Guest Post by Randall Walker, AIA, LEED AP, and Brian Malarkey, FAIA, LEED AP, Kirksey Architecture

Hybrid Work combined with Agile Planning will remake the corporate real estate world over the next decade. The impacts go beyond employee well-being and significant sustainability benefits: Office buildings will have more numerous but smaller tenant spaces, with significant savings in occupancy costs.

What is Agile Planning?

In March 2020 when the world closed because of COVID, it was seen as the greatest disruption to how we work in modern history. In the blink of an eye, employees went from daily commutes in their cars to daily commutes in house shoes, working from home, integrating work and personal demands while discovering a new rhythm to life and getting things done.

Now, in what many call a post-pandemic world, we’re moving from the greatest disruption to the greatest revolution in work since the Industrial Revolution. As offices reopen and businesses seek to bring employees back to the workplace, they are grappling with a desire to recapture a corporate culture that made the office attractive and the employees’ demand to maintain the convenience and flexibility seized while working from home.

For many businesses, this has led to a hybrid work environment: employees working 40, 50, or 60 percent (up to three days per week) from the office and the rest of the week at home.

Despite this creative – and some would say necessary – working arrangement, businesses have been hamstrung reprogramming their physical space to adapt to this new hybrid environment. As much as the hybrid work environments present questions about management and human resources, they also present creative challenges for real estate and space allocation.

As companies re-consider their real estate portfolios and how much space they need in this post-pandemic era of work, agile planning quickly is gaining traction. Rather than looking at workstations as fixed assets, agile planning examines such assets as flexible elements to serve multiple employees. Rather than seeing the office as a prescription for a style of work, agile planning reimagines the office to accommodate various work styles and needs.

Flexible work zones along the perimeter of the floor with collaboration spaces around the building core

As much as technology is always in a state of flux, the massive disruption caused by the pandemic has forced workplace trends into a constant state of evolution today. The workplace of tomorrow has yet to come into focus as the workplace reset button is constantly being pressed in this post-pandemic moment in time. This requires flexibility through agile planning.

Why should we consider this?

At this very moment, many executives are seriously focusing on how to re-energize their offices. However, if the daily attendance in the office is down because many hybrid workers are not there, what is the net result? Office spaces that are similar to a near-empty restaurant dining room—neither energetic nor exciting. Agile planning is giving organizations the ability to maintain a high-energy workplace along with the flexibility to reshape their real estate portfolio. Shared workstations can mean smaller office footprints, even with future sizable growth of 20-30%.

Expansion (and contraction) of headcounts can occur without driving real estate decisions. Mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures can be handled more easily because there is no longer a one-to-one relationship of headcount to seating capacity. Occupancy costs can be reduced by up to 50% in some cases, depending on the balance of anchored and agile employees and the remote work profiles of those who are agile.

For hybrid offices, agile design makes space planning easier since employees are not committed to a seat in the office. Environments and furniture elements that can be molded to the work needs of the day create an energy that can’t be replicated outside of the office. The flexible environment shifts constantly to serve the collective’s demands and boost workplace satisfaction and productivity. The uniqueness and variety of agile design possibilities help create that buzz.

And for those companies that have implemented a “3-day-per-week in the office” strategy – with Monday and Friday being remote workdays – they have unwittingly devalued their corporate real estate investment by 40% because their offices sit empty two days per week.

The reality is that for the last year the percentage of daily hybrid workers has stabilized at around 30%, according to the latest U.S. Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, a monthly poll of workers conducted by a consortium of researchers from Stanford University, the University of Chicago and Instituto Technólogico Autonómo de México. With data like this, it’s easy to see that offices are undergoing an existential revolution in planning. Agile planning addresses this swiftly changing paradigm.

To tap into the many features agile planning has to offer, the following options and design ideas are valuable for companies and project teams looking to implement this decisive workplace design strategy.

How do we do this?  Considering the Possibilities

One thing to remember is that agile is not another name for hybrid. Agile is more of a strategy. As employees seek a hybrid work arrangement, agile gives companies the ability to reap the benefits of this new working arrangement by creating workspaces employees desire in a footprint that yields both real savings and productivity increases.

When building owners first look at the wide variety of configurations and furniture options within an agile design template, they are often surprised by the many possibilities. Corporate planning pre-pandemic had pushed spaces closer together. Now the pendulum is swinging to make spaces work smarter together.

Mixing and matching design elements like booths, collaboration space, focus pods, semi-private offices, and other strategies, there are many ways to customize new hybrid office environments.

Moving away from the large, enclosed conference rooms that defined many environments pre-pandemic and were sought for their collaboration and group discussion benefits, these spaces can be repurposed for other functions or broken down into smaller pods, facilitating activities like video conference calls.

Quiet room shared spaces for heads-down focused work

As an alternative to traditional conference rooms, ideation spaces give employees areas to collaborate and interact in more creative, less tethered environments. These areas or rooms are equipped with marker boards, screens, technology, and comfortable and movable furniture, establishing an energy that can’t be replicated in online meetings. There is also a much greater focus on accessible flooring systems for more power and data. Previously this was considered a luxury, but now it’s a necessity.

Accommodating the focused work style employees have said they enjoy at home away from the distractions of an open office environment, areas can be set up as a mid-sized reading room or library-type area where quiet is the precedent. Quiet and focus rooms can be designed as private meeting spaces amidst an open acoustic area. Immersive booths also can function both to serve individuals in a semi-enclosed space and small groups as intimate collaboration spaces.

This is not to say that all these strategies are appropriate for all companies. The culture of some businesses still promotes private offices which, it is believed, will be attractive to workers. For some, incorporating inboard micro-offices, which are about 8 feet by 10 feet in size, can achieve the goal of individual spaces but in a more realistic footprint for today’s digital office environments where there is no longer a need for cabinets or boxes filled with paper. After all, we learned during the pandemic that we did not actually need as much paper near us because electronic document storage is now much more accessible and efficient than in the past.

As these examples show, there is no one size fits all, but agile planning goes beyond one strategy. In fact, agile planning is just that: a strategy to evaluate what the needs of the business are and balance that with the needs of the workforce to shape the elements that make coming to the office a benefit to both.

Said another way, these elements combine together to fulfill an important goal of the new workplace: to make every hybrid worker feel that being in the office is worth the commute.

Evaluating Ideas

When embarking on an agile planning strategy, there are a couple of key issues to consider: flexibility and digitization. Addressing the latter, the technological world in which we’ve lived for the past decade or so has been in a constant state of evolution, giving us new collaboration and work-process tools at a pace that is sometime hard to manage.

Today there are more than 7,000 helpful software apps to solve specific aspects of running a business, such as scheduling and data collection. This is all part of the emerging field of workplace management. As younger people move into management positions, they are embracing these apps in lieu of traditional facility management software programs.

Meeting spaces that can be hacked to suit the needs of the group

Ultimately, agile workspaces should be varied. Elements like small phone, focus, and media rooms, and quiet library-like rooms provide the variety to accommodate work styles that can shift throughout the day and week, both for the individual employee and for the groups of employees who share the spaces in a hybrid work week.

Through the process of workforce analysis, companies can optimize space allocation. Although agile design can support spontaneity by creating a remote/in-the-office schedule for each employee, companies can best set up their office space with the right mix of clustered workstations, booths, and meeting areas that create an energized environment while also supporting the individual needs of employees who have grown accustomed to working alone but also appreciate working with office amenities.

Making Work Accommodations. . . Work

While many employees are happy not to return to the office, people recognize that some interactions with co-workers and clients, and mentorship opportunities, are only available in the office. Consequently, the hybrid work model offers the best of both worlds where teams can come into the office at the same time to actively engage with each other.

Large open-plan spaces such as trading floors provide a unique case study. These spaces accommodating large groups of people at once have traditionally been designed with individual stations in sterile, often uninspiring environments. Today, agile planning can incorporate big, bright media sources on the walls with great acoustics and lighting – with Zoom and Teams calls going on everywhere — thus creating an “on-the-air” feeling mimicking the experience of a TV studio.

That kind of energy not only attracts prospective employees, it also gives current employees reasons to come in and it lays the foundation for a positive cultural environment that makes coming to work enjoyable and welcoming.

Because the pandemic made everything very intentional, if companies want to bring people to the office, workplace designs must promote activity and easy access. Agile planning outfits companies with the tools to shape the office environment to the desired work styles and preferences employees hope to find in this post-pandemic world. Dynamic settings and flexibility promote happy workers and reduce stress. This approach directly impacts productivity and speed-to-market.

To create a comfortable, productive workplace today, space and variety are considered essential, and new options uncovered through agile planning achieve that. Agile planning gives leaders the ability to see their environments as differentiators in the marketplace bringing together the right group of people who give their business the right edge in a constantly shifting world.

All images ©2023 Kirksey

Randall Walker, AIA, LEED AP, is Executive Vice President with Kirksey Architecture

Brian Malarkey, FAIA, LEED AP, is Executive Vice President and Interior Architecture Team Leader with Kirksey Architecture