The office space occupation rate continues to fall, dropping from 80% to 60% in just a few years (1). Companies have therefore needed to think about different ways of dealing with this new state of affairs. In addition, the pandemic experienced by France has forced managers to take another look at their work spaces, abandoned for a while due to remote working, then slowly reoccupied.
There is an important distinction between flex office and desk sharing, a concept which will also be explained in this article.
So what is flex office, and what are the advantages of this new way of approaching the workspace?
What is flex office?
“Flex office” means that a business does not allocate a specific workstation to its employees. The workers are free to work where they want, depending on the requirements of their current tasks. They can set themselves up in one of the company’s unoccupied offices, in a meeting room, a co-working space, a café, or work remotely from home.
The birth of the flex office is the result of several factors. Workers sometimes operate outside their offices, they take holidays, work reduced hours, fall ill etc. An empty office is an office that costs the business a lot of money.
But digital technology allows all employees to access their work tool at any time of the day and from anywhere in the world.
Finally, our experience of working leads us to question how we organise our working and personal lives. The aim here is to find the best possible balance, while cutting down the number of journeys between home and work, often a bone of contention.
People often confuse the flex office concept with desk sharing. Desk sharing is a situation where employees no longer have a desk allocated to them within their company.
The advantages of flex office
There are at least 5 advantages to adopting the flex office approach:
Flex office enables employees to choose the most suitable place in which to do their work. Cafés can help people be more relaxed in meetings, whereas an office enables “real” exchanges with colleagues. Finally, working from home allows greater concentration. Creativity follows (virtually) no rules, so it is essential that the employee be left to choose their own workspace.
Benevolent business management
When a business adopts flex office, it absolutely has to adapt to its employees’ new ways of working. Where control was once the order of the day, it is the confidence you show in your workers that now holds sway. Flex office requires benevolent management. You have to believe in your workers’ ability to choose effective organisation and set the right boundaries between their working and personal lives.
That is easily introduced through the use of tools that can be used to share skills and information. Digital, meanwhile, represents the ideal solution for helping and encouraging good internal communication.
Greater freedom for workers
As digital has developed and electronics have been miniaturised, employees favour equipment that is transportable: the laptop computer and the mobile phone.
Added to which, open space is gradually disappearing… The sedentary habits of businesses no longer sit comfortably with the nomadic realities of their employees. So flex office is gradually taking over. The concept is rapidly becoming the most relevant response to the new needs of businesses and their employees.
A nicer workspace for employees
On desks, files pile up on top of one another, alongside the remains of lunch and other objects left lying around… With a flex office, everyone is obliged to leave a clean workspace behind them. And in the midst of a pandemic, that’s another strong argument in favour of assiduously applying the flex office approach!
Different atmospheres within a single workspace
With open space, everyone had to view their office as the place where they had to complete all their tasks; flex office breaks down those barriers, and is work’s salvation. Meetings, discussions and tasks requiring real focus no longer have to take place in the same office.
Flex office offers a response to the employees’ different needs at different moments of their working day. So it is possible to envisage providing each workspace with a different atmosphere, so as to optimise worker efficiency. Examples could include:
- A meeting room in which to talk with colleagues;
- An area set aside for group brainstorming;
- A room in which to make phone calls.
How do you implement it?
When the business is used to the traditional way of working, the adoption of flex office has to be phased in little by little. There are five stages to making sure all employees can embrace flex office.
To start, the business must assess the occupancy rate of its offices. That will help it define the exact surface area of the future flex office space.
- Next, you need to think about the employees’ needs; how spaces are organised, where desks should be placed etc. All these things must meet the expectations of the company’s workers.
- Next comes the creation of different work atmospheres. They must coincide with those same needs within each individual company. Employees must be able to find individual workstations, rooms where they can make their phone calls or conduct videoconferences, areas in which to hold meetings, areas for socialising, etc.
- To assist employees in organising themselves, it is good practice to provide personal lockers so that team members can safely put away their personal effects.
- The fourth thing required by flex office is more flexible management. Team members will not necessarily be at their desks, so it is essential for managers to change their approach from checks on work to open trust. With flex office, it is not just employees who find they have new spaces in which to work; managers too need to redefine their own place in the new setup.
- The fifth and final stage of introducing flex office: equip yourself with appropriate IT and digital hardware. This involves the provision of a virtual file storage system for each person, so that all employees can access it even if they are not at their desks, and no matter what device they use. In addition, the company must equip its employees with professional laptop computers and mobile phones.
- For the most relaxed companies, why not provide a system for booking meeting spaces or a workstation? Via an app, for example? You can also install digital signage screens in the different offices to guide your workers and help them find a vacant place. That helps support change and thus increases the extent to which this new way of working is accepted.
The risks of flex office
Looking at the advantages of flex office, you could easily think there are no disadvantages. Sadly, there are at least four of these. We recommend you also consider them before reviewing how you organise your way of working.
- The first is to do with a reduction in the sense of wellbeing at work. In fact, as a result of the flexibility demanded by flex office, you can no longer personalise your own workspace. Certainly, offices will be less cluttered, but the lack of personal objects can diminish the sense of wellbeing. Note too that team members will have to move their belongings, and adjust a new chair and a new screen every day. Without any specific place being allocated to them, team members may develop a feeling of being interchangeable.
- The second point to consider is the possible emergence of tensions between workers. Because the first to come to the office will be the first served. That could lead to stress and cause little conflicts to break out between team members. All the more so if certain workspaces are judged to be less pleasant than others.
- Third comes business communication, which could deteriorate because of flex office. While moving from one office to another is supposed to encourage exchanges between employees, frequent changes of workstation can also have the opposite effect. Yes, encounters are more frequent, but the bonds that develop are weaker.
- One final significant disadvantage: a lack of work organisation. Not having an appointed office implies you need to demonstrate optimal organisation. You need to be capable of offering meeting spaces, be able to reserve a workstation within a co-working area (when team members are working remotely), make sure the place matches the style of the employees, etc. Organisation must be carefully thought out to allow this new way of working to unleash its full potential!
So flex office has some undeniable advantages, but also some disadvantages whose impact on the life of the business must not be ignored. One good practice would be to discuss it with the employees and to listen carefully to their needs.
As a reflection of lasting changes in worker behaviour, flex office requires an effort of co-construction with the staff. A small price to pay for the business to benefit from the full development of its identity, and to see its team members taking up its values and plans and running with them.