Does flexible seating boost innovation? Well, maybe, writes workplace design expert Dr Donna Wheatley

Innovation is the buzzword that gets today's company executives fired up. A common belief is that in an agile (shared desks) workplace, collaboration will soar and employees will soon be cruising the Innovation Highway. Is that true?

My research indicates, well, not necessarily any more so than in other contemporary workplaces with "owned" desks. And certainly not in every situation.

The benefits we can confirm are: the agile office shrinks the requirement for physical space, and thus saves money; and it eradicates costly time involved in reorganising teams.

One Telsyte Digital Workplace study also found that activity-based workers are on average 16 per cent more productive. No wonder so many organisations are rushing to adopt the practice.

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For many businesses, the main driver for switching to activity-based working is to foster an innovative, high-performance culture.

But is the introduction of an agile office a passport to free-thinking innovation? As a workplace design strategist, I need hard data to confirm or deny such notions. And innovation is a quality that is difficult to measure.

Still, if we take it as read that collaboration enhances the "prospect" of innovation, we can draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence combined with data from post occupancy evaluation (POE) studies.

POE is a discipline that has been around since the 60s but reignited in a world of big data. These days, data is collected through swipe cards, GPS technologies and sensors that recognise where people are and what they are doing.

We also collect data through surveys and sending in a research team to observe how space is used. It's then analysed, sometimes with unexpected results.

Beyond the hot desk

To encourage collaboration, what is more important than having no fixed desks is providing dedicated break-out spaces where employees can meet. Our studies have shown only a marginal increase in collaboration (15 per cent) compared to new contemporary fixed-desk offices (one with interactive spaces).

"The idea that people collaborate better by choosing where and who they sit with in an agile environment seems a bit of a fallacy," says Andrew Pettifer, principal at engineering firm Arup, where employees use shared desks.

"People don't generally self-organise well enough to create collaborative teams in an agile work setting, or if they do, they tend to sit together on a semi-permanent basis."

Love the laptop

Want a more engaged workforce? Give them a smartphone and a laptop to work on. In surveys, it was mobile technology, rather than flexi work stations, that increased employee satisfaction.

Such technology gave staff the power of choice and control: where they work, whether at the office or at home, and when they work.

The challenges

Findings indicate that around 20 per cent of people desire agile working when they haven't done it before. Even once employees have made the move to agile working, the percentage of those that prefer it isn't exactly overwhelming. Our research showed that 60 per cent of staff were in favour, compared to having the same fit-out with assigned workstations.

On the other hand, some individuals felt disconnected from their team as, for example, the morning greeting to a familiar group wasn't always possible.

In larger corporations, some employees were even confused as to who was part of their team, and many found it frustrating having to set up and pack up a desk during the course of the day. Employees need education before and after moving, on how to make the most of the choices of where to work that presented in these new environments.

Dig into the detail

Age is not as significant as you might imagine. While the over 50s are the least likely to want to transition to agile (less than 10 per cent desire it), once agile, they are in fact its biggest champions (65 per cent prefer it, compared to about 60-64 per cent of the under 30s).

It's relevant to note that agile working seems better suited to extroverts. At first, neither extroverts nor introverts showed any preference for agile or fixed working, but once they made the move to agile, extroverts stated notably stronger preferences for it.

As Pettifer says, "it appears that there has been a much greater emphasis on providing the collaboration spaces that suit the extroverts, than the quiet spaces that suit introverts."

Too much of a good thing

The modern workplace is close to design capacity. Sharing desks allows reduced real estate per person. But take heed of building regulations which stipulate the number of fire escapes, lifts, bathrooms, etc, per capita.

Today, 10sq m per employee is deemed to comply. Some agile workplaces are designed at around 8sq m per employee, on the assumption that at any one time, 20-30 per cent of staff will be outside the building (or on another floor).

With only a minimal increase in collaboration among employees over fixed-desk workplaces, and satisfaction linked to mobile technology as much as anything else, it's hard to place the credit at the foot of the hot desk. On the other hand, issues are few and can be minimised.

From a health and safety perspective, corporations should tap into new location technologies that are useful for keeping colleagues connected, and allow real-time occupancy monitoring to ensure capacity is keeping within parameters of national construction codes.

The takeaway for decision makers is to ensure this way of working is, first and foremost, a good cultural fit. In many instances, you'll have happier employees and reduce the churn factor -- but don't bank on the innovation gains.