Designing and measuring an agile workplace

Designing and measuring an agile workplace
February 27, 2022
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Countless studies suggest that flexibility is the future. Data compiled by CBRE shows that before COVID-19 only 37% of employees wanted a flexible work experience; that number is now 56%.

But flexible work isn’t only allowing employees to work from home. Flexiblity as a concept must become a part of your workplace design as well.

In the post-pandemic hybrid work era, employees aren't coming to the office because they have to. They're coming for a specific purpose — and that purpose can vary greatly.

They may want to collaborate with teammates, collaborate with colleagues from across the org, or may want to reserve a space for heads-down work.

As a result, ideas like an agile workplace are getting broad mindshare among executives across every industry. It's the best of both worlds — the office remains relevant, and employees get the flexibility and and out of the office that they desire.

The benefits of an agile work environment

Productivity is personal. Your employees perform their best work when you empower them to work when, where, and how they want. The traditional office, with rows and rows of assigned desks, is often no longer sufficient for the many workstyles of the modern employee.

Activity-based working, or an agile work environment, encourages a shared variety of space types that support the task at hand, whether that's group work, collaborating, brainstorming meetings, or heads-down work.

70% of U.S. office workers report wanting to return to office for three days a week or more and support a hybrid work schedule.

An agile office design often comprises soft-seating, reservable hot desking, meeting rooms, breakout spaces, and quiet spaces (like phone booths or cubicles), collaborative spaces, and cafes.

While these are standard space types of an agile or activity-based workplace, they're not mandated. You choose which agile space (and how much of each space) is best for your team. And an agile workspace that's best for your team today may not be the case six months from now, which is why informed agility is a critical component of an activity-based workplace.

Informed agility means using data to make real-time decisions. At the foundation of this informed agility is the feedback loop.

Improve your agile workplace with a feedback loop

You should create a workplace feedback loop through both qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitative data provides context from the employee perspective. Atlassian, for example, holds quarterly employee focus groups and uses feedback from these sessions to inform space decisions.

"If people understand that you're actually listening to them, there is a trust that is formed," says Omar Ramirez (formerly the Senior Program Manager of Workplace R&D at Atlassian). "Then, they are more likely to give you more feedback — and that creates more data for you to work with."

But qualitative data can be unreliable or misleading — particularly following something so cataclysmal as a pandemic.

The emotions you feel when taking any survey don't often correlate with the behavior patterns you unknowingly showcase.

For example, remote work has proven both popular and effective. But many employees appreciate the office for a healthy boundary between work and home. If you were to survey your employees in Q2 of 2021, many might say they'll spend more time at the office than at home.

That might not be the case in Q3 when these same team members tire of the commute and office distractions.

No matter what they say on an employee survey, people will always vote with their feet for the spaces they prefer.

Successful activity-based workplaces find a balance between these different data points. They gather clear and indisputable space utilization metrics and add context through employee feedback. They then implement those findings to improve the workspace based on how space is actually used.

A closer look at the agile workplace methodology

A perk of the agile workplace is it can look and feel however is best for your team. That said, agile spaces can be categorized into three workspace types:

  • Informal collaborations
  • Formal collaborations, and
  • Heads-down work

Below, we break down the elements of an agile work environment to help you understand what answers you need to ensure each space — and your workplace as a whole — is designed to:

  • Reduce real estate costs
  • Create better employee experience
  • Improve employee satisfaction and retention

Informal collaborations


Soft-seating, cafes, kitchens

Use of space

Huddles, brainstorms, and quick syncs. Casual collisions and cross-department collaboration

What data can uncover

  1. Are these the types of spaces drawing people into the office? Most work can be done from home, potentially limiting the volume of informal collaborations in-office. But spontaneity is a critical component of creativity. Do employees come to the office because these spaces make it easier to feel connected with colleagues?
  2. If so, which spaces, in particular, get the most use? Knowing this can determine which space types to remove, which to expand, and which might need signage. One workplace manager, for example, told us how no one used soft-seating outside of a conference room. When he dug deeper, he discovered no one knew why those soft-seats were there. Signage helped.
  3. How does reconfiguring these spaces impact utilization? AB testing is at the heart of the new workplace. The more you test, the closer you get to the truth. If a cafe with stand-up desks has high occupancy levels, replicate that design elsewhere. How does this impact utilization across both spaces? If soft-seating outside conference rooms get little use, try relocating these seats elsewhere.

Formal collaborations


Conference and meeting rooms

Use of space

Group work, presentations, and detailed planning

What data can uncover

  1. Is this space being used the way it was designed for? It's always surprising to find out just how frequently a meeting room is misused. One of our customers, for example, used Density data to discover that her 10-person meeting room was primarily used by one person at a time. This data helped her choose not to expand her footprint. She reconfigured her existing footplate instead.
  2. What's the optimal size we should make our conference rooms? Data will help you determine how frequently your meeting rooms are used and by how many people at any given time. But beware of where you turn to for this data. We know one global company, for example, that used Google Calendar data to determine meeting room utilization. But Google Calendar only tells you how many people were invited; it doesn't tell you who actually showed up and for how long. Another company required one person to swipe in before every meeting to acknowledge the meeting took place. But that doesn't tell you how many people actually showed up. There is always a bit of disparity between who is physically present for meetings vs. who is shown on the calendar invite.

That's a thing we've been trying to solve recently by working with Density. Who is physically present for meetings vs. who is shown on the calendar invite?" — Omar Ramirez, Atlassian

Heads-down work


Reservable pods, phone booths, and quiet-zone workstations

Use of space

Focused work, admin work

What data can uncover

  1. Are these desks available now, or are they currently occupied? Reservable desks have the same data issues as meeting rooms — just because someone reserves a desk doesn't mean they're using it. They might not have come into work. They might be in meetings. Knowing how often your desks are used will help you determine how best to design your space (it also helps you better understand when to sanitize workstations).
  2. How long is average dwell time and peak occupancy for desks? Gathering this data will help you understand and adapt to use patterns. Do you need 15 workstations throughout the day? Should you encourage more people to work from home to maintain your ideal occupancy level? Is human load balancing required (by reassigning teams to different floors or staggering schedules)?
  3. Do we still need all these desks? How many should we take out? Twilio is undergoing this type of transformation now. Up to 30% of its office space located across the globe — previously dedicated to assigned seating — could eventually make way for hackable scrum spaces (spaces where employees can reconfigure the furniture as needed). But Twilio's workplace team isn't relying on hunches to make this type of widespread change.
  4. "We're going to beta this in a few of the larger offices," says Devorah Rosner, Sr. Manager of Global Workplace Operations of Twilio, "to model it, to test it, to measure it, and to see how our spaces are actually being used, not how we think they're going to be used."
  5. Twilio's approach is an interesting take on ABW. Most activity-based workplaces design environments that employees move to based on their needs. With Twilio's dynamic spaces, employees can change their current environment to meet their needs.

4 ways to measure an agile workplace

Square-feet calculations

For decades, calculating square foot per employee seemed to accurately measure the average space employees use (and need). But in an agile workplace, employees from the same teams may work remotely and collaborate across departments. Many employees don't come into the office every day — if they come into the office at all.

Some employees spend their days in and out of various buildings connecting with numerous teams. Others visit clients and track down sales prospects in the field. Employee behavior is unpredictable.

A simple calculation is insufficient for agile work — even for companies with an office-first culture. One customer we work with had an office-first culture pre-COVID. They've always used square footage to make space decisions and were in the process of reducing their space demand from 175 square feet to 125 square feet per employee.

But the pandemic shifted their office-first company culture. The CEO now realizes his workforce can work remotely — calculations using headcount can no longer identify their actual space needs.

Badge swipe data

We've asked hundreds of workplace strategists over the years how they use data to assess space needs. Many say they use badge data.

On the surface, this makes sense. Many companies already have a badge system set up to restrict access to spaces. So, they choose to use it to count people as well. But things get interesting when we ask these strategists to explain their process for getting this data. It’s painful.

By the time the workplace team gets usable data, it's 30-60 days in arrears. The data is no longer relevant or trustworthy.

Yet time after time, workplace managers admit

they go through these steps — to say they're doing something.

Even if the process was less painful, badge data is incomplete. Badge data doesn't tell you how long an employee stayed in your space or what they did when inside. It doesn't discern from the engineer who's there for 8 hours and the salesperson who stopped in for a quick call. This has always been a problem with badge data.

That problem is even more profound in an agile workplace.

It's no longer just salespeople using offices as pitstops. A bulk of work can and will be done at home. Employees are more likely to visit the office for meetings and social purposes only.

Badge data is best for what it’s designed to do: Restrict access. Most companies know this, which is why many have historically commissioned manual workplace studies to triangulate the badge data. But not even workplace studies can keep up with the flexible future of our industry.

Manual workplace studies

A globally recognizable company we work with spends $750,000 yearly to conduct quarterly workplace studies at just one location — and they have nearly two dozen locations worldwide.

Despite this investment, our client knows the data from these studies is faulty — it doesn’t age well.

Don't get us wrong — there is value to these reports. They provide qualitative insights hard to acquire elsewhere (example: “Three individuals stayed in a conference room for approximately 15 minutes after a meeting had concluded to socialize and finish their coffee”). But in an agile workplace, data from these workplace studies can be inaccurate and outdated.

This snapshot in time doesn't capture the versatility of the new workplace. Workplace study observers witness a small amount of activity at a given time. Static observations don't offer comprehensive insights into how buildings, floors, rooms, and areas are used and adapted over time.

The accuracy of this data can also be affected by human behavior. People act differently when they are watched. It's human nature and has a name — The Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect occurs when people behave differently because they know they are being watched. A study of hand-washing among

medical staff found that when the staff knew they were being watched, compliance with hand-washing was 55% greater than when they were not being watched5.

Now imagine if you know your dedicated space is at stake. Would you act differently? Clients have told us stories of how employees show up early in the morning or sit at their desks more than usual during these studies. The employee who usually takes up a 12-person conference room for an hour opts not to for fear of retribution.

This ability to manipulate perception is a flaw in manual studies. Manual studies rely on human observations. Humans literally walk through your workspace, counting the number of occupants and jotting down activities people are doing during the observation. But what does occupied mean? Does a jacket on a desk mean that someone's using that desk? Or could the owner of the jacket be at meetings for most of the day?

When it comes to making million-dollar decisions, getting this data right matters. Employees are less likely to alter their natural behavior patterns if they know the data you capture is anonymous.

Workplace analytics

The office is evolving into a social hub for in depth-collaboration and learning opportunities. At the same time, many employees still want the choice of using private workspaces when needed. How do you know what your employees want and need? You observe how they interact with your space and adjust accordingly.

Continuous utilization data is the keystone to enabling an agile workplace. When it comes to data, the longer you can capture it, the more accurate it is. Continuous data makes it easy to not only identify trends but to justify decisions. Employees will be less likely to think office politics is behind a workplace decision.

Capturing data over the long-term leads to better long-term company-wide decisions, like do you need more conference rooms? Do you need a bigger kitchen? Do you need less space?

One of our customers has over 30 offices worldwide and employs more than 6,000 people globally. They initially deployed Density to help them reopen safely in response to COVID-19. But the continuous data Density sensors capture have helped various teams across their organization make better-informed decisions.

The real estate team uses Density's historical data to evaluate space monthly and quarterly and validate their investments. Density helps them measure the success of these spaces by providing reliable aggregate usage data in easy-to-digest reports over time.

The workplace team uses Density data to ensure offices don't exceed safe capacities, food doesn't get wasted, and cleaning crews know where to service.

Their security teams rely on Density's data for emergency preparedness. In case of an emergency, Density's platform (Atlas) can identify exactly where people are so the security team can dispatch personnel appropriately. This feature removes the guesswork in moments when every second counts.

Another customer, Envoy, deployed Density long before the pandemic as a way to gather data that would predict employee needs. Initially, Matt Harris, the Head of Workplace Technology at Envoy at the time, was drawn to Density because of its design.

“You can really imagine it in your space,” he explained. But what he loved most about Density is our sensors are easy to install and don't capture PII.

Harris and his team were so impressed with the accuracy of Density's data that they moved our sensors into smaller spaces (like conference rooms) so they could A/B test space designs for better optimization.


Regardless of whether you employ an agile methodology in your offices, there's no denying that the purpose of the workplace is changing. Employees don't have to come to the office to be productive. Workplace managers need to be agile with their workplace designs to maintain efficiency and a positive workplace experience.