Flexible offices start with people

It’s time to expand the definition of a flexible office. Concentrating solely on furniture and partitions loses sight of an essential element: people. A successful workplace is designed for a variety of people by providing a variety of spaces. Learn how to base a project on work behaviors and habits.

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Flexible offices are fair offices

The problem with conventional offices is that they assume that employees have a primary way of working. For example, the sales department mainly thrives in an open environment while the coding team mainly needs a quiet area. Even concepts like open seating or hospitality can be based on the idea that employees use a primary space and everything else is incidental.

Yet the pandemic’s push toward remote work has shown just how deeply idiosyncratic productivity and efficiency are. The binary narratives of work are no longer true: extroverted versus introverted, collaboration versus focus, open versus closed, team versus individual, etc. This rigid perspective does not correspond to the reality that the way people work is dynamic.

“We need to look at how people actually work and identify what enables their best productivity,” said Hannah Hackathorn, senior director of Unispace. “Employees must have choice and autonomy. The workplace is no longer just for work, it’s a place to have experiences.

“A flexible office is a tool that adapts to meet the needs of each individual,” added Judith Carson, workplace strategy manager for Ted Moudis Architects. “If you want to get the most out of your employees’ productivity, you need to create an environment where they can choose to work where and how they work best.”

Flexible offices are also an opportunity for equity. Universal design principles recognize that different bodies and minds need different spaces. When a layout is planned with one type of worker in mind, others are inevitably left behind. A holistic approach that goes far beyond the ADA creates a sense of belonging for all.

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“Lighting defines the function of a room,” according to Howard Yaphe, CEO of Axis Lighting. StencilFlex can be reconfigured without disturbing the ceiling or the wiring above in as little as two minutes. Courtesy of Axis Lighting.

4 models to emulate

The challenge for designers and their corporate clients is to craft a space that hits all the right notes. The flexible desk offers a little something for everyone. There are plenty of options for focus work, small group meetings, scheduled meetings, socializing, breaks, and impromptu chats. The zones can then be embellished with residential elements and the ambience of third spaces such as a café or a public library. Look at these four layouts for inspiration.

1) Kindergarten class

Can elementary school design work for adults? There are striking similarities between spaces for five-year-olds and their parents’ work environments.

“Step into a kindergarten classroom and there’s an assortment of programs,” Carson observed. “Even for a small space, there’s usually a reading nook, a combination of overhead and soft lighting, comfortable seating, movable tables for group and solo work, and a mix of seated and standing height surfaces. Adults also benefit from the same choices.

2) Showroom

This version mimics a NeoCon showroom. Rather than a dominant space surrounded by support zones, provide a varied selection of zones. There is less competition for resources when there is a more equal distribution.

“The office of the future is based on thumbnails, each area has its own atmosphere. This embodies the Dalai Lama’s quote that “Without freedom, creativity cannot flourish,” according to Howard Yaphe, CEO of Axis Lighting.

3) Coworking

For businesses that want an open floor plan or bookable workstations, look no further than coworking spaces. Because these shared offices attract workers from all walks of life, behavior dictates the layout.

“This variation is shaped by a definition of productivity based on tasks and outcomes, not time,” Hackathorn explained.

4) University Campus

Even the oldest universities recognize that students need more than a classroom to succeed. Replicate the range of spaces offered by campuses.

“Create that collegiate experience with pits or grandstands. Bring in the cafes, food booths, and dorm lounges. It’s an active type of design that emphasizes mobility throughout the office,” Carson pointed out.

Catering cabins
Restaurant-style booths line an unassigned open area in this project by Ted Moudis Associates for a confidential client. Courtesy of Ted Moudis Associates.

Flexibility for the future

Because the business landscape is constantly changing, a flexible office is an iterative design process. The ability to reconfigure, reorganize and reassign is key to future adaptability. This means planning a malleable office from the start. Designers will need to select furniture as well as electrical and mechanical systems that can evolve.

For example, lighting plays a central role in the functionality and atmosphere of a room, but it is usually a fixed element. This is a problem that Axis Lighting set out to solve with StencilFlex, a lighting system with a modular frame. It uses repositionable tracks and numerous lighting inserts, including blanks ready to accept a new fixture at any time. There are 30 optic selections and a universal adapter, so designers can specify everything from wall and indirect lighting to recessed and suspended pendants.

“StencilFlex allows users to change lighting in two minutes, two hours, or two days,” Yaphe explained. “Quickly move a segment of lighting to highlight a display board or new piece of art. Reprogram the space for a new function, such as changing from a gathering point to a general office. Or completely change the programming without any demonstration or construction.

Several furniture configurations are also essential. Casters and shuffling pieces have their place, but there should also be a game plan for rearranging these elements. The pandemic has shown how quickly an interior can change in a flash. Some manufacturers will even work with your design team to model different layouts.

On the practical side, bet on an abundant diet. Furniture with built-in electrical and USB outlets is commonly available, as are repositionable cable trays that blend into floors. Raised floors are another option where electricity can be moved as needed.

You don’t need a crystal ball to design a flexible office. We already know that people need variety and choice throughout their working day. Human-centered design is flexible design.

About the Author:

Jennie Morton has been covering the built environment for 12 years.

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