Fluidity is a necessity in the modern day workplace.

A flexible office design is key to facilitating a company's ability to pivot in a new direction. Businesses that change with the economy--not just the market economy, but the economy of employee satisfaction and retention--will prioritize flexibility and come out on top.

Workplace Flexibility--the Office Is Where the Laptop Connects

First, what is workplace flexibility in terms of office design? It's the ability to reconfigure your physical office space to meet the needs of your employees, enabling better productivity, functionality, and comfort.

Connectivity breeds mobility, with laptops, tablets, and smartphones bringing unprecedented levels of flexibility to your workforce. As long as they have a network connection and a device on which to work, it doesn't really matter where employees sit.

The work is where the laptop is.

Think about it. Not every company has a massive headquarters or the budget for top-of-the-line architectural and design firms to renovate their space. In this case, a flexible workspace is ideal. Cubicles are great for everyone to have their own fiefdom and knickknacks, but if your workers leave their desk frequently to meet with their team, consult with clients, or conduct other business, it's a waste of space. Even the smallest spaces can be flexible. In fact, the architectural firm Unispace showcased a flexible workplace in just 2,700 square feet in Los Angeles.

The Boon to the Budget

The cost-savings of a flexible workspace are worth it. Flexible office spaces give business owners access to only the square footage they need, with the fluidity to turn that space into everything their employees need. This is one of the reasons co-working spaces have taken off. Employers don't tie themselves down to a long-term lease and most co-working spaces furnish the essentials in office equipment for them.

Traditional office spaces cost money.

Whether you're renting co-working space or have a smaller building footprint, spaces that fulfill multiple purposes cost less. If your company's cafeteria can double as a meeting room, or the conference room has audiovisual equipment to use for creating marketing videos for your brand, you're already in a position to save money. Furthermore, overhead reduction is possible with well-placed and well-considered furniture for those companies that do have a more permanent location.

When Cisco Systems studied the movement and working habits of their employees, they found meeting rooms in short supply because their workers used them more than their cubicles. The cubicles sat empty 65 percent of the time. The results of a flexible redesign that increased public space and decreased the number of desks saved Cisco money on rent (37 percent), utilities and maintenance (37 percent), furniture (50 percent), and IT capital spend (40 percent).

Flexibility is just good business.

The How-To of Flexibility

Exactly how, though, do you make your office design more flexible?

It's a shift in perspective.

Don't consider the trappings of office "essentials" so much as you consider your people. Everyone works differently, and even the same people will work differently for different tasks they perform. By reconsidering your office space with the transient worker in mind, you'll have more of an idea of how to proceed.

Adjusting the Environment to Fit the Employees

Not only will each employee need customizable furniture solutions for wherever they sit--such as sit-stand desks, ergonomically adjustable chairs, and even portable barriers--they'll need the infrastructure that allows them to connect wherever they are. Consider:

  • Movable walls

  • Ample power outlets and other connectivity infrastructure to the network

  • Adjustable and mobile furniture

  • Unassigned workstations

  • Movable storage units or cloud-based storage for all but the essential storage of paperwork

  • Adjustable lighting and ventilation control

Each of these gives employees the ability to choose where and how they work, all while reducing your reliance on the more expensive and intractable office structure.

Large meeting rooms can be broken into smaller spaces by moving walls, allowing for the rapid relocation of people and providing a touchstone for visiting or contract employees. Data lines with frequent ports of connectivity, or better yet, wireless connectivity, make a less constrained environment. Furniture on wheels--including cubicle walls, whiteboards, and even desks--give employees unlimited ability to reorganize their space as needed.

Employees are more comfortable, less likely to suffer repetitive ergonomic injury, and their surroundings even save money by reconfiguring to meet their needs without a major renovation or construction refit.

No company could exhibit movability and flexibility quite like Lego, which is set to open new headquarters in 2020 in Denmark. After all, the very concept of Lego blocks is the definition of flexibility to create any design. With more sofas than desks, a place for out-of-town employees to call home during their visit, and an eye on getting people face-to-face rather than computer-to-computer, this flexible concept is second nature to Lego.

The e-commerce company Gilt is also getting in on the mobility action, with common areas bearing a variety of seating choices, from long, farm-style tables, café settings, and individual seating incorporating considerations for both acoustics and flexibility with their rolling, semi-private chairs.

The cubicle farm didn't work.

The open plan office hasn't worked either.

The hybrid office, with its multi-purpose areas providing both collaborative and quiet spaces, seems to be a better solution than either of the previous iterations of office design.

Could the addition of flexibility spell the beginning of sustained, employee-centric office design for decades to come?

Only time will tell.