The rise of the agile office

Alistair Shove from IVC Commercial looks at the rise in ‘agile’-based offices, and how architects can respond to the needs of users with flooring that embraces ‘open design’ post-pandemic

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 is 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. Designers need to consider how the office will respond across a wider range of use scenarios than ever before, as well as ensuring the spaces are future-proofed, and that their designs can adapt to change.

Making things as mobile as possible is a great way to ensure that these ‘agile’ offices evolve and adapt with the changing needs of the business. 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 being easily ‘switchable’ if more fixed desks are required in the future. Acoustically insulated meeting booths are also popular additions.

Laying out flooring options

The floor is not a mobile or changeable part of the design, at least not without considerable upheaval, so what approaches are designers taking to make sure the floor can support the principle of multi-purpose, agile offices?

In recent years there’s certainly been a shift to embracing different flooring types within a space; likely 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.

How this plays out 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.

Carpet tiles are something of a given for desking and contemplation areas, boardrooms and the like due to their excellent comfort and acoustic performance, but LVT floors have been widely adopted elsewhere. This is not only for their durability and ease of maintenance but also in their ability to mimic natural materials. A natural look builds a connection to nature 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. 

However, despite many positives, these engaging and warm designs are not 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 or Zoom conference, and noise is well documented as a contributory factor in stress and having an adverse effect on productivity.

Designers 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. 

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 design 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 have 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, productivity-focused performance across more than just carpet tiles.

Alistair Shove is commercial sales manager at IVC Commercial