Traditional office or flexible workspace?

Working in flexible spaces and varied environments is on the rise in the UK, but traditional offices may remain the choice of firms where teamwork is less important

In the 21st century, the ability to work flexibly has and continues to shape the modern workplace. Flexible working is becoming increasingly widespread in the UK, with 77 per cent of employees working in organisations that provide some kind of flexible working, according to The Flex Factor report. It also seems to be what workers want as flexible hours came top of an employers’ wish list in a Crown Workplace Relocation survey.

There are multiple benefits for the employer from flexible working arrangements, according to The Flex Factor study. It estimates that flexible working could generate £6.9 billion of productive hours and workstation savings of £1.1 billion for the UK economy.

“From the employee perspective, the benefits are that they become more productive, can choose their hours and where they’re working,” says Edward Truch, professor of management science at Lancaster University Management School and co-author of the report.

Technology affecting occupancy

But it’s not simply about flexible hours and, in its broadest sense, flexible working is much more than just saving desk space. It is also about supporting today’s workforce who expect not to be tied to a desk, says Martin Laws, a partner at Deloitte real estate. “Flexible working includes access to a variety of working environments that best align to the task being undertaken and these are increasingly no longer dedicated to one individual’s use.”

Flexible working practices have gone hand in hand with the increasing popularity of open-plan offices where employees often hot-desk or work in wi-fi-enabled social spaces within the building

The emergence of tech startups has influenced other companies to offer their staff choice and flexibility in how they work, comments Steve Brewer, partner at workplace design consultancy Burtt-Jones & Brewer. “We’ve seen that filtering down in other sectors, but I think it’s more to do with technology and the demands that people place on it rather than tech startups.”

Jeremy Myerson, professor of design at the Royal College of Art, argues that organisations are failing to keep up with the flexible patterns of work that exist in the UK when they create work environments. “Lots of organisations still think that ‘x’ number of people are sitting at a desk, but a lot of large organisations have low occupancy rates. A lot of employees don’t want a desk and carry their technology with them,” he says.

Open-plan offices

Flexible working practices have gone hand in hand with the increasing popularity of open-plan offices where employees often hot-desk or work in wi-fi-enabled social spaces within the building. An Engagement and the Global Workforce study by office supplier Steelcase of 12,000 workers across 17 countries found the UK leads the world for open-plan offices and has more than twice the number of nomadic workers than the global average.
In 2014, law firm Gowling WLG moved into its Birmingham office which was predicated on a workplace strategy that employees move to different types of space depending on the type of work they’re doing. The Birmingham office is mostly open-plan, but also included quiet rooms, team rooms, breakout spaces, video conference rooms and quick-meet rooms.

Aon staff canteen, designed by Gensler, which is also used as a workspace and for short meetings
Aon staff canteen, designed by Gensler, which is also used as a workspace and for short meetings

Before the move to its new premises, the firm had one or two completely mobile staff, explains Richard Jones, Gowling WLG’s director of the leadership team. “When we were planning this move, we wanted to change a few things and mobility was one of them,” he says. “We needed there to be full wi-fi in our new building, and to upgrade our remote and home-working IT.”

The firm is currently running a pilot for 25 of its employees, known as “unpluggers”, who have no desk space in the new Birmingham office. “We focused on teams with particularly mobile work patterns and in most cases a partner in the relevant team agreed to be the ‘unplugged’ lead to champion the initiative,” says Mr Jones. “Our aim is to allow the business to grow without needing to take lots of additional space and to increase our ‘unplugged’ community as our working practices evolve.”

Gowling WLG also has a travelling population of 50 employees between their London and Birmingham offices. “We’ve got a hot-desk system so you can book whichever desk is free,” he says. In the Birmingham office, staff are encouraged to move around the building and not be anchored to a desk. “We get a lot of people working in our staff restaurant and small booth areas,” Mr Jones adds.

Towards a collaborative culture

Adopting a flexible working culture can also foster collaborative workplaces, according to The Future Workplace report by The Future Laboratory. It found that in order to attract and retain high-calibre employees, companies need to foster a more collaborative environment. This might involve hot-desking, hosting ideas workshops and regularly switching teams.

An example of an organisation that is encouraging its employees to be more collaborative and flexible in the way they work is insurance giant Aon. The firm consolidated its seven business groups into one single headquarters in The Leadenhall building in the City of London. Aon decided to move from a traditional, one-to-one, desk-based occupation to a flexible environment based on eight desks to every ten employees.

“We were one of the first insurance firms to move to an agile work environment and this was driven by a number of factors,” explains Todd Budgen, Aon’s director of UK real estate. “We wanted to create an environment that encourages collaboration. We needed to provide informal working space and move away from the idea that everyone has a desk.”

Spread across 11 of the building’s lower floors, the new headquarters accommodates a workforce of 3,300 people. There is a balance of collaborative spaces and quiet zones for focused activities. “The whole building is wi-fi-enabled and every member of staff has a laptop and is not tied to one space,” says Mr Budgen.

But this doesn’t mean that the traditional workplace with one desk per person and enclosed offices is a redundant model, argues Professor Myerson. “The workplace design depends on the organisational culture. There are still lots of traditional firms with a high degree of process and they need people working individually so enclosed offices are a good idea there. However, most organisations have gone open-plan, but it doesn’t work for some employees as it can be distracting,” he says.

The number of people working flexibly and connecting to the organisation will continue to increase, says Philip Tidd, head of consulting at architecture, design and consulting firm Gensler. “Flexible working definitely has an impact, but you need to get the balance right, otherwise employees will feel an increasing sense of disconnection if they’re working away.”