From here to Agility…

The dictionary definition of ‘Agile’ is:

to be fast, nimble, responsive and powerful.

A great word, with many positive connotations.  In recent years it has been co-opted into corporate vocabulary, coming to symbolise the aspirational qualities of ideal workplaces. I think it is a word we will hear used with greater frequency by businesses in 2015 and beyond as they focus on longer term expansion plans and real estate requirements.

So what is an agile workplace?  Let me start by saying what it is not. An agile workplace is not to be confused with a traditional open plan layout with a degree of cellular space. What we are talking about here is space which provides a range of environments for different kinds of work.  It is people-centric and offers choice to employees as to how they conduct and approach their own work tasks. The agile work place seeks to provide an environment which people enjoy working (and socializing) in and where activities can be performed to their maximum efficiency. The outcome of this is both to increase productivity and assist in retaining and attracting talent.  So the benefits to businesses are potentially high.

From a design perspective, an agile office will offer flexible space for any activity. It may include:

  • Quiet booths for focused work requiring greater concentration
  • Collaboration work areas
  • Team meeting / open plan project spaces
  • Relaxation space designed to enable an increasingly diverse workforce to meet and socialise
  • Lockers for personal belongings
  • Amenities such as cafes, restaurants
  • Telephone conversation space
  • Inspirational space

Solutions adopted by businesses will vary according to underlying corporate culture and wider business objectives but agile working has been adopted by a number of world class companies such as Google, BT, BskyB and Unilever. More are expected to follow the trend as they consider future workforce and real estate requirements.

Whilst agile workplaces are now considered to be more desirable – there could be a price tag to consider! The initial construction costs of fitting out an agile work environment may be greater than for a traditional open plan office depending on the level of attention paid to providing high end furnishings, joinery and specialist finishes. However, to counter this expense, it is probable that agile workplaces (which enable better space utilisation) will mean less space needs to be occupied – resulting in lower rental, energy, cleaning and maintenance costs.

I have no doubt that agile workplaces will be in the ascendency for some time as businesses seek to gain competitive advantage through increased innovation, creativity and productivity.  In my opinion those that are pro-active, future looking and strategic enough to work out their future corporate requirements and correlate these to their physical office space stand to reap the rewards in terms of a higher value outcome over a longer timeframe …


  1. Paul Allsopp

    Emma good article. Companies and organisations need to embrace agile to stay competitive in the 21st Century. Enabling IT and agile workplaces are key tools to enable an agile workforce. The workplace however needs as a first principle to understand the (changing) needs of the organisation which means we should no be too prescriptive about the components. In essence it should be IT enabled and loose fit to accommodate chaos and change.

    Many organisations equate agile with workplace space savings. This may be the case, although often agile involves changing from a couple of fixed settings to the variety of settings you mention – often space quantity remains neutral. But the key focus is as you say the effective support of the activities of work and the people who carry out the activity.

  2. Chris


    Interesting comments. As one involved originally with the BT Agile work space (and then working on similar with many different clients) I would question some of your conclusions.

    For instance, moving away from owned desks to shared desks quiet often sees increased maintenance costs in both FM and IT fields. Space saving is always less than anticipated because there is an increased need for social spaces, and getting the balance right can be problematic.

    The biggest issue however, is changing the culture – often with managers rather than staff. But I’m guessing that you already know that…

    1. Emma Jackson

      Thanks for your comments Chris,

      It gives me a chance to answer some of the ‘un-asked’ questions our clients may have.

      To answer your point about cost increases in terms of both maintenance – and IT on moving to shared desks I would say:
      Maintenance costs may increase by a small amount, i.e. with more people occupying less space there might be a higher cleaning cost. The air conditioning systems might be working harder and need refurbishment more frequently. But – in terms of overall occupancy costs these are small compared with rental and business rates costs – which will be less if a lower volume of space is required to be occupied.

      IT Costs may be higher in a shared desk environment, i.e the costs of laptops / vdi’s – but on the flip side when staff levels fluctuate – it is far easier for companies to accommodate change. They will not be so exposed to churn costs which can be dramatic in the ‘owned desks’ scenario. Another advantage of the laptops is that they allow for flexible working and home working where employees can work in a focused way if they need to. By providing a menu of settings is also a benefit to employees who can use spaces that most suit their needs & the task at hand.

      A further point to mention: there is a new law (in place since June 2014) which allows any employee to request homeworking – which means the employer is then obliged to provide the opportunity (they have to provide strong evidence that homeworking is impossible to combine with the person’s job [receptionist, bus driver], otherwise they have to allow it and support it. This means it is becoming more of a necessity than an optional cost..!

      I would argue that in terms of costs, the real benefits from ‘agile’ fit outs are the gains in productivity / staff satisfaction / knowledge exchange

      Companies are more aware that that happy and contented staff are likely to stay loyal, be more creative, collaborative, innovative etc. This can lead to significant competitive advantage. Therefore office design that gets the best out of employees and makes those employees content (and even happy to come into work!) will be a key consideration going forwards.

      It is important to recognise that value is not just about expenditure – it is about how the space is working. You might describe a lower cost fit as delivering value for example, but if a good percentage of that space is not being fully utilised – then it is not delivering value to a company over the long term.

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