Picture this. We’ve been commissioned to redesign the offices of a traditional financial services company after a take-over by not only a bigger fish, but one with a much more robust, future-facing workplace strategy. A culture clash is to be anticipated and a series of workshops is undertaken, helping to take the team from where they were to where they’re headed.
It works a treat – for everyone but one senior player. He wants to stay with the same dedicated desk and he refuses point blank to countenance the concept of agile working, as practised by the new business owners. There’s a standoff. He digs his heels in and then he threatens to leave. The company gives in and the single allocated desk remains unchanged.
A major shift
There are always micro and macro trends in our field. Small changes come and go, but the bigger trends change the workplace for us all. Think of the progress from cellular to open-plan workspaces, to combi-offices. Agile, flexible working is a trend on that scale, with work zones and timetables organised by function and need rather than status.
Overall, it’s a very positive development, enabled by the key drivers of mobile technology and changing attitudes of the incoming generation. Dr Nigel Oseland, Environmental Psychologist and Workplace Strategist at Work Unlimited agrees:
“I believe that agile working is beneficial to workers of all ages. Millennials may be more tech savvy and enabled for mobile working, but they also like to spend time in the office for mentoring, socialising and career development.
“More elderly workers may prefer to work shorter working hours and appreciate a more flexible work-life balance, but their expertise and experience is valuable for occasional mentoring, coaching and training of new staff.
“Those with dependents will also appreciate flexibility, for example, working parents may prefer to work around school commitments, so work 10am until 2pm and then 7pm until 10pm.”
But what to make of the senior player who wouldn’t move? Is he a one-off, or indicative of people who get left behind every time huge change sweeps through an industry?
Just as open-plan offices have become subtler over time, with ranges of zones and neighbourhoods allowing for different moods and the concentration of teams into single areas, will agile working have to take into account those made uncomfortable by the idea of moving according to mission? Are we flying in the face perhaps of a fundamental human need to have our own territory? It’s a question that hasn’t yet been fully investigated, as Dr Oseland explains:
“There is limited research in this area. Environmental psychologists have studied innate territorial behaviour, but less so in the workplace. Some people appear to have a need for owning space more than others, often manifested through personalisation and preferred desks (or offices).
“In a highly hierarchical organisation, where management are rewarded with an office, then space will undoubtedly be seen as a status symbol, but this will be less so in a flatter organisation where trust, empowerment and choice are more valued.
“I recall some research indicating that those in lower paid roles, or those insecure about their role, will place more significance on “owning” a desk and the personalisation of it. I also suspect those of a more neurotic personality type prefer a more traditional working arrangement.”
It’s worth examining the resisters, whether our example is a one-off or the tip of an iceberg. Office wellbeing is always a delicate question, and we spend vast swathes of time in close proximity to people who we haven’t necessarily chosen to be near. We certainly can’t risk alienating more mature workers, whose wisdom and experience it’s vital to allow to cascade through an office through sharing and mentoring endeavours.
Introverts and extroverts
And there are not only age differences to take into account, but personality traits, including the classic extrovert-introvert divide. It could be said that agile working not only favours the young, but the young and extroverted, who favour newness, collaboration, sociability and flexibility. However Dr Oseland doesn’t believe age is the determining factor here:
“Some training in new technology may be required but I think that the idea that the elderly are more resistant to agile working is a myth. Some people do not like change, and the longer they have been in the same role at the same organization the more difficult the change may be. But that is more about being institutionalised, rather than age per se.”
The creation of neighbourhoods in office space-plans certainly allows individual teams to have ownership or territorial rights over specific areas, with agile working within those bordered zones still encouraged.
We can go further and create refuges – spaces where people feel more private and less exposed. We have to be careful too to prioritise quiet working zones, allowing for full and deep focus. Agile working is a great tide sweeping us all along, but we still need to develop finer and more intricate tools to prepare ourselves for any hidden rocks below the surface.
Nigel Tresise is a Director and Co-founder of interior architects and award-winning workplace specialists align – www.aligngb.com
*Images supplied by Align.
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Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 17 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.