Flexible office design is no longer innovative—it’s table stakes.

A quarter of a century ago, renowned advertising pioneer Jay Chiat proclaimed that his agency was moving to a “virtual office.” No more cubicles. No more dedicated desks. Endless open space, with lockers for personal items and day-use-only computers. Unfortunately for Chiat, employees rebelled, and within 18 months the scheme had completely unraveled. Why did his experiment fail?

The concept of the “officeless office” is seeing an exponential rise in popularity since Chiat’s days. In many ways, the world was simply not ready for Chiat’s new way of working like it is now. But his plan also had flaws: Chiat failed to strike the necessary balance between public and private space.

Fast-forward to today. Several companies are busy constructing workspaces that pay homage to Chiat’s thinking but also buy in to the notion of Activity-Based Working, which allows more freedom of movement within an office. That means private, individual space for concentration balanced against social space for collaboration.

It’s in the balance that design firms find one of their greatest challenges. Here’s what we’ve learned from looking into both popular and emerging flexible workspaces models.

 

1. Culture is the Foundation of Workplace Design

Mollie West Duffy is an organizational designer at IDEO. For her, a crafting a healthy work environment starts with “purpose, then values and then intentionally designing behaviors, cues and rituals to support those values.”

In other words, design should be considered part of an organization’s culture code—its values, purpose, rituals and behavior. That means a shift away from being present and a shift toward being productive.

“Organizations that have been around for a long time say ‘I want my people to be mobile and to be agile and to be collaborative’ and yet they’re all in cubicles,” says Mistry. “Those two views are opposing. It’s like your work experience is not speaking to the culture that you’re trying to drive. And that’s not going to work.”

One way to begin that movement is by redefining workforce to mean community. Organizations like Gap, Yum! Brands, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have accomplished this through results only work environments (ROWE). Here, the emphasis is placed on measuring workers’ output, not the number of hours they spend at the office. Popular with remote and distributed teams in the tech space, it also has potential to be applied successfully in traditional work environments, especially those suffering from high levels of disengagement among employees.

Companies such as Roam provide a network of live-work spaces which provide a new kind of technological, creative and intellectual freedom. Just as ROWE requires trust, this untethered, non-traditional environment requires an embedded and pervasive system of values in place if organizations wish to leverage it successfully. But if they do, they’ll be able to more easily merge disciplines, foster creativity and catalyze innovation.

There is no one right answer to the question of how we work best. But when an organization commits to a new way, it must have the right culture in place to support it.

 

2. Campus Environments Offer More Flexible Space

Students on a university campus are empowered to choose between a variety of different physical environments, each suited to a particular work mode:

  • Private areas like libraries or study halls that provide distraction-free space for individual work
  • Dedicated group areas that provide space for collaboration
  • Creative, invigorating spaces to encourage active learning and brainstorming
  • Public spaces that allow for the free flow of knowledge via socializing

This flexibility encourages productivity—without stifling individuality—and fosters a functional community spirit.

Commercial workspace designers have taken note. One company focused on creating the right workspace energy is LEGO, which recently launched an informal campus in Denmark—a space designed for equal work and play. Forgoing traditional dedicated offices in favor of lockers and “hot desks,” LEGO caters to flexibility. LEGO plans to also create a public park, rooftop garden and golf course for needed recreation and socializing on campus.

 

3. Creating More Choice in Open Office Designs

If there’s been a workspace trend more popular than the inspiration from college campuses in recent years, it’s been the open office model. The open office comes with noted benefits, including aligning workers to company mission and improving collaboration.

The problem is that this model has also been shown to detract from a worker’s attention span, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. As it turns out, abandoning privacy altogether can put a strain on performance, which in turn leads to many workers making up hours on the weekends—a poor use of time that also skews work-life balance.

And it’s not just physical boundaries—or lack of—that contribute to a healthy and nourishing office environment. As hierarchies flatten and organizational branches become more far-flung, providing employees the ability to craft the environment that works best for them is critical to creating a highly functional business.

“We call it choice and control,'” says Ridhy Mistry, a design strategist at Steelcase’s consultancy arm. “The user has agency to craft their ideal environment, and, as leaders thinking about the workplace, you provide the opportunity for users to control their environment.”

When we speak about flexibility today, we’re not just talking about location. Increasingly, we’re thinking about choice. The “anywhere worker” is not a roaming nomad, but is actually someone empowered to work where they want, how they want, and when they want. When a worker is given the power to be flexible, this produces the best results for their organization. Adaptability must be baked into company processes in order to enable continuous learning and a nourishing culture. It’s a challenge, but when a company gets the balance right, productivity is sure to follow.

 

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