How to design a flexible office that works

Workplace leaders are searching for the keys to unlock the perfect office design and strategy. To discuss the challenges of building flexible workspaces and how to solve them, Density recently rounded up three workplace experts:

  • Zac Goodman, CEO, TSP and Switched On Space
  • Alejandra Albarrán, VP, Workspace Design & Strategy, ROOM
  • Nellie Hayat, Density, Workplace Innovation Lead

You can watch the full virtual event, Make Flexible Work, which includes the “how to” of building flexible office spaces. Or read on for key takeaways from the conversation.

What do employees want?

Employees’ needs and preferences are the driving forces behind flexible office design and workplace strategies. 

“If there’s one thing that we know from the massive amount of literature, articles, opinion pieces, and social media, it’s this,” Goodman said. “Employees don’t just want to turn up to work nine to five anymore.”

“Their lives have changed, their companies have changed…And so the question is, how can we cater [to flexibility]?” he continued. “How is it already seeping into the workplace? What does a flexible workplace even mean?” 

There’s no set blueprint for how a flexible workplace should look or operate. 

“When we’re thinking about adapting our spaces, we need to think about providing a ton of different environments so that people can find what they need,” Albarrán said. 

That variety can include a mix of private and collaborative spaces and options to work from home or a third space.

“Flexible” doesn’t just refer to hybrid schedules and reconfigurable office furniture; your workplace strategy has to be adaptable, too. Your workforce will change over time, and so will their needs. 

Collecting and analyzing occupancy data and employee feedback will ensure your work environment continues to meet employees’ changing needs. It’s about “learning how [employees are] using this space, listening to what’s working, what’s not, and then being able to change,” Albarrán said. 

Get buy-in from execs

The workplace is undergoing a major shift from an environment dictated by employers to one that caters to employees. While many executives recognize that happy employees are good for business, others are skeptical about the switch to flexible workplace strategies.  

“[Flexibility] brings so much value. First of all, there is a lot less of a carbon footprint, so we’re actually helping the environment, which is amazing,” Albarrán said. “But besides that is the fact that you can morph that office to fit your needs, and you can just change that space over and over again.” 

But before you can present a convincing argument to leadership, you must understand what aspects of this shift worry them. 

“You can start asking questions to leaders and say, ‘What is it specifically that is making you try to revert back to an old-school way of working’ and start addressing that,” Goodman said. “The question I would ask…is not, ‘Why does people working from home bother you?’ It’s always going to bother some people. But, ‘What specifically about it is bothering you?’” 

When you understand leadership’s core concerns, you can cross-reference that to occupancy data to see if those concerns are substantiated. 

The critical mass conundrum

One of the most common concerns Goodman sees among leadership is the “critical mass conundrum,” which refers to the office being so empty on certain days (typically Mondays and Fridays) that it looks to executives like there aren’t enough people working to sustain the company. 

“I genuinely think that a lot of the designs of the current offices that people are occupying is what is probably troubling a lot of leadership,” he said. “They’re walking out of their glass box into the wide open [office] plan and seeing four people there, and they probably feel in their minds that their business is failing.”

That isn’t likely the case. But to maintain buy-in from your C-suite, it’s important to address the panic-inducing sight of a big, empty space. Modular office furniture makes this as simple as having the workplace team adjust the layout on those days to focus on more intimate seating arrangements and private areas. 

This change will help put execs at ease while also creating a more enjoyable space for employees who want to come in on those less-populated days. 

Those design tweaks, combined with unbiased occupancy data and employee feedback, will help convince leadership to fully commit to more flexible design and workplace strategies. 

Design intentional workspaces

The guiding force of effective post-pandemic office design is intentionality. Office design influences mood and behaviors. Just like the sight of an empty, wide-open floor plan can make the C-suite sweat; the office layout also affects the motivation, behavior, and productivity of employees. 

“We went from 10 years of the Google era of office design, where it needed to be fun. I think we close that chapter. People are not coming to have fun. We’ve seen happy hours are not bringing people back,” Hayat said. “Now, I think we’re going into a phase of intentionality. That’s what we hear from every single company and type of leader: ‘We need to invite people with intention and purpose. It has to come with meaning.”

Many companies fear that we’re looking at the death of the office. But that’s not the case. More appropriately, perhaps, is it’s the death of the desk, the death of coming into the office just for the sake of coming into the office.

“What I keep hearing from our clients is, ‘We want our office to be a center for gathering, for togetherness.’ To do that, you need space,” Albarrán said. “So you need to let go of a lot of tables and desks because they’re not working. People are not going in every day, so it’s space that is not being utilized the right way.” 

Casual, collaborative spaces that are readily adaptable are the new counterpoint to formal office meetings and endless rows of desks. Workplace teams can create environments that support every way of working by including design features such as modular walls that can make a huge space more intimate or furniture on wheels that can be rearranged multiple times per day to fit current needs.

Designing with intentionality relies on more than just reconfigurable furniture. You also have to understand how the office is being used so you can continue to evolve to meet employees’ needs. 

“The way you do that is to keep gathering data, understanding how the space is being used by using sensors and technology, but also surveys, a lot of communication, and just understanding what’s happening and what’s working,” Albarrán said.