Anticipate flexibility needs

May 2023


Marc Bertier

Marc Bertier

Workplace Strategy Expert

+33 1 82 97 02 02

Work environments are often the response to a need expressed at a given moment. However, change in organizations is constant and faster than change in locations, and it is not uncommon for a facility to be obsolete by the time it is delivered. That's what flexibility is all about. What are the different ways to approach it?

The objective of flexibility is to design places that will easily accommodate the evolutions of an organization. These evolutions can be: changes in the organizational structure (hierarchical/horizontal, functional, divisional, matrix, etc.), a modification of the working methods (dematerialization, agile, lean, etc.), of the working conditions (communication tools, digital, telecommuting, etc.), or of the workforce (growth, decrease) On a practical level, these evolutions will impact the work environment on its two components: quality and quantity.

In terms of quality, the work environment will have to adapt to new needs. How to use the same space for different purposes? A first typical example of this problem is a space that has to be adapted at one time to factory teams (or run, delivery...) and at another time to project teams. A second example is a space that has to respond to the transformation of a team's working methods, without changing its business. For example, how can the same space allow for the transition from hierarchical management to a more horizontal management style?

In most cases, flexibility is above all the possibility of changing uses while adapting certain spaces, in particular through reconfigurable furniture or new equipment. This form of flexibility is guaranteed by the implementation of programmatic structures. They function as ecosystems that take into account the types of spaces and their dimensions. There are programmatic structures for all the major types of needs (individual work, conviviality, collaboration-learning, support). In addition to these programmatic structures, there are technical structures, which are ways of designing the space to ensure its easy conversion. These technical structures constitute a base on which everyone can interchange spaces (or uses) according to their specificities.

In most cases, these structures are designed to be evolving. In others, they are thought to be finished and firm. In the latter cases, it is the occupants who adapt to the spaces.

Solutions based on adaptation are often perceived as the most desirable. They offer real levers for appropriating the space and, in the collective imagination, are easier to implement. In contrast, finite structures are perceived as more rigid and less desirable. The greater the disruption between the initial work environment and the target, the more difficult they will be to implement. Finite structures will however be more robust over time.

However, this adaptation approach risks becoming a brake on flexibility itself. The issue is not so much the readjustment of spaces as the resistance to change: an installed group will have to be brought on board for a change induced by a hierarchical or strategic decision which sometimes, as we shall see, does not always affect them directly. Contrary to the firm approach, the adaptation approach has an impact on the costs and time required to implement flexibility. In order to change, it will be necessary to negotiate with the various parties involved. In contrast, with the firm structure model, individuals and spaces continue to bend together to the demands of flexibility. Individuals adapt to existing spaces, and spaces are designed to be multi-use and adaptable to different uses.

These limits of flexibility only take into account qualitative changes (work modes, organization). However, these changes are frequently linked to quantitative changes: growth and decline of subgroups and/or the large group. Let's study in turn the flexibility needs induced by cases of growth and then decline.

The first case is that of a more or less homogeneous growth within an organization. The pressure to change is expressed in a uniform way and everyone is concerned. The responses are: increase in surface areas, implementation of space sharing, optimization of the sharing rate. The choices made at the time of the initial project are therefore decisive in ensuring the flexibility of the arrangements over time. When the organization does not have space reserves, the response will go beyond the real estate issue. It will question the working conditions (teleworking, in particular), the latter raising the question of working methods (dematerialization, for example) and, finally, the organizational structure itself (hybrid management). Allowing quantitative flexibility without transformation may be possible thanks to an a priori investment, but few are willing to do so. At the time the decision is made, the conditions are not always met to find additional space in the given location and timeframe. While everyone values flexibility, it remains difficult to take space that is destined to remain vacant for a more or less foreseeable future. And when it is possible, subletting often looks like a false friend: the spaces intended for it do not always find takers and when they are occupied, their release does not always match the needs of the organization.

A second case is that of a non-homogeneous growth in workforce. For example, a division that grows significantly, or a new division that is created. The same three major solutions are required, along with their impacts: increase in surface areas, implementation of space sharing, optimization of the sharing rate. The main difference with the previous case is that a pressure to change coming from one group will largely impact the other work groups. The subject then becomes managerial: why should those who are not impacted by the change also change? And why should they suffer the inconvenience of external changes? In both cases of growth management, the characteristics of the building, such as the quality of the initial programmatic structure, will be decisive. They will minimize (or not) the changes: teams scattered in a building, teams located in two zones.

The cases of downsizing mirror those of growth, except that unoccupied space must now be managed. Faced with downsizing, do organizations want to free up space? In this case, it is possible that this liberation requires a global reoccupation of spaces in order to constitute well occupied zones in order to free up empty surfaces. These reorganizations can be difficult to carry with the social body, and even sometimes with a management that believes in a better future. Also in other cases, the sprawl induced by the decrease will not be optimized.

These few cases show the unthought-out nature of flexibility. Some flexibilities (homogeneous, continuous) will be easier to absorb than others (heterogeneous, rapid). If flexibility is a virtue, it also has its shortcomings: a tendency to homogenize and generate changes for people indirectly concerned (cases of non-homogeneous growth, cases of decline). Finally, flexibility requires investments, the latter being financial (preliminary studies, space reserves, reconfigurable facilities), functional (adaptive or finite structures), human (change management) and strategic (space adapts to users or vice versa, rationalization or not). These different choices make it possible to evaluate flexibility according to an investment/cost/delay/human impact/change logic.

Release date: May 2023

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