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Interior designer Caroline Robbie, in her Toronto office, says people want more flexibility from their workspaces.

At first glance, Caroline Robbie’s workplace looks similar to the many other offices located in downtown Toronto: open concept, where employees mostly sit together. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see that there’s a lot more to it than that.

Employees at Ms. Robbie’s firm, architecture and interior design firm Quadrangle, can collaborate in the main, open-concept part of the office. But when they want to make a call, do more focused work or run a meeting, they have a range of private spaces to use – steps from their desks. “It’s all about the changing rhythm throughout the day,” says Ms. Robbie, a principal at Quadrangle.

She often sits down with a colleague in a soundproof cubicle known as a phone booth. “That room, which is comfortable for two, gets the most use in our studio,” she says.

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Ms. Robbie’s workplace, which her company designed – it creates similar spaces for clients – is a new breed of office space, and one that may be making employees happier and healthier.

According to a growing body of research, the open-concept office, which has become the standard space for companies big and small, can have a negative impact on people’s health. One study found that employees in open-plan spaces are 62 per cent more likely to take a sick day than those with a closed office, while other research has found that open-concept spaces, especially noisy ones, can increase stress and anxiety among staff.

What Robbie and others are designing are called agile workplaces. These are offices that allow people to be in an open office at a desk when it makes sense, but then move into private spaces when they need to make a phone call, have a meeting with one other person or just get away from co-workers.

Along with open desks or cubicles, these offices contain small rooms that one or two people can use, different meeting areas of various sizes – some are closed and soundproof while others might be open – and various kinds of furniture, including standing desks, chairs on wheels or comfy couches.

“People who feel they have control over how and where they work tend to feel less stress as a result of their work environments. Having choice is empowering for employees,” says Jennifer Elia, Sun Life Financial’s assistant vice-president of integrated health solutions. “And agile workplaces often go hand in hand with overall workplace flexibility.”

Easier to go agile

More companies are adopting these kinds of spaces because of their health benefits, but also because technology – which has changed how we work and where we are comfortable working – makes agile easier to do. Now, people can just pick up their laptops, move to a new room and get to work.

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Those without agile spaces often find that employees do just that anyway. But instead of staying in the office, they’re leaving to work from home or in a coffee shop.

When Sun Life was planning a move a few years ago, consolidating two downtown Toronto offices, Ms. Elia explains how swipe-card data was used to track work habits. Sun Life discovered that while 90 per cent of space was devoted to individual workstations such as offices and open-concept cubicles, a shocking 40 per cent was vacant at any given time. Employees were either in meeting rooms, visiting clients, working at home, travelling or working at one of the company’s other offices.

According to Lisa Fulford-Roy, managing director of workplace strategy at CBRE in Toronto, desks sitting empty for more than half the time is common for many organizations. Executives are the worst culprits: Many C-suite occupants are hardly ever in their roomy offices.

Meanwhile, three people will use a boardroom intended for 10 or more – it’s a waste of space, and those meetings can feel awkward. “The bigger you make a meeting room, the less it will be used,” says Ms. Robbie.

Companies that have a limited number of rooms for collaboration or meetings find that those spaces, especially the small ones, are in high demand. “We struggled daily to find space for collaboration. People would wait outside meeting rooms, hoping to get in for a quiet conversation or phone call,” says Ms. Elia.

The business case

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Now, a wide range of industries are renovating or moving to more agile spaces. “Any company that has a large proportion of their staff that is consulting or spending time out of the office for any reason would be a good candidate to go agile,” says Ms. Elia.

Agile design can also help the bottom line in a number of ways, such as increasing productivity and boosting retention rates, as happier employees tend to stick around longer. But it’s also reducing stress. “What we’ve been learning over the last 10 years is that when people are distracted or stressed, they’re not productive,” says Ms. Fulford-Roy.

Agile lets different employees with different kinds of jobs move around to help them work better and more happily. As a positive side effect, this very act of moving is good for health, and may encourage people to go out for walks and head to the kitchen or an outdoor space to eat lunch, says Ms. Elia. Meanwhile, people from farther reaches of an organization are more likely to run into each other, which can foster a sense of community at work.

Moving to this kind of workspace can be bumpy. Most people don’t like change in the short term, even if it’s a good idea. Those who cannot move around during the day – they have a lot of paperwork and files to manage, for instance, or must use specific technology – or who work with sensitive information, must be accommodated, too. After all, not everyone will work in an agile way, even in a mostly agile space.

Indeed, the most successful agile upgrade will have to assess a company’s culture and the work their employees do. “Today’s workspaces need to align with the work we’re doing,” says Ms. Elia. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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