The Value of Workplace Flexibility

Offering employees a chance to connect with coworkers in the workplace can increase in-office attendance. Confidential Client, Lehi, UT. Photography © James Florio.

Offering employees a chance to connect with coworkers in the workplace can increase in-office attendance. Confidential Client, Lehi, UT. Photography © James Florio.

As the trend of corporate workplace design has shifted toward an open concept, workplaces have struggled to find the appropriate level of ancillary space to balance so much public work space. As designers, we’ve been tasked with providing creative solutions to find the perfect balance utilizing an array of: 

  • free-address or unassigned work arrangements

  • hoteling stations within the open office

  • work lounges or break areas that can also double as informal collaboration hubs or secondary workplaces

  • soft seating clusters within the open office or in conference areas

  • dedicated phone rooms and associated work surfaces

Simultaneously, however, there is a growing desire to give employees flexible work arrangements (where employees are allowed to work remotely part- or full-time, sometimes with flexible schedules). A recent survey by Buffer shows that 99% of respondents desired to work remotely to some degree, and a 2018 study by Zug suggests that 70% of Americans already do. 

In considering how to balance these industry influences and design spaces that enhance the work experience for flexible and more traditional employees, it's important to keep in mind how employees and employers view the flexible work arrangement (FWA). This can inform design and workplace strategy teams in deciding how much of a given space type is necessary.

A recent study of workplace flexibility by ESCP Europe's, Madrid Campus may shed some light on this. Researchers focused on how employees experience and define flexible working and how individuals live, work, function, and mediate perceived tensions created by flexible working. Since the concept can vacillate between the employee’s understanding of flexibility and a set of practices defined by HR, flexibility has typically been studied as an employer-centric practice that allows organizations to adapt to competitive needs. This latest study took an alternate stance and examined flexibility as an employee-focused practice that allows individuals to manage themselves to improve their work/life balance.

The Study

Focusing their efforts on data collected from interviews with employees from the global consulting firm Minerva, researchers surveyed a select sample of employees and the HR Director. The principal interview questions included:

  1. What does flexible work mean to you?

  2. What is your experience of flexible working in this firm?

  3. How would you characterize this experience?

Employees were then given the opportunity to provide personal interpretations of their flexible working experiences.

The Results

The survey revealed that flexible working was experienced as an informal but routine way of working for some employees. Many employees within the firm did not have what they considered to be a flexible work arrangement. The study points out that in most organizations there is a vague common definition of flexible work, and because of that there are a wide variety of experiences to be had. Employees who did work flexibly understood that it was something provided to them by their company and that it must be self-managed

Researchers were able to group employees’ definitions of flexible working into a set of categories where the flexibility was either viewed as a contribution to the employer, or as an inducement for the employee (or both).

Researchers were able to group employees’ definitions of flexible working into a set of categories where the flexibility was either viewed as a contribution to the employer, or as an inducement for the employee (or both).

The study also found an alternate point of view that defined such an arrangement as a natural response to fluctuating work demands that largely benefited employers. But most employees seemed to experience varying degrees of both of these understandings, and researchers determined that, among other factors, flexibility was viewed as more of an inducement or a contribution depending on things like workload and levels of employee autonomy. There is a perceived push and pull between these two worlds and the pendulum is constantly swinging between them. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the individual to carve out their own rules and regulations for flexible working while adhering to basic HR policies.