Agile Working – What does it mean?

Everyone is talking about ‘Agile office environments’ – ask 5 people what it means and you’ll get 5 different answers. But did you know that agile working principles were being proposed 34 years ago? Read on to discover more...

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We still have a well-worn office copy of an article called ‘Your office is where you are’ by Philip J. Stone and Robert Luchetti, published in the Harvard Business Review, Volume 63, Issue 2, dated March/April 1985. Well ahead of their time, Stone & Luchetti suggested that work consisted of a number of activities, and that a specific work setting could be provided for each – hence the term ‘activity-based working’.

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Implementation of their proposals would remain a dream given the USA’s entrenched ‘cubicle-based’ mentality and the limitations of mobile technology. The first mobile phone had only been introduced by Motorola in 1983 and cost over £2500; the precursor to today’s wireless local area networks were not invented by NCR/AT&T until 1991. (Our Principal David Mackie was still supplying Motorola UK with 8’ x 6’ workstation cubicles in 1992!)

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Today’s mobile information and communications technology have facilitated human mobility. Office work patterns have evolved to reflect the replacement of repetitive process-driven tasks by software; so we typically spend more of our office time thinking, communicating and creating. In fact we can (and do) work anywhere – there is less pressure to be ‘present’ in the office at all times, which brings further opportunities to use space effectively.

Yet a business organisation is nothing if it is not greater than the sum of its parts; humans ‘specialise’ to gain efficiencies; co-workers must communicate effectively to leverage the exchange and development of ideas that leverage ‘added value’.

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The importance of a harmonious office environment is heightened rather than lowered; occupants must be able to effectively concentrate, communicate & collaborate –and right there is the principle of agile working; the provision of settings that allow people to move between these ‘activities’ with as little hinderance as possible.

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The rest is down to balance and quantity; how much of each type of space should be provided and how should they be distributed? The answers are different for each organisation, and typically require the involvement of design professionals capable of analysing work patterns and translating them into a functional and inspirational office layout.

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But there are dangers too; if an ‘agile’ environment lacks structure it can quickly degenerate, so avoid too many mobile/moveable elements that can be moved at the whim of occupants – leading to potential issues such as congestion, trip hazards and safe means of escape in case of fire.

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A common complaint is that the envelope can be pushed too far, leading to shortages of traditional desk spaces (‘hot desking’) and a perception by staff that they are not valued. We are territorial by nature - a sense of ‘place’ makes us feel secure and inspires us to perform well. To get the balance right, we must give back as well as take away.

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This, we would suggest, is where Stone & Luchetti’s thinking is still valuable today. They recognised that the idea of ‘space for status’ - e.g. the ‘Executive Office’- was becoming outmoded but maintained that each individual should still have a (small) ‘home base’; a place to concentrate and think - even to personalise. Perhaps the ‘Cubicle’ isn’t dead after all; many manufacturers are selling ‘screened work booths’ as part of today’s ‘agile’ solutions.

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So in the end we find that ‘agility’ is quite a slippery concept. Aspirationally, an agile workplace helps an organisation to create a greater return on investment by allowing its people to concentrate, communicate and collaborate better. It is not in itself a way of saving space or reducing occupancy costs.

And its not right for every business, or indeed every function within a generally ‘agile’ business. For example, a legal professional still needs to concentrate and focus on paper documents for the greater part of their working day. They need acoustic and visual privacy, and storage – in short, an office. If the glove fits, wear it!

For help in getting the balance right, contact us. We have the knowledge and we’re here to help.

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