What is an Adaptive Workspace?

Adaptive Workspace

Today’s offices have a growing demand for more flexible, inclusive workspaces that can support multiple work modes simultaneously. Multiple work modes are due to employee’s diverse needs for returning to the office, dependent on their health concerns and home environment. Therefore the number of people working out of the office changes daily and will continue to change for the next 12 months. For example, some days, the workspace may need to accommodate the 20% “anchor” employees – employees who are in the office full-time. Other days, there could be 90% of the employees in the office for a company-wide training session. During COVID, facility managers looked after an office with no one in it and no idea when people would return. Now they are looking after an office and have no idea how many people will come in from one day to the next. As a result, organizations are transitioning to more flexible furniture and more agile layouts to accommodate the diversity of work modes in the workplace.

As the employee mix changes in the office, so does the function of the office furniture.

There are many examples of an adaptive workspace. The simplest is an open-plan office, furnished with more flexible elements, such as stackable chairs and furniture on castors. Other adaptive workspaces include “room-within-a-room” structures that define a space using soft architecture. The adaptive workspace also adjusts to the employee density fluctuations with furniture that can adapt accordingly – meeting tables that can transform into a cluster of independent workstations or a power-beam that can have workstations added to it or work as a charging port for lounge furniture.

The adaptive workspace can rapidly and cost-efficiently adjust to the changing needs of the business.

Why the Rise of the Adaptive Workspace?

An adaptive workspace is more than simply flexible and agile furniture. As the percentage of workers coming into the office changes, the offerings of the workspace must adjust as well. Specifically, an adaptive workspace addresses the fluctuations of the number of workers needing dedicated space to work in the office and the collaborative and meeting areas desired.

The workspace experiment forced on all of us by the coronavirus demonstrated that remote work was possible on a large scale. Particularly related to knowledge-workers, employees and employers have realized that remote employees can accomplish tasks efficiently, and most meetings are fine without the office. What is missing is the social and cultural connection to the business and coworkers. An effective work arrangement that is popular is a Hybrid workplace. In a Hybrid workplace, focused, heads-down work is done remotely, while creative, interactive work happens in the office with the team. Hybrid work environments have a wide range of who will be in the office and what type of space they will need daily.

Unstructured collaboration happens in the office

Brand and the company culture are created and nurtured in the office. It’s where strategic decisions occur and where significant HR encounters happen.

Time spent in the office has typically been on four things:

  • concentrated, focus work
  • group, collaborative work
  • socializing
  • organic and structured learning

When people from different departments interact, they can solve complex problems and generate innovative new ideas. While you cannot plan for these creative sparks, you can make them more likely to happen by encouraging impromptu conversations. Unstructured collaboration isn’t possible when everyone is working from home.

The pandemic taught us that the office is where experiences happen rather than where tasks get done.

Being together leads to spontaneous learning and creativity

A big challenge with the move to remote work was how knowledge was going to be shared. While much of it could be packaged and scaled for distribution through technology, new employees learn critical knowledge by observing colleagues and managers, which does not transfer remotely.

New employees often say they learn as much by interacting and observing compared to the orientations and training. While companies have an employee handbook that describes the correct and proper way to behave, employees learn “how things are done around here” from directly observing coworkers and mentors. The informal, intangible benefits of being together in an office lead to spontaneous learning and creativity, often creating factors that differentiate a company from its competition.

Employees resist coming back to the office full-time

With COVID, many offices went to practically 100% work-from-home. While a few rare employees stayed in the office, others only came into the office for specific needs. Most people feel better when they work at home. They can wear what they want, cut out the commute, and save money. Time wasted on a train or in traffic becomes time for fitness, sleep, or personal interests. People can avoid the office’s noise, politics, and monotony to instead get more out of their day. They can walk the dog at lunchtime, have their coffee in the garden, get to the school gate on time and eat dinner earlier.

Most employees appreciated the freedom and independence that working remotely provided, not to mention the time and cost savings by not commuting. But, of course, there can be downsides – like poor ergonomics, family disturbances, excessive screen time, patchy wifi, and a lack of inclusion.

So as the health risk lessens, businesses want their employees to come back to the office. Employees have resisted, with some even threatening to quit if forced to return full-time. Employees desire Equity, which is about recognizing the differences in people and their individual work needs, rather than Equality, where everyone expects the same work experience. Clarity will develop between the individual and the business as we all settle into a new way of working.

The office needs to be a high-performance environment that provides experiences, coaching, entertainment, and technology. It will enable people to work together in real-time with local and remote team members, clients, and customers.

The office will become the carrot that draws people towards it, rather than needing a stick to force them in. Getting this right will therefore be crucial.

Often an adaptive workplace looks to offer better experiences for employees than they experience when working from home. While it may not be the same for each person, it allows each person to do their best work.

In summary, the rise in Adaptive Workspaces is create experiences to attract employees back to the office.

The only thing constant is change

The workspace is not about a farm of cubicles (even socially distanced ones), or about dedicated grouping of departmental neighbors. It’s not about whether people sit or stand, or the role they have, but about the experiences they need to have and share with each other.

Furnishing an office is less about a fixed floor-plan and more about movable and multipurpose furniture, with partitions and walls which can rapidly transform the workspace from one function into another. It’s about maximizing the office for those in-the-moment benefits we experience as a group of people.

Whereas once businesses expected an office furniture purchase to last for ten years, the changeover is now considerably more frequent due to technology adaptations, environmental trends and business adjustments.

For example, as social distancing concerns of COVID lessen, the employee density of full-time workers at the workplace increases and will decreases if health concerns arise.

Alternatively, we don’t know if self or enforced quarantined shutdowns will return due to the seasonal impact or if another virus will affect us in the future.

For the foreseeable future, business decisions need to factor in the threat of shutdown quarantines. Flexible furniture and soft architecture, which can be installed, relocated, or repurposed easily, have replaced fixed-use furniture and on-site permanent construction. 

Hat-tip to Unispace’s “Propeller – the new hybrid office model“.  Click for more thought leadership on the new office environement