The growth of agile working and the softening of workplace design

The workplace has gone soft and I mean that in a good way. Over the past fifteen to twenty years we have experienced the very welcome development of a much softer aesthetic generally when it comes to the design of offices. This process has accelerated dramatically since we came out of the recession and more and more firms have turned to models of flexible and agile working as a source of competitive advantage. Often wrongly characterised as the feminisation or domestication of design, this is linked to the way that management thinking and consequently workplace design has focussed on softer business issues such as corporate culture, the environment and knowledge management. To a large extent this has come about as a matter of necessity. At its heart are several interrelated issues. The most important is this; if your main asset is knowledge, how do you attract the heads that contain that knowledge to your organisation?

Then, once they are safely in your employ, how do you make them stay there or at the very least empty some of the contents into computers and other people’s heads before they go?

It is this fundamental conundrum that has led to the dominance of ‘soft’ issues in management thinking. From the perspective of workplace design, it has driven the growth of flexible work practices as organisations have tried to give people a better work-life balance. It has driven the softening of the workplace itself, the growth of break-out space and the focus on the team.  It’s pushed on the idea of employer branding, something that started as primarily a HR thing but which is now seen as valuable at a corporate level and so consequently as an influencer of interior design. It’s driven a new emphasis on knowledge management. In the old days, knowledge was filed in tin boxes and searches of bags meant firms could keep key information secure and in-house. If people left, a lot of what they knew and worked with wasn’t as likely to disappear out of the door with them.

The resulting change in the psychological contract between employer and employee is both a consequence and a cause of these changes. It has also coincided with two other external factors that in the very near future will have a profound effect on the way businesses function and how they design and manage their workplaces.

Firstly, the quietly thriving economy of recent years not only offered us nearly full employment and skills shortages in areas like the legal sector but as a consequence also handed the whip hand to employees who were able to demand new and better job conditions in exchange for their loyalty.

Secondly, a new generation of people will soon be running things. The materialistic baby-boomers have already been supplanted by idealistic, questioning Generation-Xers as the key decision makers in organisations.  Now the people of Generation Y are set to transform the workplace. Technically defined as those born between about 1982 and 2000, this is the first generation of people that has no conception of a world that does not allow them to have constant and instant access to information, entertainment and other people. They are only dimly aware of a quaint lost world of coin-operated phones, faxes, letters and four channel television even if the dim and fading echoes of that world still surround us.

To a large extent their relationship with the world is defined by their relationship with technology. Unlike the baby boomers and Generation X that preceded them, they largely take access to technology for granted. They accept its pervasive influence, its ubiquity, its ephemeral nature and demand the latest stuff, even if that means coldly discarding technology that was seen as state of the art just months before.

The economy is now founded on knowledge rather than just information, and as a result, the office is assuming both the functions and aesthetic of more relaxed. collaborative public spaces such as hotels and cafes and even profoundly private spaces such as our homes.

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Paul GoodchildPaul Goodchild is the Design Director of Fresh Workspace. Main image: Herman Miller’s Living Office

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