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Creating Opportunities in the Workplace through Agile Planning

May 23, 2022

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

Rarely do we have the opportunity to see the future office as a new paradigm. The layout, ambiance, scope, and metrics of corporate real estate of the future will be quite different from our prior experience.

COVID forced companies to close their offices and required staff to work remotely, but the disruption was widely viewed as a temporary one. Expectations assumed mitigation measures, evolving cleaning standards, and effective vaccines would lead to a timely reopening. Two years later, uncertainty still lingers as evolving variants upend plan after plan to reopen offices and restore workforces. 

Given all the uncertainty, two years proved to be more than disruptive, becoming more of a time of adaptation. Prior to the pandemic, only two percent of the U.S. workforce worked full-time remotely but by May 2020, the number had risen to 70 percent, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Company managers feared a sizable drop in productivity due to the shift, yet a PwC survey at the end of 2020 found 83 percent of employers responded that the shift resulted in positive outcomes for businesses. Recent reporting from the building security company Kastle Systems shows that the return to the office may have peaked for now at around 40% of employees on a daily basis versus the 80% prevalent pre-Pandemic. The pandemic shed much light on remote work opportunities and revealed the value of the office environment. Companies have been experimenting with office re-openings of 10, 20, and 25 percent, but half-empty offices are both uninspiring and uninviting, absent of the energy and activity that made the office an asset. Few people enjoy dining in an empty restaurant.

Break areas have become work lounges as a respite and a place to have a collaboration in an alternative setting. Photo: Kirksey Architecture

These statistics raise a viable question regarding the value of real estate when work is no longer location dependent as well as queries about remote work’s impact to culture, mentorship, and quality. Survey after survey has shown for all the efficiencies workers gained in not commuting daily and having a space to focus (compared to open work environments), the challenges of working at home – from childcare to slow internet access to inadequate workspaces to feelings of isolation – have many wanting at least a partial return to the office.

Entering the third year of a pandemic without an end in sight, lease renewals are magnifying the uncertainties companies face including the major decisions required which affect their bottom line in terms of real estate and the kinds of lease commitment they should sign. Their concerns are not limited to the current workforce but also their future staff, as the business of business continues daily, even if disrupted in some fashion.

The commitment to office space appears as a real estate question, but it is also one of leadership and human resources. From corporate culture to innovation and product development, we now understand that the office is more than allocated workspace, making each organization’s commitment to it a strategic imperative more than ever before. So, how can businesses make such commitments with everything in a state of flux?

Technology-enabled booths have become popular “third spaces” to meet or focus. Photo: Kirksey Architecture

More than being nimble, it’s about being agile, choosing an approach which can redeploy resources effectively supporting a redeployed workforce professionally and physically. We call this “Agile planning” — a new attitude for the workplace that responds to the changes we have seen in the relationship between employer and employee.

Why Agile?

Agile planning is a staple in project management. More than a methodology, Agile planning is a philosophy. Joseph Griffin, associate professor in the Master of Project Management program at Northeastern University, describes Agile planning as centered on specific values and principles, adding, “Think of Agile broadly as a guiding orientation for how we approach project work.”

Beyond project management, Agile, when applied to workplace design, is about creating spaces to address specific worker needs to ensure attraction and retention of top talent. It can be considered as a Venn diagram of the relationship between human resources, real estate, and leadership. The pandemic has complicated the analysis of these crucial considerations as large companies consider their space needs. 

The questions have not changed, but now the evaluations need to go beyond raw data to understand the relationship among variables affecting company performance and work management. More than “How can we increase productivity?” the question evolves to, “How can companies support the social and physical needs of its staff to improve productivity?” Beyond creating spaces for collaboration, it becomes a cultural and technological analysis to encourage collaborations that are inclusive for both on-site and remote workers. It is an exploration of the space as a tool in the employees’ arsenal empowering them to their best work—not the ultimate destination.

Immersive furniture can provide areas of focus. Photo: Kirksey Architecture

To paraphrase Siemen’s CEO Roland Busch’s announcement of the shift to a hybrid work model, companies must ask how they can create a physical and cultural environment to motivate employees, thus improving company performance and capabilities and sharpening their profile as a flexible and attractive employer. Siemens is simultaneously adopting a new attitude towards management: “manage the work, not the people.”

Agile planning helps companies evaluate space needs, not necessarily more or less space but rather properly deployed space. Agile planning reveals the nexus in cultural, personal, and corporate needs to chart a path for an active, flexible, and engaging place. In doing so, we have determined that sizable potential staff growth of 20-30 percent can occur without the need to expand the office footprint, giving valuable running room to management for new activities, projects, mergers, and acquisitions. Agile planning is a real estate game-changer.

The Core Principles of Agile Planning

In this new work paradigm, management recognizes that some staff will be “anchored,” meaning they are in the office most of the time, and others will be “agile,” coming and going as remote workers with varying schedules to meet personal preferences and business needs. And if these remote workers are not in the office a majority of the time—or even for significant parts of any given workday—there is not really a need for them to have a traditional office or workstation. They can use a full menu of “third places” in the office to work when they are present. These could be small focus rooms; larger team meeting or project rooms; booth or lounge seating in a full-featured break room; or any of many unassigned offices or workstations. What is a given is that there are spaces for both collaboration, in many cases the reason to be in the office, and the focused work that supports such collaboration.

Break areas should function well beyond just coffee and lunch. Photo: Kirksey Architecture

When successfully deployed, this blended work setting creates a high-energy environment that pulls people back to the office. Between both their remote “office” and their corporate “office,” each worker can choose where to do their best work.

It is crucial for organizations to understand when employees need to be present and when they do not. For example, in architecture, it is vital to have individuals present during the design phase because of the nature of the creative process. The spontaneous, serendipitous interactions when people are together can uncover solutions that would likely remain hidden in limited online meetings as opposed to the times individual deep work is required to move projects forward quickly.

Executive leadership is also vital in planning to accommodate a more dispersed and empowered workforce. They must buy into flexible scheduling and promote it. With so much uncertainty about the “new” office, leadership can set the tone by embracing innovative ways to accomplish the mission of the organization while building the energy needed for what lies ahead.

Making Agile Planning Successful

Agile planning means there is no predetermined outcome leading decision-makers to a strict evaluation of square feet per employee. Companies now are free to evaluate how their workforce can utilize office space for effective outcomes while meeting individual needs in a community setting.

It requires approaching planning with multiple lenses, including management, HR, technology, and leadership in addition to real estate and finance. Beginning with management, Agile planning encourages seeing work in a different way, one rooted more in trust and empowerment, going beyond viewing working relationships as strictly transactional.

Multi-floor projects benefit by having one large work lounge connected to smaller beverage points on other floors by a central, internally focused stair. Photo: Kirksey Architecture

Not everyone is amenable to change, even after a period of forced change, which makes human resources professionals key in the Agile planning process, building programs to implement new processes. Technology is also a critical component to planning. It goes beyond laptops and internet access. Reservation systems for conference rooms and unassigned workspaces can alleviate concerns for employees who want to work in a hybrid environment. Successful collaboration for onsite and offsite staff depends on proper cameras, microphones, and A/V systems to help everyone feel included and equal. Appropriate software applications and training will make the system function smoothly and precisely, with greater organization. Even when rooms and desks are overbooked, the software can make operations more efficient.

Flexible and adaptable outcomes are hallmarks of the process. Floors can be programmed to accommodate cross-departmental work and support key directors in the environment. Spaces can be more open and collaborative, even in the executive arena. When work is mobile, the office promotes greater mobility and collaboration.

The Bottom Line

Real estate has always been expensive, but the pandemic uncovered vast potential savings for companies as workers were required to work remotely. Reevaluating a company’s real estate needs offers not only a cost savings, but also an opportunity to question how the value of real estate is maximized, especially for team members who desire an option to come to the office with a flexible schedule. It goes beyond evaluating how to move from 20 floors to 10 and becomes about maximizing the effectiveness of those 10 floors to advance the mission, vision, and values of the company and inspire staff to greater outcomes.  Agile planning approaches projects by thinking about sociological issues, space optimization, evolving technology, and client needs and desires.

Touchdown spaces can provide a temporary work area, especially for people who are in and out of meetings most of the day. Photo: Kirksey Architecture

The pandemic was a huge disruption and has impacted all those aspects. Agile planning opens the process for listening across the organization and guidance for the seismic shift in the way people work. By identifying solutions, it enables companies to be confident in the commitment they are making to their future and their team.

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

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