Agile working isn’t a phase; it’s here to stay. As desk-to-worker ratios become tighter, it’s essential that building designers respond to the shift in office requirements

Julian Sharpe

The concept of agile working has become increasingly popular over the past few years as employers strive to deliver workplaces that match today’s mobile lifestyle. Desk numbers have reduced and employees are no longer tied to the same regular working hours or office locations. Different styles of working and different types of work activities are changing the traditional office floor as we know it.

As a result, offices are witnessing ever tighter desk-to-employee ratios. This approach saves real-estate costs, with another benefit to employers being the creation of busy places of exchange. This type of environment can appeal to younger employees who are drawn to collaboration with others, helping to attract creative millennials who aspire to busy buzzy workplaces.

The introduction of this desk space/employee ratio is not a new phenomenon, but the IT revolution coupled with demands for ever greater efficiency is creating a new wave of offices with extreme levels of over-occupation, which in turn, generates design challenges that need to be overcome. It is not just about desk space - fire exits and building systems need to be able to cope with occasional peak demand so people can work in these environments safely and securely.

In the beginning, a common ratio for agile working and corresponding desk-ratio was a workstation for every 1.2 full-time employees, or six employees to five workstations - and with an average of one home-working day per week, the ratio resulted in sustainable occupation levels.

This model allowed for “perfect storm” days - the inevitable times when all employees had to be in the office due to business demands. Alternative, non-desk workstations could be provided with power and data to allow employees to log on and work, and the increased numbers could be accommodated by the building’s critical infrastructure, including fire exits, air flow and power loadings. These levels required monitoring but could typically be foreseen. However, we now see requirements for working ratios that are pushing the one-to-two mark and beyond.

While perfectly workable in themselves, the success of these higher ratios is dependent on proactive and reactive management of office space. In a perfect storm, or one-to-two situation, an office floor can quickly become occupied well beyond a building’s critical limits. The consequences of this could have a severe negative impact and, taken to extremes, could require a building to be evacuated.

The challenges can be exacerbated in organisations which have a counter-cyclical relationship to occupancy numbers. For instance, at busy times, a consultancy could have the majority of its employees “on the road”. However, when work finishes or workers have a quiet afternoon, for example, they may want to come back to the office, resulting in all of the above issues. We need to acknowledge that agile working is here to stay, and buildings need to be designed to meet the requirements of full occupation.

Organisations must accept the need to proactively manage their space; either through multi-neighbourhood office landscapes or by investing in a real-time workstation booking system. Occupation levels, based on the required working ratio, should be stress-tested against realistic perfect storm scenarios at data stage.

Occupiers need to proactively engage with building control authorities at the planning stage to ensure that the realities of over-occupation are thought through. This may result in the need for some areas to be over-designed to accommodate stress occupation.

Inevitably, there are areas of buildings that can be used more effectively to accommodate increased occupancy levels, such as ground-floor areas with multiple exits. Similarly, building services can be designed to work at different duty modes in some zones.

An increasingly agile workforce will also require increased support from occupational health through to IT assistance. By moving these support functions to a more central position in the building, both philosophically and physically, worker anxiety can be appeased.

In the last 10 years, the office has arguably changed. It is now a space for interaction and collaboration, not just for business. While yesterday’s building stock is mostly conceived around a static model of occupation, tomorrow’s stock needs to demonstrate more imagination, foresight and technical understanding, and place more weight on investment time with statutory authorities.

It seems clear that the days of one person to one desk are gone for good. Agility, and by extension over-occupation, is here to stay. If occupiers are pushing this trend further, then designers need to have the tools and expertise to respond.

Julian Sharpe is principal director, TP Bennett