How to design your office to support the 3 most common work styles

The workplace has seen more evolution since 2020 than it has for decades. 

The demand for flexible work environments is higher than ever before, and people no longer come into the office because they have to. They come for a specific purpose — and that purpose can vary from day to day and person to person.

Employees want offices that support the type of work they need to do, whether that’s agile, collaborative, or focused. 

“[An employee’s] agenda is fluctuating during the day. I can have a need for focused time in the morning, then I want to be social, then I want to go to a training, and all of this can be at hand in an office that has a proper function in different areas,” Nellie Hayat, Workplace Innovation Lead at Density, says.

Redesigning your office to accommodate multiple work styles may seem overwhelming — perhaps even impossible — but that’s not the case. You just need to know how your space is used. 

A modern office redesign that focuses on dynamic functionality and comfort rewards you with increased productivity and better employee engagement, not to mention the potential for money-saving discoveries about how much square footage you actually need

What are the most common work styles?

Three of the most common work styles are agile or activity-based, collaborative, and focused. Each type of work comes with its own office design needs.

Agile/activity-based work

An agile workplace is an environment designed around flexibility. Unlike a traditional office — with assigned desks and stations — an agile workplace is based around activity. It encourages people to move freely through the workplace, making use of the spaces that best fit their needs for the type of work they are doing. 

Collaborative work

Collaborative work is about people working together. It brings a group of people together — regardless of their corporate hierarchy — to work on a project that helps achieve the team’s goals. It’s a productive way to bring people together to accomplish something and feel included. Collaborative workplaces tend to be more effective, have higher retention, and are often more profitable.

Focused work

Focused work involves dedicated head-down time to complete a specific task. It is performed solo, typically focused on a specific need, and is free from distraction. Focused work is when deep work is often completed. Cal Newport coined the term deep work to mean distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. 

Workplace designs

Each type of work requires a different design to be effective. Here are ideas on how to design workspaces that complement the most common work styles. 

Agile work requires dynamic office designs

Agile work focuses on a project’s end result rather than the method used to get there. This empowers employees or teams to determine where, when, and how they’ll complete their work. Teams that take an agile approach need a variety of workspace options, so reconfigurable furniture and floor plans are essential. 

Twilio has taken this approach with its offices.

“We’re reallocating those spaces as hackable spaces, scrum spaces. We’re calling them dynamic spaces, where furniture is reconfigurable. It’s no longer one-size-fits-all. It allows more variety to meet people where they are, to work how they work,” says Devorah Rosner, Senior Manager of Global Workplace Operations.

By default, an agile office will include spaces for the two other common types of work — collaborative and focused. The critical difference for agile design is that there are no hard rules about how workers use an area. Employees should feel comfortable making dynamic changes to any available office areas to make them suit their needs at the moment. 

Dynamic office furniture, such as standing desk converters and easy-to-move pieces, are great options for an agile office design.

2. Collaborative work benefits from a mix of formal and informal meeting areas

Collaborative work can be formal (presentations and detailed project planning) or informal (brainstorming sessions and casual collisions). For informal collaboration workspaces, think soft seating in casual groupings. An open area that doesn’t see much through-traffic is a great spot to set up an informal meeting space. 

Formal collaborations are best held in an enclosed space to ensure there aren’t any distractions. They also benefit from technology-enabled assets such as smart whiteboards and video conferencing software. A structured meeting room with the right technologies helps employees improve focus and productivity.

It’s important to have multiple spaces that support both types of collaboration to reduce or eliminate instances where a team is left with an inappropriate space because the others are in use. When the collaborative space doesn’t match the type of work employees need to do, it can negatively affect the team’s performance. 

If you have only one informal meeting area and it’s occupied, a small team of three will be stuck having what should be an intimate meeting in a space that doesn’t encourage relaxed discussions or brainstorming. Or, they’ll have to postpone their meeting and find another time when everyone can meet, disrupting the rest of the day’s schedule and creating unnecessary frustration.

The final section of the article covers how to determine the number of each type of space you need.

3. Focused work calls for quiet areas and reservable workstations

Pre-pandemic offices were largely designed around focused work. Employees had dedicated desks where they spent most of the workday. Since the return to work, there’s been a shift in the industry mindset, and the office is now primarily a place for collaboration and socialization. 

Because employees were productive while working from home during mandatory lockdowns, many workplace leaders assume that employees will continue to do their focused work from home. But for some employees, working from home was not ideal, and while they made it work when they had to, it’s not a sustainable option for them.   

“There are individuals out there that want to do their best work but don’t have the luxury of working from home. So, that’s just like table stakes; you have to have some sort of optionality for employees to feel like they can do their best work in an office setting…where they can do their focused work,” says Mike Palladino, a strategic partnerships expert at Density.

Sameer Pangrekar, director of global workplace strategy at Twitter, agrees. “I think a lot of people talk about the office just being for collaboration and socialization, and I think that’s missing a big part of the picture if you inadvertently just assume that home is best for focused [work]. I think there’s a landscape of what people need,” he says.

Whether employees can’t work from home or prefer not to, they should have a space in the office available when they need it. If your office is more focused on collaboration and has limited space for independent work, consider providing employees with coworking passes to access a private workstation from a third-party site. 

If you have the space, you can help employees by carving out private or semi-private rooms where they can put their heads down and get to work without distractions. These can be office pods, phone booths, or reservable workstations placed in a quiet area of the office.

How much of each space type do you need in your workplace?

The major challenge with designing offices that support these three common work styles is knowing how many of each type of space you need. It’s tempting to want to jump right in with an office redesign, but this can lead to expensive mistakes and multiple disruptive iterations that prevent employees from settling into the office environment. 

You have a much better chance of getting these changes right on the first try if you collect information about how employees currently use the space. There are two main ways to do this:

  1. Compile the necessary data about traffic patterns, office hot spots, and occupancy rates through manual observation or
  2. By using automated technology such as occupancy sensors  

Manual observations can get you an educated guess about how many workstations you need or what day has the highest occupancy rate, but it opens the door for errors. There’s the inherent human bias to account for as well as other limitations, such as only being able to monitor a few areas at a time. 

The data collected from human observation is a guesstimate. It can get you started in the right direction, but you’ll likely need a time-consuming (and potentially expensive) trial-and-error process to reach the perfect design balance.

With sensor technology, you can monitor every area of your building in real-time. The data is unbiased and shows exactly how people vote with their feet for the spaces they prefer. Utilization data can uncover a wealth of details about your office that can inform how you redesign the space. 

Let’s say your sensor data shows that employees vastly prefer the soft seating areas to the ones with traditional office chairs. This provides an opportunity to add more soft seating throughout the space to improve employees’ comfort levels. 

Sensor data can also help you answer questions like these:

  • Which days have the lowest occupancy rates? You can help increase employee presence on those days by offering a perk such as a catered “Taco Tuesday” lunch. 
  • How many workstations does your office really need? You may be able to get rid of several desks to open up the space for a more agile design.
  • How many people are typically in a conference room at one time? You may find you can repurpose a few conference rooms, or alternately, that you need to expand conference room capacity to accommodate everyone more comfortably. 
  • Did someone reserve a conference room or desk station and then not use it? You can check this in real-time and release the hold to allow other employees access.
  • Are the changes you made having an impact on utilization? What new trends are emerging? After you start making changes to the office, occupancy data can help you A/B test the space to find out which changes give the best results.

Data-backed office design decisions reduce the chances of making costly misjudgments. At the same time, you also increase employees’ productivity, engagement, and morale, improving the ROI of your human capital. 

Devorah of Twilio explains an effective approach to data-backed office redesigns: “We’re going to beta [office design changes] in a few of the larger offices to model it, to test it, to measure it, to see how our spaces are actually being used, not how we think they’re going to be used.” 

With accurate utilization data and A/B testing, you can facilitate a cost-effective office design that supports a range of employee needs. And, even more importantly, it provides the information you need to stay flexible and respond wisely to the next evolution of the office.