile working only when employers, employees, managers, and FMs are all on the same page. Everyone must be working towards the same goals to achieve maximum flexibility.

In the following article, we will explore the often misunderstood concept of agile working. We also review its benefits as well as best practices to follow when implementing it.

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What is agile working?

Agile working is as much a philosophy as it is a dramatic shift away from traditional work styles. 

An agile workplace is one that gives almost unlimited autonomy to workers. Workers are given a task, but they get to choose when, where, and even how to complete it.

As such, agile methods can be implemented in an almost limitless variety of ways, depending on the needs of both workers and the work. 

The linchpin of agile methodology is a focus on the activity, and on empowering workers wherever they are.

Many people use the term ‘agile working’ interchangeably with ‘flexible working,’ but that is a misnomer. 

Flexible working typically refers to limited flexibility around certain aspects of worklife, such as schedule or location. 

An agile way of working is more like ‘flexible plus.’ It brings extreme flexibility and adaptability to all aspects of workflows and decision making. 

Some people confuse agile working with activity-based working (ABW).. 

In ABW, the given task impacts where employees work, whether that’s at a desk, in a conference or meeting room, in a phone cubby, or at the coffee shop around the corner.

As such, agile offices typically incorporate ABW practices, but ABW practices alone do not equate to agile working. 

agile work environment

Agile supports hybrid working

While not every company is willing or able to implement agile working, there’s widespread consensus that hybrid work is the future of work. 

Thanks to the pandemic, companies were forced to move to hybrid work, in many cases literally overnight. 

We’ve now had more than a year to adjust to this ‘new normal,’ with the majority of workers now back at the office in some capacity. 

But the majority of these workers also now want a safe, hybrid office environment.   

In fact, a recent Harris Poll survey commissioned by OfficeSpace found that more than half of workers don’t want to return to the office full time. 

That means that companies will need to fully embrace hybrid working tools and find a hybrid workplace model that will work going forward. 

One of the most sustainable ways to do so may be fully embracing agile working as well. 

Hybrid work allows for both in-office and remote work. Like agile working, companies can implement it in a wide variety of fashions. 

Companies that adopt agile working will let employees dictate what their hybrid model will look for them, based on both their work and their circumstances. 

For example, a worker with young children at home will typically want a very different working schedule than older generations in the workplace

Or someone with roommates might prefer working in the office, but still want to head to the coffee shop some days. 

As we’ll cover below, as long as employees have the right tools and support systems in place, agile working can help them take advantage of hybrid working in a more meaningful way. 

agile working benefits

What are the benefits of an agile environment?

As the pandemic has made crystal-clear, companies that are agile and able to adapt to change quickly are those that survive. 

The world of work, including both employee and consumer demands, is always in flux. Therefore, companies would do well to adopt this radically flexible new way of working to future-proof their organization, because of the many benefits it offers. 

Agile workers are happy workers

Agile working helps companies embody Peter Drucker’s famous quote: “People are our greatest asset.

Even before the pandemic, people were clamoring for flexible work. No one likes micromanaging. And everyone craves meaningful control over how they live their lives and structure their time. 

Some people really do work better at 2am. 

Some people really do need to blast heavy metal music to concentrate. 

And some people really do need to check in with social media throughout the day, to give themselves a mental break from their workload. 

Ultimately, agile working treats workers like the adults they are, and like real stakeholders to a company’s success.  

This leads to happier employees with a better work-life balance and a much improved employee experience

Agile working increases productivity

Given all this flexibility, it’s easy to see why employers might be reluctant to create an agile workforce. It’s counterintuitive to let employees dictate their breaks or to let them scroll through social media. 

But the reality is that agile actually creates more productivity. 

This is illustrated by British Telecom, an early adopter of agile working

When British Telecom made the transition to agile working, many workers actually had a 30% increase in productivity. 

This type of increase in productivity is partly due to the fact that agile employees save time on commuting. Some of that commuting time gets put to extra work. 

But mostly, it goes back to the basic premise of agile working. 

When employees can choose how they work, they will naturally choose to work in a way that’s best for them. 

In other words, when employees have the tools to do their best work, they usually do so. 

Agile working creates a healthier workforce

With agile working, employees have more autonomy and better life-balance. And they can do away with long commutes during rush hour. 

So it’s not a surprise that agile working makes for a healthier workforce, too. 

Taking the British Telecom example again, agile working cut stress-related illness for staff by 35%. 

Sick days were also reduced.

“It’s not a panacea, but what we have found is that people are happier and healthier,” says Caroline Waters, director of people at BT.

Agile working can create more sustainability

Finally, agile working can help companies improve the ‘triple bottom lines’: people, planet, and profit.

In other words, agile working can help a company reduce its carbon footprint in two big ways. 

First, at-home workers aren’t driving gas guzzlers back and forth the office each day. 

Second, agile working can help FMs dramatically cut back on wasted space

Studies suggest 42% of office space is underutilized. 

Adopting agile working practices like hot desking, office hoteling, and reverse hoteling, in which employees share a smaller amount of workstations on an as-needed basis, can effectively cut back on this amount of underutilized or wasted space.

There are many office neighborhood examples that show how an agile approach can make better use of available resources and space.  

The result is that companies can use agile working to reduce their corporate real estate costs, along with its associated environmental footprint.

This increased sustainability and cost saving illustrates how agile working supports both the goals of employees and employers alike. 

“These are approaches that focus more on the individual’s needs versus the overall building performance,” says Rick Bartlett, President of Unisource Solutions, in an interview on corporate agility

“At the end of the day, the building ends up performing well because the individuals occupying the space are able to make the absolute most of their time in it.”

agile working principles

What are agile principles? 

As we’ve covered, agile working works best when everyone in an organization is on board and understands the value it brings. 

To ensure success, companies should also follow the following five best practices.

1. Adopt the right technology

First and foremost, agile working will only work when FMs have the tools they need to support a disparate workforce with different schedules and work locations. 

Specifically, companies will need to adopt robust communication and collaboration tools to support teamwork. Preferably ones that integrate with their existing Integrated Workplace Management System (IWMS).   

Especially if a company offers flexible seating options and a mix of remote and in-office work, they will also need a visual directory or interactive floor plan for those going back and forth to the office. 

This visual directory should also integrate with a mobile app. This way, people can have more visibility around who is in the office at any given time. 

Finally, space management is almost infinitely more complex in agile working environments. 

FMs will therefore need powerful space management software that is up to the task, helping them continually improve space utilization. 

Ideally this software will also provide real-time, real-use data and analytics about who sits where and when. This allows FMs to make more informed decisions about how much space their organization needs, now and going forward. 

2. Support employees wherever they work

Letting employees choose where they work is a foundational aspect of agile working. But of course, if a company’s technology only lets them do real work at the office, then they won’t be able to truly embrace agile work. 

That means that FMs will have to consider all elements of their agile environment, even an employee’s kitchen table or hotel room. 

Again, a mobile app for desk booking is helpful, as are tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams.

FMs must also ensure remote employees always have all the up-to-date tools they need to work remotely. This will likely require close collaboration with their counterparts in IT.

3. Offer flexible office arrangements

In any agile environment, many employees will still opt to come into the office, at least part of the time. 

To fully offer agile working, then, companies will need to provide flexible office arrangements.

There are many work environment types that can support agile working. To ensure greater success and employee buy-in, FMs and companies should work hand-in-hand with employees, using real-time data, to create a workspace that works best for everyone. 

4. Make moving people easier

Move management is another FM task that can be quickly complicated by agile working. 

As we’ve covered, all businesses need to be able to easily react to change. And an agile working environment can make change a much more regular occurrence. 

It should therefore be easy for employees to move, both in one-off seat changes and for larger scale relocations. 

Again, this is ideally managed with good IWMS software. 

5. Regularly review real estate requirements

One of the goals of an agile environment is to cut down on the amount of space an organization needs. 

FMs would therefore be wise to regularly review their corporate real estate requirements, and negotiate new, flexible contracts when possible. 

flexible workplace

Overcoming barriers to an agile environment

There are some companies and some industries that will likely never choose to adopt agile working. 

For example, we can expect certain industries that rely heavily on the apprenticeship model, such as the financial industry, to remain more traditional in their approach. Employees need to be face-to-face and in the office at the same time for their model to work well. 

Therefore, according to OfficeSpace CEO David Cocchiara, “flexibility will vary by company, by leader, by culture, or by geographic location.”

That said, there are many organizations that are reluctant to embrace agile working, even if it might benefit them, due to perceived barriers. 

For example, one major barrier to agile working is that for many workers, who sits where matters. 

‘Their’ desk might be a status symbol or a security blanket, and something they’re reluctant to give up.

This can be overcome by involving employees in the transition to agile working. It can be much easier when FMs collaborate with their HR counterparts

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Does agile working really work? 

Agile working really works for companies that really embrace it. 

It’s like the metaphor of putting lipstick on a pig: simply letting employees pick their schedule or work from home is not agile working. To make agile working successful, it requires a commitment to meaningful flexibility on all levels.

Agile work isn’t about paying lip service to flexibility. It’s about letting workers decide what flexibility means to them, and letting them control their workflow as they see fit. When everyone in an organization shares the same goals, and when they have the right tools to let so many moving parts work in sync, organizations can thrive. 

OfficeSpace offers powerful FM software that can help manage agile working. Contact us to request a demo. 

Photos: Kelly Huang, LinkedIn Sales Solutions, Mimi Thian, Kelly Huang, LinkedIn Sales Solutions