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How to introduce Agile Working without causing a riot?

The first reaction from employees to a suggestion of Agile Working is often “No way – you mean hot desking – I know someone that worked for a company that introduced that and it was a disaster. Nobody had their own desk or office, there was nowhere to go where you could get peace and quiet. If you got in late there was nowhere to sit, etc. etc.”

Unfortunately some of the early experiments with hot-desking schemes have sown large seeds of doubt and scepticism with many people. So how can you start the journey towards a more modern Agile Workplace without triggering a riot or strike?

There is no doubt that many companies are reaping the rewards of a more flexible and inspiring workplace which delivers the double whammy of reduced overheads AND increased productivity. If you can get it right the rewards are significant – however, if you get it wrong the penalties are also significant – loss of key staff, bad PR, low morale to name a few.

For companies in central London the cost of office space obviously raises the stakes and has spurred on the change. But in the outlying regions the tendency for many companies has been to play safe and retain the status quo – despite the numerous case studies and research that all point to office design moving towards the Agile approach.

Our observation dealing with companies over the last few years is that there is a relatively safe and pain-free way to initiate the change.

The first point is to recognise that, for many companies, the standard workstation footprint is way larger than it needs to be for today’s technology (let alone tomorrow’s). Many companies are still using large crescent desks or corner core workstations which were designed to accommodate the now-extinct CRT monitors. This is despite the fact that all staff either use flat-screens or laptops and, although not paperless, the volume of other paper files and clutter has definitely reduced. You can generally reduce this over-sized standard footprint down to a simple 1600mm or 1400mm rectangular desk without causing undue problems. This does not normally create too many staff issues if you point out that the alternative is to introduce desk-sharing or hot-desking AND that the resulting space savings will enable the installing of new breakout and informal meeting space. It would be perfectly reasonable to achieve a space saving of 20 – 30% in this way whilst still retaining the one-to-one desk to worker ratio.

This freed up space can then be used to start creating the different zones needed for an effective Agile Working scheme – particularly breakout areas and quiet space. Touchdown space isn’t required at this point as everyone still has their own workstation.

Staff can then be encouraged to start using the new shared spaces for informal meetings (reducing pressure on the always-over-booked meeting rooms) and for tasks requiring concentration and focus. Staff can then be helped to get rid of needless paper and other junk which generally accumulates - and they can see that, as they start working away from their ‘own desk’, a lot of their stuff is pretty superfluous.

The next move is really only necessary to accommodate more staff or reduce the overall floor space used. This is when you can look at introducing desk-sharing or hot-desking combined with touchdown. You may also find that the increase in informal meetings actually means that some of your formal meeting space can be converted to quiet space or smaller 1-2-1 meeting rooms. Additional space savings of between 20 – 50% can be achieved depending on the make-up of the organisation.

We would recommend that this next step is implemented carefully and that the varying job roles of the different types of workers are fully taken into account. For example, in most companies there is always a core of admin type workers who are basically desk-bound for the whole working day and it makes no sense to pretend that these vital workers also have to hot-desk. Therefore, a more detailed study should be conducted and after that it should be decided who needs a permanent position, who can desk-share and who just needs access to a touchdown position. This ratio will vary from company to company and even from site to site within the same company.

It is worth pointing out that management need to be fully in support of any move towards Agile Working and should share the ‘pain’. For example, manager’s offices are one of the sacred cows that generally need to be disposed of. Clear guidelines and ground rules must be set and enforced – if they are not enforced the whole scheme will almost certainly fail.

So the rewards are huge but challenges are also significant. The question is ‘if you don’t take the plunge, will your competition steal a march on you and give themselves a competitive advantage?