Last autumn, Frame and Orgatec challenged today’s leading designers to devise a workplace that was truly agile – one in which workers would have unprecedented control over how their environment looks, feels and functions. The teams shortlisted during our Frame Awards festival in February have now been invited to take part in a series of #FrameLive virtual workshops where they can road test their concepts against a panel of industry experts. Our third and final workshop event featured finalists Workplace Solutions, who envisioned an office system that would learn employee habits over time and intuitively adjust the environment to suit.

A ceiling grid with moving walls that provide adaptability of space and flexible furniture setups that can be configured however you want: the picture of the perfect agile office that allows for myriad tasks to be executed. Or not? Kicking off the Zoom workshop, Dominika Zielińska of Polish practice Workspace Solutions made us question whether the prevailing ideas of what an agile office should look like actually align with employee needs. An abundance of options for spatial alteration, the team believes, can lead to stress and depletion. But how, then, do you create a space that works for work?  It’s a question that’s not easily answered, but, as said Workspace Solutions’ Aleksandra Piotrkowicz, it all starts with building our self-awareness – as humans, not just as employees. People need to learn how they are impacted by anything from how they feel in the moment to the task they need to execute, before they can make a conscious choice about their preferred environmental settings.

This is even more important now that we are forced to work from home more due to the pandemic. As a result, we need to perform outside our office pre-set and think about what we really require to be effective in doing so. Workspace Solutions was able to collaborate with research company Leesman on a Home Working Survey, which totalled over 10,000 respondents and showed that work settings highly affect our work experiences. People that have a separate space dedicated to work, for example, showed higher satisfaction levels than those who don’t.

To highlight the importance of building self-awareness as the starting point for building an effective agile work environment, Workspace Solutions proposes to employ the fairground of Orgatec as a kind of organic research playground that reimagines the office as a ‘dance floor’. Here, the team will engage visitors in a participatory process by means of a dashboard, to be further defined, into which users can input their personal preferences based on a range of parameters. Ultimately, the idea is that such a system could help create offices that respond to the collective mood of its occupants, and thus free workers of continually having to tailor their surroundings.

What such a workspace might look like, what the key considerations for shaping it are and which parameters to base it on were topics discussed by a panel of industry experts consisting of Beatrice Arantes, manager of the WorkSpace Futures Group at Steelcase, and Dr Ninela Ivanova, innovation fellow at the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art. We dissected four points-of-action that arose from the talk.

Facilitate a variety of tasks

'Space can support different ways of thinking, and different tasks require these different ways of thinking,’ explained Arantes. Referencing an experiment in which her colleague Caroline Kelly observed what type of spaces are most effective for certain tasks, she concluded that enclosed environments are much more so for focused work, while open-plan environments were found more conducive for creative thinking. It’s easily explained: ‘In enclosed environments you don’t have to use part of your focus to monitor yourself and your environment – or worry about how people perceive you and how to behave. When you are trying to think creatively, however, it helps to have a broader perspective, both literally and figuratively.’ When it comes to getting a mental refresh, Arantes pointed out the benefits of biophilia. 'Sensorial-rich environments – ones that stimulate you with different colours and textures – help engage your mind in a more effortless fascination and mindfulness.’

Space can support different ways of thinking

Ivanova agrees with the importance of looking into different work routines. She called to attention a research project at the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art, which focuses on designing for knowledge workers. Leading researcher Catherine Green mapped the mobility of workers to better understand their needs. 'Four distinct “types” came out,’ said Ivanova. 'The Anchor, who is desk-bound, and for whom comfort is incredibly important; the Connecter, who moves around within the building a lot and needs a more adaptive environment; the Gatherer, who’s both in and out of the office and is in need of recognition of being part of the team; and lastly, the Navigator, who spends most time outside of the office walls and requires a ‘hot desk’ that’s welcoming and able to be personalized.’

Factor in human variability

Arantes, who specializes in human emotion and behaviour and how they relate to work, brought up the neuroscience of paying attention and the different stimuli we need individually to reach a point of focus. ‘The key factor that allows us to pay attention has to do with how alert we are – the notion of psychological arousal,’ she pointed out. 'Sound, light intensity and many other environmental and circumstantial factors have an effect on that. But what’s important is to realize that everybody has different levels of sensibility and therefore will need different stimuli to reach that optimal zone of attention.'

Also recognizing such variety, Ivanova, whose work focuses on exploring inclusive design for business impact, points out the importance of creating design processes and solutions that centre around people who are different – across gender, race and age. 'I think in this day and age inclusive design – defined as including the needs of the widest number of people in your design – is ever more important.

People require coaching to understand how to use a space or collection with infinitive permutations and combinations

Limit, don’t eliminate, choice

Referring to Daniel Goleman’s theory about emotional intelligence, Arantes explained that in order to self-influence – meaning getting ourselves to our most effective state of attention – we need greater self-awareness. But that’s something you need to train. And to find out more about your personal preferences, it’s better to go through a set of curated experiences than to be overwhelmed by choice. ‘We have seen throughout the years that for people that have never had the opportunity to experiment with their environments – who have been told for years to work behind their desk – it’s difficult to articulate their ideal environment,’ said Arantes. ‘The opportunity to experiment with things in a much more limited [range of] choices is helpful for people who are novices and need to build experience to, over time, learn what they like. This applies to agile workspaces and flexible furniture, too. People require coaching to understand how to use a space or collection with infinitive permutations and combinations.’

Secure a sense of control

Ivanova praised Workspace Solutions’ idea that to create agility we need some sort of structure and tools of self-expression for different people to become part of the organizational purpose. Research executed by the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art in 2015 showed a strong relationship between wellbeing and sense of control. The purpose was to identify which aspects of workspace design are most essential to wellbeing. Both functional and psychological needs were explored – against the backdrop of data that 23 million working days in the UK were lost in 2014 due to work-related illnesses such as stress, depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal problems. What transpired was a need for a sense of control. 'Irrespective of the level of intervention, so high or low, participants reported improved wellbeing,’ said Ivanova. ‘To have a say makes people feel included. That means the organizational purpose needs to be aligned with individual needs, both functional and psychological.’