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The rise of agile offices

In a new world of agile offices, Alistair Shove, commercial sales manager at IVC Commercial, explains how contractors can respond with flooring to embrace open design and respond to the needs of users.

EVEN before Covid-19, we were seeing offices become multi-purpose spaces that weren’t just there to facilitate daily tasks but also to provide opportunities for collaboration, collective experience, and teamwork. Designers were metaphorically and literally breaking down walls by opening spaces, using design and materials to define areas.

Covid-19 simply accelerated and magnified this change by giving companies the opportunity to examine the office portfolio and re-evaluate their approach against a reduced daily headcount.

Certainly, one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic on the design of offices is in the change to working practices and an awareness of how a flexible approach to life in the office can bring benefits not just for employees, but also for companies.

It’s extremely likely that, for many of these organisations, the adoption of flexible working practices is here to stay. So in many cases, office design is now less about having to accommodate a set number of desks and more about how the space can meet the varied needs of employees.

Therefore, designers need to consider how the office will respond across a wider range of use scenarios than ever before. Allowing sufficient desking for those that prefer – or need – to be based in the office full time, providing space for transient workers to carry out individual tasks, areas for team projects, private meeting booths, remote conferencing, and breakout zones; they’re now all part of the mix.

Yet, if the pandemic has taught us one thing it’s that the future isn’t certain and so clients are also demanding these offices are futureproofed – they really don’t want to be caught out again. Designers are having to find ways to ensure their office designs can adapt to change.

Making things as mobile as possible is a great way to ensure these ‘agile’ offices evolve and adapt with the changing needs of the business. As an example of this in action, many offices now feature high-backed pod style furniture that provides privacy, yet which can also be relocated – suiting flexible workers in the immediate term while easily ‘switchable’ if more hard desks are required in the future.

Acoustically insulated meeting booths are also popular additions. Again, other than ensuring access to IT infrastructure, these can be relocated without adversely affecting the fabric of the interior. Of course, there are some things that it’s impossible to relocate easily – kitchen areas being one – but again these can be adaptable by the clever selection of the furniture used.

Yet, unlike wheeling away the foosball table to make way for another desk or two, the floor isn’t a mobile or changeable part of the design, at least not without considerable upheaval, so what approaches are designers taking to ensuring the floor can support the principle of multi-purpose, agile offices?

Well, in recent years there’s certainly been a shift to embracing different flooring types within the space and arguably this has been down to the changing nature of office environments. Whereas once, a different colour or pattern of carpet tile might be used to create a ‘corridor’ between two departments in an open plan working area, designers are now using alternative finishes to separate a collaboration area from hard desking, or a contemplation area from breakout and catering zones. Mixing floor types in this way is now one of the main tools used by designers to breakup areas.

How this perpetuates itself within the office varies from design to design.

There are as many examples of organic flowing transitions as there are of angular, hard edges. The approach depends largely on the brief and its interpretation by the project team, but the underlying principle is the same – the floor becomes a way of breaking up the space.

This has one major advantage: it can be used to mark out areas within the office without pigeon-holing them into a sole function. Effectively, it’s replacing permanent, immovable barriers between areas or fixed objects with a visual guide that can be adapted for a different use simply with a change of furniture.

Naturally, designers are also keen to make sure the spaces they create are engaging environments that make employees want to spend time there. Ditto, clients are also looking for a space that encourages people to return to the office. The negative impact of less human-to-human contact among teams and the impact on mental health of long periods of working from home – definite downsides of Covid-19 – are being referenced in many conversations.

In response to these worries, the move from formal workplaces to environments that feel less stuffy and more like home has certainly gained momentum. With bars, kitchen islands and games areas; a day in the office becomes an experience that employees want to be a part of rather than a place they must be five days a week, nine-to-five. Offices have become more social spaces that foster relationships and again the floor has a role to play.

Carpet tiles are something of a given for desking and contemplation areas, boardrooms and the like owing to their excellent comfort and acoustic performance, but LVT floors have been widely adopted elsewhere. This isn’t only for their durability and ease of maintenance – there are fewer more practical floor finishes in these environments – but also in the ability to mimic natural materials; a wood-effect LVT is a great way to bring a home-like feel in a collaboration area or breakout space.

A natural look builds a connection to nature – helping to relax – while the change of surface material gives mental separation between an area of concentration and work, and one that’s about socialising and building relationships.

The floor enters the dialogue of employee wellbeing and designers can use it as a tool that not only breaks up the office, but that also contributes to the varied perceptions of the space necessary to create a diverse environment that can support everyone’s wellbeing.
However, despite many positives, these engaging and warm designs aren’t without drawbacks. Apart from the wider debate circling the need to accommodate introverts as well as extroverts in the modern office, one of the most significant challenges is a practical one. With less sound-absorbing surfaces and fewer floor-to-ceiling divides within the space, noise is certainly a factor that designers are acutely aware of.

There’s certainly nothing more off-putting or infuriating than excessive background noise during a Teams conference and noise is well documented as a contributory factor in stress and having an adverse effect on productivity.

Designers do use furniture, panels, booths, and absorbing fabrics to provide as many opportunities for isolation as possible, but as the largest surface within the interior the floor can also be used as a key acoustic isolator. Indeed, with the dominant use of carpet tiles in working areas designers have been doing this by default, but the move to multiple flooring types within offices may see additional guidance needed in the use of flooring for noise reduction. Certainly, as a relatively recent development, awareness of these solutions needs to be improved.

For example, engineered LVT with built-in acoustic underlays can significantly reduce the noise of footsteps and movement while still providing a natural look that supports the design goal for a home-like feel. In turn this makes it easier for designers to create multi-use areas, maybe even letting them explore working spaces that also use LVT as a primary floor covering and negating client concerns over hard surfaces being noisy.

All in all, it’s an exciting time to be involved in office interiors. Designers are breaking down traditional barriers and clients are broadly welcoming the change, despite it being slightly forced upon them by the pandemic.

There seems to have been a real change in attitude and understanding in the importance of making offices attractive places to be for employees. And thanks to less demand on desks, there’s more freedom to create a better environment.

Undoubtedly, the growing prominence of wellbeing in the workplace and its impact on morale and productivity is another contributory factor in the adoption of these new office design principles and it should also be recognised as a strong indicator of future direction.
The move to flexible and hybrid working, the rise of agile offices and a focus on wellbeing have been largely beneficial for flooring. In combination, they’ve certainly fuelled new interest in how flooring can be used to support design goals of agility, while also meeting the practical demands, including a need to deliver acoustic, office-focused performance across more than just carpet tiles.

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