Agile Workplace Design Helps Businesses Achieve Their Goals

Positive Results from New Planning Processes
  • Informal Team Zones

    An agile workplace design project resulted in the creation of informal team zones, which provide a variety of activity settings where people can work alone and together.

    Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture

  • Mapped Capability Labs

    Mapped capability labs create a new flexible dynamic research environment, the result of a thorough study of what the business and its employees needed to operate efficiently.

    Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture

Creating an "agile workplace"—by determining the overall business goals of an organization, making an in-depth appraisal of how employees work, and creating an efficient, cost-effective workspace that satisfies various work requirements—can save money in the long run by providing a satisfying workplace designed around employee's work activities.

“You achieve a more efficient and dynamic workplace if you design an environment around business goals, the activities people need to do to reach those goals, and by providing the tools they need,” says Allison Arnone, principal workplace strategist and planner for HDR Architects, Inc. “Our research suggests that if you do this from the beginning of a project, you will have better long-term outcomes.”

How Agile Design Works

The agile workplace design concept has taken off dramatically in the past five years, thanks to shifts in corporate culture, mobile work styles and increasing use of technology in the workplace. The concepts work for repurposing existing space as well as new construction for knowledge-based, white-collar organizations, including the four main industry sectors: corporate, academic, healthcare, and government.

The focus of these knowledge workers varies greatly—creating products, services, research, decisions, or a combination—so the design must follow suit, explains Arnone.

“A corporate consumer products organization and translational health science institution both include knowledge workers, but their business focus, collaboration styles, and work styles are different,” says Arnone. “Having the right tools and processes in place to measure these aspects is extremely important and will create a different type of culture and organization.”

Every workplace design project involves studying and aligning four main areas:

• Business focus and drivers.
• Culture and organization.
• Employee work styles.
• Responsibility to budget.

“A successful workplace design supports all four,” she says.

Evaluation Measures

A variety of quantitative and qualitative measures can be used to assess workplace design needs, explains Arnone. To understand business goals, planners have a variety of methods to capture leaders’ vision. Internet-based surveys, workshops, and observation are used to evaluate work styles and the culture of a business. Other methods include analyzing patterns in room reservation records or other occupancy data.

“This is different from interviewing every department and listing their space needs, then proposing it to leadership. That proposal often gets slashed or changed, resulting in an environment that underperforms,” notes Arnone. “Designing a workplace strategy is a way of researching, planning, and designing at once, by crosscutting an organization to understand what people need to get their work done, looking for synergies in what they currently have versus what they will need in the future, and creating a work environment that supports the future work process.”

Workplace design measures six work style indicators:

Mobility: How often do employees need to change location in order to get their tasks done?
Hierarchy: Does a company assign workspace based on an employee’s rank, department, project, job function, or other measures?
Network: Does the organization work locally or have networking needs that require specific technology, distance learning, or global distribution?
Social atmosphere: What is the level of interaction among teams, groups, communities, and campuses?
Energy level: Is the work atmosphere quiet or high energy? A law firm, for example, usually promotes a subdued, calm atmosphere, while a consumer products company desires an uplifting atmosphere where bright graphics, designs, and even scents, encourage the creative process and brand enthusiasm, says Arnone.
Privacy: What is the desired level of control of the ambient environment? Some companies do confidential work that requires areas with visual and acoustical privacy, while others want their employees to see what’s happening to encourage collaboration.

“Through years of conducting pre- and post-occupancy evaluations, I have found that the lack of acoustic privacy is the number one distracter for people who are trying to do focused work,” says Arnone. “Studies show it takes 23 minutes to get back into a focused work flow once you are interrupted, so we must constantly strive to solve the acoustic privacy concerns in an open office landscape, as well as provide a variety of spaces to support the mobile and the resident worker.”

Agile workplace design sometimes involves measuring the capabilities of a workplace, primarily in complicated projects like lab environments. An in-depth look at these capabilities usually uncovers duplication, says Arnone.

“There are lots of surprises,” she says. “Different groups coming together all think they are unique, but they often have a lot in common.”

She cites a recent example of a client with several organizations coming together in one building. Most employees had their own lab benches or small spaces for electronics, plus small spaces dedicated solely to computing needs. After brainstorming with workers, they consolidated individual labs and designed open, flexible environments that better suited their needs, and also included areas that could be closed off for privacy or environmental control.

“Now they have electronic and computational neighborhoods that support lots of different people. They are sharing knowledge and mentoring each other,” says Arnone. On the other hand, the same building also includes enclosed, specialized, core capability labs required by the entire organization, which are distributed and have become destinations.

“Every project in the last five years where we have done capability mapping exercises has resulted either in a reduction of the overall footprint or a much more efficient reallocation of space. The pre- and post-occupancy evaluations always show an increase in awareness of other employees and improved collaborations, as well,” she notes.

Looking at the employees’ work processes is also important.

Case Studies: Agile Workplace Design in Action

To illustrate the planning process, Arnone cites several case studies from different industries.

The first involves a new construction project for a company that provides research and equipment for the government. Their building was inhibiting their progress because lab group employees had limited mobility so they could not network and didn’t know what other lab groups were doing.

A vision session revealed that the client wanted a flexible, energetic environment that supported and encouraged teamwork. Although each group within the organization thought its capabilities and processes were unique, in-depth evaluation revealed repetition and overlap.

“We drilled down to the basics of what they needed to support their work, now and in the future,” says Arnone. “We were able to organize an environment that went from 71 individual labs to nine lab groups.”

The groups include labs that can be open and closed, and specialized areas such as virtual reality labs. The most important point is that they designed a space appropriate for the culture and the people working there, says Arnone. The organization reduced its footprint by 35 percent—allowing for growth—and post-occupancy studies show a big increase in workplace satisfaction.

Another example involved a consumer products company with a workplace environment that lacked energy, and was mainly a collection of cubicles, running counter to the global company’s public image of energy and vitality.

The company wanted to create energy and enthusiasm around its products, encourage creativity and new ideas, and use this new redesigned space as a prototype to be implemented globally.

Using web surveys, focus groups, and observation, Arnone’s group looked at what work employees were doing, who they were working with, how often they worked with them, and what environmental conditions they needed to accomplish their goals. Overall business goals and budget also were taken into account.

The company went from a static, closed environment to a dynamic environment where the design is based on activity settings. The layout includes a central area with individual focus zones, surrounded by a variety of spaces: multi-purpose rooms, café, conference room, chill-out lounge, quiet room, video-conference rooms, and phone booths.

“We placed the first prototype agile work space in the most visible area of the headquarters’ campus so people could see what was happening, test drive it. Slowly but surely, people wanted to be in this environment,” she says.

“This workplace strategy has since been implemented around the world. Now it is their brand. People love the choices they have. They have chill-out spaces, and spaces to meet with small, informal groups or larger, formal groups. Technology allows them to interact with their counterparts all over the world.”

Evaluations six months after occupancy show that the employees’ face-to-face collaboration and scheduled meetings increased by 22 to 27 percent. Virtual and telephone meetings increased 3 to 4 percent. The company was able to consolidate into one site, reducing its footprint by 52 percent. The “satisfaction with workplace” increased by 61 percent, says Arnone.

The final case study involves a translational health science organization, where the goal is to integrate basic research findings with clinical research in order to increase the speed of developing medical treatments. The biggest challenge (and most enjoyable aspect) when working on translational projects is developing a workplace strategy for a user group made up of the widest range of work styles, says Arnone.

Occupants in this particular facility include clinicians who work with patients, wet and dry researchers, clinical researchers, administrative people, and lab technicians. The site includes spaces for clinical research, applied and basic research, a vivarium, amenities, shared support, and offices.

“In this type of facility, the work environment plays a big role in translating the research knowledge into action,” says Arnone. “The approach to organizing a building, a floor, and a neighborhood is very important in supporting the overall mission of the organization.”

They wanted a work environment that supported teams, synergized their capabilities, and was agile enough to accommodate the changing dynamics of individual groups. The organization also wanted to nurture growth, mentoring, and discovery.

“At the beginning, everyone wanted their own team space, but once we went through the process and capability mapping, and understood their focus and collaboration styles, we created metrics to establish how much informal, formal, and distance learning space was needed based on their work styles.

“This allowed us to appropriately size activity settings in order to support their business goals. It takes a similar amount of time as traditional programming, it’s just a more effective, measured approach.”

Research cores and services are expensive, hard-to-move spaces utilized by many people in these types of facilities, so they were created as destinations.

“If organized appropriately, these destinations provide a number of benefits,” says Arnone. “Consolidation makes better use of space, and pairing cores with shared support and work spaces results in people working more effectively and interacting when they need to. We can see a clear difference in how much better people are able to work alone and together in the old environment versus the new environment when we look at pre- and post-occupancy results.”

This facility also established occupancy rules requiring that people using the space have previously funded programs, for example, and have formed interdisciplinary translational teams.

“Occupants had to prove why they needed to be there.”

Once the institution defined the translational goals and what that meant to forming translational teams, the building was stacked based on multiples of 25 people made up of a desired percentage of staff, so the space would be truly interdisciplinary, says Arnone.

In Conclusion

The three main points to remember when undertaking agile workplace design are:

• Understand the business goals, culture and organization of the population.
• Measure work styles.
• Create activity settings based on employee work styles to make the best use of real estate.

Communicating with the entire constituency during the process is equally important, so the project gains acceptance. Even with global companies, communication can be spread through websites, emails, and ambassadors at every site. Information can also be shared via town meetings, working committees, and steering committees. Arnone suggests presenting ideas not as givens, but as “this is what we are thinking about,” then asking for input.

“If you really do your homework, you are not just a workplace strategist but also become a private detective, marriage counselor, party planner, puzzler, and artist. And you create an environment appropriate to the needs and energy of the occupants who will serve the company for a long time.”

By Taitia Shelow

This article is based on a presentation Arnone made at Tradeline’s 2012 Space Strategies conference.

Project Data
Published 4-9-2013