Office Neighborhoods: The Next Evolution Of The Agile Work Environment
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of being adaptable — and for organizations, that means having an agile work environment.
While this can mean many different things, one model that’s becoming especially popular is the concept of office neighborhoods. Here’s what you need to know about this workplace design and how you can implement it.
A brief history of the agile work environment
Workplace leaders have debated the best way to design an agile work environment for decades. The open office concept was the first evolution of this, developed in response to the cubicle design that dominated workplaces in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
The physical barriers Herman Miller designer Robert Propst created to insulate employees from noise had a negative impact on company culture and collaboration.
The idea behind the open office layout was to break down these barriers, literally and figuratively.
Unfortunately, the lack of privacy and noise control proved to be distracting for many employees. More recently, employers have adopted hybrid models that facilitate openness while giving their workforce more options.
One popular model has been activity-based working, which allows employees to choose different types of spaces depending on the work they’re doing.
They can claim an open desk near a coworker, reserve a meeting room, gather in a huddle area, or retreat to a small, private booth to focus on solo work.
ABW empowers employees by allowing them to choose the setting that best suits their needs instead of restricting them to a single desk. It also accomplishes what employers had hoped to achieve with an open office plan: fostering collaboration while supporting a flexible, scalable real estate strategy.
Hot desking is a similar concept, designed to maximize space utilization by eliminating assigned seats.
However, this strategy can contribute to a poor workplace experience due to its free address design. Without a home base, employees can start to feel disconnected from their organization.
To address this, employers have begun exploring the idea of office neighborhoods, which offer the same benefits of ABW while giving employees a greater sense of belonging.
What are office neighborhoods?
Office neighborhoods are essentially multiple activity-based working environments that each serve a specific segment of the workforce. This could be employees who have similar job functions or cross-functional teams that work together frequently.
Office neighborhoods act as a home base to give employees a sense of place and community while still allowing them to access different work settings. Each neighborhood is constructed to meet the needs of the community it serves while also reinforcing the overall goals of the company.
Since the concept of office neighborhoods evolved from ABW environments, there is a large overlap in design best practices.
For example, each neighborhood needs the right mix of spaces to accommodate the unique work styles and tasks of its employees.
Here are a few different types of spaces to consider including in your office neighborhoods:
- Individual desks for solo work
- Phone booths for private conversations and personal calls
- Huddle areas for informal or impromptu meetings between small groups
- Enclosed conference rooms for more formal meetings and client calls
The mixture of each neighborhood will depend on the team occupying it. For instance, the product and marketing teams will likely engage in collaborative activities more often, so they’ll need multiple breakout areas designed for groups of different sizes. The engineering and operations departments would probably benefit from a neighborhood more centered around solo work.
How to adopt office neighborhoods successfully
If you already have some level of activity-based working(ABW), the concept of office neighborhoods should feel familiar to your workforce.
However, it can be more challenging if you’re transitioning from a traditional office environment to one with unassigned seats. Follow these best practices to help employees adjust.
Different activities produce varying levels of sound, so be deliberate when choosing the location of each office neighborhood. While your sales and marketing teams should work closely together, it may not be a good idea to place them in adjoining neighborhoods if the marketing team’s noisy brainstorming sessions will interfere with sales calls.
Even within the neighborhood itself, certain activities will be louder than others, so you should carefully consider the layout of each specific neighborhood.
It’s also a good idea to use noise-absorbing fixtures like wall panels, clouds, or baffles to help minimize noise within and across neighborhoods.
Build for flexibility
Versatility is at the core of any agile work environment, so office neighborhoods should be easy to modify. This means investing in multi-purpose furniture that can be easily reconfigured to suit different needs.
For example, conference room tables can double as whiteboards in meeting spaces and huddle areas to enable better brainstorming. Adjustable desks can be used as individual workstations or be connected to become one shared surface.
You also need technology that enables employees to easily move from one workspace to another within office neighborhoods. This includes fixed-line broadband connections when Wi-Fi won’t be adequate, laptop docking stations, and plug-and-play widescreen monitors or TVs.
Personalize the space
To promote feelings of ownership and a cohesive team identity, allow employees to vote on different design elements, such as decor, furniture, and paint colors.
While office neighborhoods are meant to provide members of the workforce with a home base to share with their team members, they aren’t intended to isolate employees in other departments from one another.
To avoid this, many employers design their workplaces to have office neighborhoods surrounding a common area, such as a large conference room or lounge.
Take advantage of an empty office
If the majority of your workforce is still working remotely, your office is a blank slate. It’s much easier to make updates now than it will be when employees return.
That doesn’t mean you should surprise them with a work environment that looks completely different than the one they left earlier this year.
The most common reason workplace initiatives fail is because organizations ignore the human element and focus exclusively on the technological and logistical aspects.
“The process will be just as dependent on change management as it will on interior design,” said Brian Stromquist, Regional Practice Area Leader for Gensler, in a recent article.
Successful implementation relies heavily on acquiring buy-in from the workforce. Be open and honest with employees as you begin the transformation.
First, introduce the concept of office neighborhoods at a company meeting and explain why you believe it’s the best approach for your workplace. Let employees know what they’ll gain from this new environment, and be ready to respond to their concerns.
If they’re worried about where to store their personal belongings, reassure them they’ll have access to lockers.
And if they’re concerned about finding an available desk or room, talk to them about your protocol for reserving space.
Use the right technology
Without the right technology to plan and manage office neighborhoods, they won’t be used as you intended.
First, you need a way to plan your neighborhoods, reconfigure your office furniture for physical distancing, and manage capacity.
You also need an easy way for employees to reserve spaces in a neighborhood environment.
Space management software allows you to visualize your floor plans and test different space scenarios before you implement them. With our new Space-Right™ planning feature, you can instantly reconfigure spaces for physical distancing, recategorize unsafe spaces, and manage seat assignments.
And with room and desk booking software, your employees can reserve any available space using their mobile phone.
Shifting from a traditional workplace layout to an office neighborhood increases collaboration and productivity while improving office space utilization. It’s an easy model to adjust as the size of your workforce expands or contracts.
And it gives employees the best of both worlds — the flexibility to work anywhere, without losing the sense of community they’ve missed while working remotely for so long.
For more on how our software can help you create a frictionless workplace environment, request a live demo.