Understanding the Agile Work Environment

As work-from-home (WFH) and the hybrid workplace continue to gain traction, there’s lots of talk about how organizations can reconfigure their spaces to be more efficient and meet the challenges and requirements of the modern workforce. Lots of talk means lots of new terminology. One new term is Agile Work Environment or Agile Work, and it’s thought that over 70% of US companies have adopted at least some elements of this framework.

The concept is to create workspaces that let people work how they want to. It’s not dissimilar from another new term, flexible work, except flexible work focuses on the employee, while agile work focuses on the impacts on an organization. The general idea is that, since your workforce is dynamic, your facility should be as well.

It all starts with the Agile Manifesto.

The Agile Manifesto

Back in 1956, software engineer Herbert Bebington gave a symposium on the development of the software SAGE, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, which was a system of computers that coordinated data from various radar sites and controlled NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (which was known as the North American Air Defense Command, or NAADC, back then). The development process he described was dubbed the “waterfall model” in 1970 by Lockheed scientist Winston Royce. Basically, this is the breaking down of a project into linear sequential phases, where a phase is completed, and then handed down the line to the people working on the next part. This is mainly how software was developed for decades.

In 2001, a group of 17 software developers got together at a ski lodge in Utah and came up with a new system that outlined four values and 12 principles for their industry. They then wrote this up as the Agile Manifesto, which went online in February in multiple languages. The group, who called themselves the Agile Alliance, included people from eXtreme Programming, Scrum, Crystal, DSDM, the inventor of the wiki, strategists, writers and consultants.

The Agile Values are:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

The Agile Principles are:

  1. To satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcoming changing requirements (even late in development), which leads to competitive advantage.
  3. Delivering working software frequently using shorter timescales.
  4. Developers and business people must work together on a daily basis.
  5. Projects are built around motivated individuals, who are given the environment and support they need.
  6. Face-to-face conversation is the most efficient method of communication.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of success.
  8. Sustainable development is a byproduct of agile processes, and all stakeholders should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity is essential – this is the art of maximizing the work not done.
  11. The best work comes from self-organizing teams.
  12. The team regularly reflects on how to be more effective and makes adjustments accordingly.

This was more of a mindset than a rigid framework, and many in the software industry took it onboard. Everywhere it was widely embraced noticed that there was a change in emphasis, bringing the organizational culture to the forefront. This subtle shift enabled companies to adapt and innovate quickly in an ever-changing marketplace. It also started bleeding over into the way that physical workspaces were organized. For example, if face-to-face communication is preferred, perhaps smaller spaces could be created to facilitate quick meetings. From this came the idea of huddle spaces.

So, it wasn’t long before some people in business started wondering if this agile framework could be applied in other ways.

Agile Space

Today, when someone uses the term Agile Work Environment, they mean a physical environment that is divided up into different areas, each of which has its own purpose. If people just need a quick chat, they can access a huddle space or a standup meeting table. If they need a brainstorming session, then there are meeting rooms equipped with whiteboards and comfortable chairs. If a videoconference needs to happen, there are also spaces with the necessary equipment to facilitate that.

The idea of an agile work environment is to create flow that moves from intense, focused work to informal meetings and sessions, then back to formal gatherings and so on. Because there’s a multitude of types of spaces available, individuals can find an area that best complements their own style and preferences. While some people might like an open floorplan space, others find it to be too noisy and too busy. Those latter sorts can instead seek out a more isolated desk or office, where they can concentrate, free from distractions.

The fact is that around 45% of the space in any-sized office is unoccupied at any given moment. People are up and about, doing things away from their desks, a good portion of the day. One reason for this is that maybe their desk is not ideally suited to them, or people are on leave, or out sick. Today, with the hybrid office on the rise, even less physical space is being used.

Adopting agile work ideas helps to reallocate the space more efficiently. It also allows the entire staff to be better able to respond to sudden, unexpected challenges and changes. It’s also very desirable for new talent. Organizations that have agile work environments are better at attracting and retaining new, high-caliber employees, especially younger ones. Agility gives people more autonomy over their work habits, which in turn boosts self-esteem and buy-in in the company itself.

Agility means moving quickly and easily, but it also means understanding quickly and easily as well; it’s about the mental as well as the physical. Portuguese poet and writer Fernando Pessoa once said, “Strength without agility is mere mass.” Many of us have been in rigid work environments and felt that almost palpable “heaviness” in the air. By simply changing the way people can use the space, and creating policies that allow for individual preferences, a whole new mental space is created, one that is dynamic and robust yet also fluid, instead of sluggish and tedious.

Agile Infrastructure

An agile work environment is flexible, accessible and adjustable. The focus shifts from one of control to one of consensus.

Flexibility includes every aspect of the workspace, even furniture. One way to start adding agile elements is to use hotdesking. This is a simple system that allows people to book a work area on an at-will basis. Today, they feel like sitting here but maybe tomorrow, when they see fewer people around, they’ll sit somewhere else so they can be closer to others. Or maybe they have something to do that requires a lot of concentration, so they’ll book a desk far from the others, so they can focus.

Different kinds of desks and chairs can also be available for people to use as they wish. Maybe one person prefers a standing desk or likes to sit on a kneeling chair or a balance ball. Have these available at some workstations, so people can use what they want to. You might also have some desks or workstations that are mobile (on casters), so they can be physically moved to different areas as needed.

Equipment is another area that can get “agilized”. Some people like two screens, others maybe even three; some like a screen that’s in a portrait configuration, while others are used to a traditional landscape monitor. Someone working with graphics or video files might need a more powerful computer for those tasks, while another person who’s working on spreadsheets can use their laptop.

Timing can also affect preferences. Sometimes, a person doesn’t need to be at a desk at all in order to get the day’s tasks done. Having laptops available, as well as comfortable couches and lounge chairs, would make it much more pleasant for that person, and probably make them more productive. There are also times when a person is between tasks, maybe waiting on a report to be emailed to them. While they wait, why make them sit at their desk killing time? Instead, have a relaxation lounge where they can recuperate in order to be fresh when it finally comes time to get working again.

Getting Started

In order to maximize spaces for the specific people working in them, and the specific projects they’re working on, you need to have some way to measure the effectiveness of your set up. The very first thing you must do, though, is determine what needs to be measured, always keeping agile principles in mind.

One obvious metric is how people are using the workstations, equipment and spaces available to them. If there’s the capability to reserve workstations and spaces in advance (office hoteling), are people taking advantage of it, or are they simply sitting in the same places day after day? If they aren’t using it, why not?

People tend to fall into habits pretty quickly (we’ve all seen, for example, on the first day of a school term, students randomly choose a seat and then that becomes “their” seat for the entire semester). If people are just sitting in the same places, day after day, does this cause interruptions to the flow of work? If so, maybe staff need to be trained a bit more on the advantages of a hoteling set up. If not, maybe you don’t need the hoteling system at all.

If it turns out that people work for a while but then find themselves spontaneously needing temporary reconfigurations (impromptu meetings and brainstorming sessions, for example), then maybe a hotdesking solution is better suited to your work environment.

Are people booking meeting rooms “just in case” they need them and then not actually using them? If so, maybe encourage them to use breakout spaces, meeting pods or informal meeting stand up tables instead. A meeting room that holds ten people that’s only ever used by three is wasted space.

One way to find out what’s going on in the work environment is to observe. Another is to simply ask people (just make sure there’s no feeling that people might “get in trouble”, or you won’t get honest answers). Hoteling, hotdesking, meeting room signs and other space booking technologies also often have some sort of usage statistics as part of their software. This can be analyzed to see usage patterns, and adjustments can be made to optimize the work environment for everyone.

Becoming Agile

The basic framework of an agile project had six phases:

  1. Plan
  2. Design
  3. Develop
  4. Test
  5. Deploy
  6. Review

When translating these phases to physical spaces, follow the same flow. Plan out what you think will be the most agile work configuration, and make sure to talk to department heads and team leaders to get the most accurate information possible. Then design the layout, choosing items, technologies and systems to use and implement. Develop that plan by adjusting things to maximize agility and flexibility.

Then run a test, either with some senior staff (so they can see how it all works) or with employees. Take feedback onboard and adjust again. Then deploy across your organization. But keep an eye on things, using analytics and feedbacks systems, to make any further adjustments as needed. A truly agile work environment can be reconfigured whenever that’s most advantageous. Start thinking of the physical environment as a process, rather than a goal.

Obviously, agile work environment ideas are easier to implement when moving into a new space, perhaps part of a downsizing because your organization has gone hybrid and fewer people are in the office. But even the space you have right now is probably not being utilized to its fullest potential. Got a room that’s just sort of being used to store old printers and a broken photocopier? Junk that stuff and turn it into a break room, or a huddle space. For that matter, do you even need a photocopier anymore? Is it possible to go totally electronic with all documentation? If so, get rid of it and use the money you were spending on that for something else, like maybe a better coffee maker.

Benefits of an Agile Work Environment

Space management gets a real boost when working from an agile mindset. Empty or underused spaces can be repurposed, so every square foot has a purpose. Even something like the kitchen area needs to be planned out and optimized. If you have chairs and a table in there, make sure they can be moved if more people need to get into the kitchen at once (like at a holiday party or product launch).

Productivity and engagement, which go hand in hand, also go way up in agile environments. Only 9% of agile projects in software fail, compared to 29% that use the old waterfall model. Teams are, on average, 25% more productive, regardless of what they’re working on. Output quality goes up, which also means higher profits and more growth. Because employees feel that their individual preferences are being taken into account, they feel more connected to the organization and their work.

An agile work environment promotes more movement and spontaneity. Most office workers spend four to five hours a day sitting at their desk. That’s a lot of time and certainly not healthy (in fact, it works out to something like 67 sedentary days per year). By have more spaces of different varieties, you can inspire people to get away from their desks, move around, and confer with colleagues more often. This can also result in more crosspollinating between teams and departments, which reinforces agile thinking.

Ultimately, an agile work environment saves money. Rent is often the highest expense after salaries. If you aren’t using every bit of that space, then why are you paying for it? Plus, there’s HVAC, lighting and so on, which are ongoing costs. Many companies lease furniture and equipment, which is another regular expenditure.

By optimizing your workplace for your specific employees, you might lure more people into the office. Just because people are working from home sometimes, doesn’t mean that they’re set up optimally there. If an employee can have a more pleasant time and do things more efficiently in the office, then they might be willing to pay the price of a commute. And with people coming in on their own schedules, having fixed-location workstations really doesn’t make any sense. Shared workspaces are the only way to go.

Finally, by creating an agile work environment, you’re doing a little future-proofing for your organization as well. No one predicted the COVID pandemic, and there will likely be events in the future that will also cause disruption, or at the very least large-scale changes, to the way things are done. A work environment that is only configured to do things one way isn’t able to adjust to changing situations. An agile work environment, on the other hand, is set up for adaptability, able to change in short order. This means your organization is better prepared to face whatever challenges come its way.