Flexible space can be an incredible resource when working to make physical offices more effective and engaging.
Of course, every office has some amount of flex space. But not every office knows how to repurpose this space in a meaningful way. Free-for-all, untracked open spaces typically won’t improve workplace utilization in any work environment type.
That’s because effective workplace planning requires data and workplace metrics to identify both problems and opportunities.
And that’s why today, effective hybrid leaders are embracing advanced workplace analytics to create a data-driven workplace.
In this article, we explore flexible space, and how it can and should function in today’s workplace. We’ll also explore specifically how to use data to make better flex spaces.
In the past, ‘flexible space’ often referred to shared and coworking spaces, offered by companies like JLL. These are spaces that companies could rent for their employees to use, instead of investing in their own corporate real estate.
Using these spaces is typically cheaper than owning or leasing real estate. As a result, these flexible workspaces have been popular with small companies and startups. Membership with one of these providers means you don’t have to worry about your own lease terms. Although, of course there are downsides to everything).
But in today’s world, where we’re rethinking what it means to be flexible at work, we’re also rethinking how we view office design.
And as more and more companies wholeheartedly embrace hybrid work, they’ve begun to redefine what flexible space is. And why it matters.
That’s why in this article, we’re specifically referring to a specific, flexible space type within an office that can be used for a variety of different, flexible purposes.
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Flexible space is any area of the office that is not strictly dedicated to a specific form of work.
In other words, it’s space that isn’t occupied by desks or conference rooms.
Common types of flexible space include:
Even before the pandemic, companies were starting to embrace fun new flex room ideas to make their workplaces more engaging.
But as office use becomes more dynamic, the value of good flex room plans is increasing as well.
It’s important to provide a variety of clean, accessible, and engaging flexible spaces for a variety of reasons.
“By adopting a flexible workplace and occupancy model, companies will not only meet the modern workforce where they are; they will be better positioned to support their team’s dynamic needs in the office, now and over time,” says CBRE’s Lisa Fulford-Roy, Senior Vice President, Client Strategy. “The result is happier, more engaged employees and a company better positioned to retain talent.”
Specifically, flexible space plays an important part in the office by providing:
Ultimately, well-crafted flexible office space can help provide a high level of flexibility and employee autonomy. This in turn can support a variety of business goals. Like talent retention and attraction, increased productivity, more workplace wellbeing, and more effective real estate optimization.
It can also be essential when designing offices around popular new flexible working strategies. Like agile working and activity based working.
In short, flexible space plays a key role in any modern office floor plan. This is why flex areas like filing cabinets, reception, water coolers, and more can be added to floor plans within OfficeSpace’s Visual Directory.
Flexible space is not a new phenomenon.
Consider that even in traditional offices with private offices and desks, most companies kept 10-15% of the space vacant. This ensured there was always some square feet available on-demand for new hires or other contingencies.
This was hardly a cost-effective model, but it was a space solution that fit the business goals of the time.
Today, of course, most companies are moving away from 9-to-5, one-person-to-one-desk offices.
Meanwhile, given the outsized employee demand for remote and hybrid work, companies may want people in-office more… But many don’t want to mandate office attendance. With hybrid employees using the office sporadically, it’s never been harder to develop an accurate picture of even ‘standard’ office space use. Let alone how flexible space used!
And given the current economic climate, pressure is still on facility managers (FMs), space planners, and real estate professionals to find ways to save money on their real estate portfolios.
That means they need to cut office space, without sacrificing employee experience.
But wanting to cut space, and knowing where best to cut space, are two entirely different things.
And the best space planners know they need good data and workplace analytics to achieve the workplace transformation their companies are asking for.
Of course, many companies have parameters in place to measure whether employees are checking in and out of desks and formal collaboration spaces.
But the open and flexible spaces in the office are often left unmeasured and—therefore—unoptimized.
This is a mistake, since, like we’ve covered, flex space plays a big role in creating a better hybrid workplace experience.
So, we know that flex space in the office can support a variety of initiatives. Primarily around helping to improve employee experience and engagement. But how can workplace planners and hybrid leaders determine how to create more functional flex space? All while keeping their real estate portfolio costs in check—and all in an incredibly dynamic office environment?
The short answer: they need to collect and combine workplace data from multiple sources. They need data that provides insight into how all space in the office (flexible or otherwise) is being used.
We’ll cover the long answer (i.e.: the specifics of optimizing flex space) next.
The more dynamic your workplace is, the greater the need for analytics.Kathleen Williams, Senior Product Manager at OfficeSpace
The more dynamic your workplace is, the greater the need for analytics.
Creating purposeful flex space in the office requires both robust data, and a plan for using that data effectively.
First, space planners need to ensure they have both real-time and historical workplace reports and analytics that provide insight into how employees are using all areas of the workplace. This is including (but definitely not limited to) flex space.
Specifically, they need to pool data from a variety of sources. This includes employee badge data, room and desk bookings, wifi logs, manual office censuses, and more.
And this data should be compiled into actionable reports that can be shared throughout the organization.
“You need different data sources that can triangulate with one another to see what’s really happening in the workplace,” says Kathleen Williams, Senior Product Manager at OfficeSpace. “The right data should provide visibility beyond resource booking alone, into a truer picture of employee presence in the office.”
Second, with this data in hand (and preferably in space management software, too), companies can now try out new ideas, test the results, and reiterate when successful.
Specifically, they can try different layouts for the office, different types of workspaces, different hybrid schedules, different furniture options, and different meeting room designs (to name a few).
And, of course, they can also test out new flex space options.
Then, as they collect data on any changes made, they can start to create a feedback loop. This allows them to keep discovering new ways to make their offices more productive, engaging, sustainable, and cost effective.
“It really comes down to understanding what your business is, what your priorities are, and then aligning the space type in the office space for that need,” says Johanna Rodriguez, Senior Managing Director of Occupant Experience, Savills, in a conversation about hybrid workplace change strategies. “This is an opportunity to realign what you have in your space to what is actually needed.”
“The dimensions of how people are using the office have changed dramatically. And without advanced workplace analytics tools, people won’t have a good idea of how to see what’s actually happening in their workplace.”Kathleen Williams
“The dimensions of how people are using the office have changed dramatically. And without advanced workplace analytics tools, people won’t have a good idea of how to see what’s actually happening in their workplace.”
Yes, hard data is critical in any space optimization initiatives.
But companies also can’t forget their employees in this process.
What space types do they want to see? Where do they feel most comfortable? Or productive?
Of course, people tend to be bad predictors of their future behavior. Which is where data can fill in the gaps.
But employees do know what they like, and what they like matters when it comes to creating better workplaces.
So when rethinking the workplace, employees are a critical resource. Use regular employee surveys as a starting point. Then flesh them out with data and plans to test and iterate.
Not only will this create a better workplace.
It can also help improve culture in the workplace, as employees step into a new role as stakeholders in how the office functions overall.
“Transparency is huge,” says OfficeSpace CEO David Cocchiara. “Talk with employees and include them as you make decisions for the workplace, instead of just telling them what to do. That improves connection, and it really has a positive impact on culture.”
“If you regularly ask employees what’s working and not working in the physical office—that will have a big impact on culture and workplace well-being.” OfficeSpace CEO David Cocchiara
“If you regularly ask employees what’s working and not working in the physical office—that will have a big impact on culture and workplace well-being.”
Like any type of space, any benefits of flexible working spaces will stem from how well planned they are.
When it’s well designed, good flex space can be used to create more ROI for a company’s commercial real estate portfolio.
It may also be turned into areas that enhance collaboration in the workplace. This can be especially valuable in today’s workplace. We know from the OfficeSpace 2023 Workplace Strategy Report that leaders want workers in the office primarily to drive collaboration and culture efforts.
By providing casual spaces for employers to gather and communicate, flex space can help connect employees in ways that more formal event spaces can’t. This is especially true if the company not only provides the right flex space, but also furnishes and designs it well.
All this in turn can help to create a compelling workplace. One that more organically attracts workers, without having to mandate office attendance.
In the short term, flexible space works by offering more space, outside of desks and meeting rooms, where people can engage in a variety of formal and informal tasks and collaboration.
In the long term, it can be part of a broader strategy to create more agile space and a more cost-effective portfolio (which in turn can help with sustainability efforts and other business goals).
Of course, this can only happen when space planners have data to make these spaces as effective as possible.
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