With the world of agile, task-based working, employees don't expect to be tethered to a single desk or workstation anymore. If you're planning a fit out, chances are you'll need fewer desks and more agile working spaces.

Offices aren’t furniture depots. It’s time to stop buying desks just because it’s the thing to do. Think about how can your office space be used optimally to support work instead. 50 employees don’t need 50 desks with 50 chairs; it means 50 or fewer flexible workstations.

Your headcount is a good starting point for your furniture list but your working style is equally as important. We often hear how empty desks gather dust while people are out at meetings. These desks uselessly take up space which could be better used as an informal meeting area, a social hub or even a coffee pitstop. Is paying rent for an empty desk really worth it?

My desk, my kingdom

First up, figure out how your people actually work. When we start a new brief, we often suggest doing some research or a workplace study to get the facts. Put the emotional attachment aside and you’ll soon see people are a lot more internally mobile than they actually think! People will tell you they need their desk 100% of the time. But in most cases, we see ‘signs of life’ at their desk instead; a jacket over the chair, an empty mug or some abandoned paperwork.

There are exceptions, of course. Some roles are naturally more deskbound than others. Think finance or IT. But your design approach shouldn’t be based on these teams, unless they make up the largest portion of your business. Chances are you’ll have sales, HR, operations and marketing teams too. People who move around to meet colleagues and clients; staff whose work isn’t confined to the four corners of a traditional desk.

Activity based working

This literally means finding an area within the office suited to the task at hand. Your work environment can change based on the activity you need to complete; it’s really that simple.

Workstations can be as varied as your imagination allows. We’ve designed offices with working areas in train carriages, telephone booths and on ping pong tables. If that doesn’t sound like your brand, you could consider ‘touchdown’ workstations in your kitchen, on a terrace, scattered throughout the open plan or hidden behind some pretty plantscaping. A bank of hot-desks or ‘neighbourhoods’ where people can work at unassigned desks is an excellent way to ensure everyone has somewhere to go, in addition to your extra non-traditional workstations.

ThoughtWorks office games room
Red office phone booths for privacy

Making it work

Effective change management isn’t a happy accident. You need to remove barriers to flexible working. Facilitating activity based working takes practical planning, a culture shift and a solid design.

#1 - Storage

If a paper-stuffed pedestal is all your employees have, chances are they’ll be resistant to change. Removing or reducing your number of pedestals will go a long way in managing clutter, as will providing lockers and appropriate storage for personal and work items. Don’t neglect hanging space for winter coats and wet umbrellas, kitchen cupboards for non-perishable food or washroom storage for smelly trainers.

#2 - Technology

No-one’s going anywhere without a laptop, mobile, WiFi or remote access to their work in the cloud. Make sure your technology is up-to-scratch so employees can move around the office seamlessly.

#3 - Office etiquette

Make your workplace change a positive one by mapping out some simple etiquette guidelines. If workstations are rotated discourage eating at desks, for example. Other things to consider might include a clear desk policy, noise guidelines, wayfinding, desk booking and a no ‘camping’ rule.

#4 - Furniture

Your furniture choices are important because they reinforce the behaviour you’re trying to encourage. You’ll see furniture in a new light when you truly understand this. High-backed ‘plug and play’ booths with power and data, pedestals on wheels so people can move easily, movable walls to create different zones, ‘huddle’ rooms, picnic benches and even sofas - these can all be part of your activity based working ‘toolkit’.