7 mistakes to avoid when designing an agile workspace - Part 1

Published on June 2019

Reading time: 8 minutes 

In this two part series, we cover key mistakes that frequently derail well intended redesign projects and highlight techniques to avoid them.
Whether the mistakes in planning and implementation are the unfortunate result of adopting a generic approach to design or making inaccurate assumptions on the key target metrics, the repercussions can be long lasting and difficult to fix.
Worse still, inadequate  agile workplace design and processes may irrevocably damage employees’ trust in the agile concept in general and in the organisation’s ability to deliver change in particular.

1. Getting your desk sharing ratios wrong

Getting the desk sharing ratio wrong is perhaps the biggest agile space planning mistake that can lead to a failure of the entire agile work program. No matter how sleek that new activity based design and furniture may look, it won’t help conceal the invariably disappointing outcomes of:
  • Misjudged sharing ratios like overcrowding and hence, a steep loss in productivity; or
  • The sight of way too many underused desks not translating into desired savings or positive ROI impact.
According to a 2018 study by a group of Australian academics, spending too much time trying to find a desk or a failure to find one, rate as a top reason for dissatisfaction with the agile environment. This mistake is common and can be avoided by taking advantage of multiple utilisation data sets to guide and validate your assumptions.
Leveraging granular utilisation data to profile various departments as well as establishing diverse occupancy patterns within a single department along with being smart about using the data to manage peak and low occupancy times are all great tools for development and correction  of sharing ratios.
A key principle to bear in mind is that the right sharing ratio for an evolving organisation is a moving target. Attaining the ratio that is right for your team or organisation takes a series of adjustments to be made. For instance, ratios can be driven up over time as employees become more familiar with activity based working and take increasingly more advantage of available flexibility.

2. Focusing on project management instead of change (and now also experience) management

As much as new and constantly evolving workplace concepts elevate the roles of Facilities Management, Corporate Real Estate Managers, Portfolio and Planners - bringing them closer to core business decision making, these new strategies and tools also bring a whole new layer of complexity into the function.
Many change management processes still often rely on the facilities component of the change. The tendency to overemphasise process over people becomes particularly evident when it comes to complex projects of working environment transformation.
Design, procurement, occupancy planning are all vital components of a change process, but it’s infinitely more important to realise the impact of change on stakeholders and plan out an adequate change management program to make the physical workplace change a sustained success. In addition to employee satisfaction and productivity, the modern workplace is also expected to provide experiences.
As results of one study demonstrate, it is now a combination of a well designed work environment and a well curated work experience that enables people to thrive at work, which also needs to be addressed in change management plans.
Research, communication, engagement, leadership support and change championing, development of agile working skills and behaviour all need to be aligned to bring an agile workplace to life and deliver transformational business value.

How Sky transformed into agile working

In one of the largest of recent workplace change projects in London, the media giant Sky moved over 3,000 people from assigned desks and offices to a stunning and fully agile 45,000 sqm brand new Sky Central building. In addition to taking a very people and collaboration centric approach to the new space design and move management, Sky implemented a significant change management program which started in advance of the move itself. This included developing a pilot which consisted of:
  • A live lab
  • Roadshow
  • Extensive agile working training
  • The advocacy of over 150 change leaders within Sky’s West London campus
Sky Central - Office redesign - Photo by Hassell Studio
Sky Central features outstanding design and engineering solutions, but it was the thoughtful change management program that brought the space to life. Photo by Hassell Studio.

3. Agile but not inclusive?

By virtue of being inclusive, open and flexible, the agile working environment implies much broader interactions from both a social and work perspective, including accessibility of management. Results of a 2018 study suggest that these encounters and the feeling of much greater equality that participants experience in agile environment, compared to a traditional hierarchically organised space, indeed contribute to their feeling of being valued and overall workplace productivity.
In one of the workplace strategy projects I worked on, an activity based working program for a global supply chain company, the firm leadership’s decision to eliminate all enclosed offices in their new agile workplace became critical for facilitating a company wide transition to agile working.
Removing the walls between mid and senior management and their teams in an organisation with a long tradition of a hierarchical and silo way of working, has greatly contributed to overcoming the inertia of established workplace behaviours and resistance to change, and eventually became a critical success factor for agile working adoption.
Every organisation is different and slashing all private offices in one go may not fit everyone. Many organisations, including Google, adopt a hybrid agile model where some teams keep their assigned desks and while many senior managers move to the open space to join their teams, others keep a private or shared  office.
Whatever individuals and communities get excluded from the change in your organisation, it is always best to have a really good business reason for this when the rest of the organisation learns desk sharing, and that rationale needs to be clearly communicated. Another option to reconcile the requirements of having private offices with the paradigm of activity based working is getting these spaces to double up as meeting or scrum work rooms when occupants are not in.

Key takeaways

To sum up,  some of the most common agile workplace planning and implementation mistakes, jeopardising even otherwise well thought out workplace change are:
  • Desk sharing ratios that are off: The best way to avoid miscalculating sharing ratios is using an evidence based and data driven approach where accurate and granular utilisation data inform your stacking plan and peak occupancy mitigation tactics. The right sharing ratio is a moving target, but you need to know exactly where it moves next!
  • An over emphasised project management component paired with the lack of focus on change management and workplace experiences can put the success of the entire program at risk.
  • Excluding individuals and teams from your workplace change may not help the agile program, but having a valid and well communicated business reason for that should help.

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Topics: Facilities & Workplace trends, Measuring space occupancy

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