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Agile working is transforming organisations and property markets worldwide

The words agile working might slip from our tongues easily enough these days, but just twenty-five or so years ago, before the Internet began to unravel the bonds that tied us full time to the workplace, offices were looked at in very different ways. Of course, firms have always had concerns about the efficient use of their offices, and for good reason. After staff, real estate is invariably their most expensive and valuable asset.  Up until the mid 1990s, most people had fixed hours in one place of work and a dedicated workstation, the size of which was often determined by their status within the organisation rather than anything else. Even those workers who spent large amounts of time away from the office usually had their own desk to call home.

In the mid 1990s, that started to change. Not only did the uptake of the Internet and the adoption of mobile phones and laptops allow staff to work from anywhere, there was growing awareness of exactly how they used space within the office itself. Pioneers such as Frank Duffy and his firm DEGW began to measure how much time people spent at their desks over the course of the day and began to posit alternatives to dedicated workstations.

For the first time, the workplace was seen as a cluster of settings through which people moved depending on what they were doing. As a result the office was treated as the stage rather than the play. New desk sharing practices such as hot desking, hotelling were increasingly adopted and in their wake trailed new conceptions of the office as a club, which people visited, booked and used as they would a public space.


The future is now

A quarter of a century on, such radical ideas are now mainstream and we not only enjoy nearly three decades of accumulated wisdom and sophistication but also now have the tools to measure and manage the way we use the workplace in real time. This not only helps firms to keep down costs and better manage their real estate it also creates workplaces that are better able to serve the people that use them and adapt to new technologies and working practices.

One of the more intriguing characteristics of the implementation of new approaches to how people work and how organisations own and use physical and digital space is how it plays out across different sectors and different regions. There are complex forces at work here which mean that while individuals and employers encounter what are intrinsically the same recessionary, commercial and technological regardless of where they work, they are also addressing them within a specific cultural, social, economic and legislative context. So how they play out can vary significantly.

A complex debate has grown up around the way in which organisations use commercial property, not least when it comes to implementing more agile and collaborative forms of working. The major complicating factor is how to square off a relatively fixed resource like a building with the demands of its occupants, which can change from day to day. Add in the need to keep costs down and you are left with a heady mix that drives organisations to get more out of their assets, not just cut costs. It all begins with a greater understanding of how your asset is used and the identification of those opportunities to get more from it.


A new generation

This in turn is changing the places we work. Serviced offices and coworking spaces are flourishing and hotels and other public spaces are joining cafes as the providers of impromptu workspaces for the new army of peripatetic workers. A report by the German Fraunhofer Institute found that hotels are significantly increasing the amount of working and meeting space they provide in their facilities in cities across Europe as well as providing a new technological experience for the growing numbers of people who work while staying or waiting in a hotel.

The way we measure space is central to how we resolve building tensions. For many years, the method of measuring space had been for the company to use its organisation chart to allocate dedicated workstations to individuals, usually on the basis of their status. However this is a rigid way of making decisions about the office, restricts the ability of the firm to enjoy the benefits of agile working takes little account of what people do on a day to day basis and means that even small organisational changes such as a promotion can lead to costly and disruptive changes in office layout.

Technology has changed this, not only allowing us to work in new ways but also measure how we use space and make better-informed decisions about office design and management. Early facilities management technologies helped with this to some degree, but we are now in a new era that offers us sophisticated measurement tools like apps and occupancy sensors, developed to align with new agile working practices and the empowerment of individuals.

The result is not only a new generation of workplaces that transform the daily experience of individuals and offer a range of competitive advantages, but also are revolutionising property markets and hence towns and cities across the world.

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