Are you agile if you’re open plan?

There’s been a lot in the trade press lately about firms moving to agile working. But looking at the content of these pieces, you might be forgiven for asking what it actually means to be agile?

Often a piece about agile working turns out to be something about open-plan offices. One report talked about a firm that worked out that only around three quarters of its desks were used every day. It decided therefore that it would only give secretaries their own desk. Other employees would share out a reduced number of the rest, packing their belongings into lockers at the end of the day. The scheme promised to save space, be clean, tidy, and apparently much better for collaborative working.

And it’s not the only article to present agile working as literally just that – people moving around the office a lot more and sharing stuff.

This may be agility of a superficial kind, but it isn’t enough to be agile working. If more of your staff are working from home, doing flexible hours or they’re on part-time/job-share or short-term contracts, then there are important questions raised over office space.

Open plan working can be an effective way of using less space more efficiently. It can also be a useful way of bringing disparate teams together. In the long run, flexible working might even change office life considerably – a recent report in The Lawyer discussed the rise of colocation where different businesses come together to share an open-working office. Dentons in the US is one law firm already ahead of the game on this.

But without the shift to flexible hours or home working, the argument for open plan rings rather hollow, at least in the context of agility. You may work out that your desks are only used 70% of the time, but how do you know that for sure if you don’t allow a certain number of your workforce to work from home, or on flexi-hours, on a formal basis? What happens when everyone happens to be in the office (perhaps it’s the Christmas party that night) and you only have 70% desk capacity?

Not only that, but for every argument in favour of open plan, there is another opposing it. For the open-plan collaboration that might improve productivity, there is the noise and distractions that decrease it, for example. Shifting without a strong underlying rationale may be counterproductive.

Open plan is the corollary of implementing agile working. It is not the definition or a pre-requisite. Indeed, some might suggest that firms are taking the easy ride – claiming that an office space shake-up makes them agile. It doesn’t.

Agile working is offering employees a genuinely different way of working. It embraces the various and unique needs of a modern workforce, allowing for flexi-hours, remote working and part-time or temporary contracts. It is a shift that goes deep. Firms take the leap for the benefits it offers employers and employees alike.

Truly agile working isn’t cosmetic. It changes the way firms do business – and forever.

Agile, Remote working, Open plan

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