Business Info explores the impact of flexible working on office desking
More and more workers are asking for flexible working arrangements. In a survey by XpertHR, 56% of UK employers said they had seen an increase in flexible working requests over the past two years.
Three out of four believe this is due to changes in workplace culture, attributable in part to the extension, in 2014, of the right to request flexible working to all employees with at least 26 weeks’ service.
The introduction of remote working and flexible start/finish times has freed employers from having to provide each office worker with their own desk and enabled them to use space more creatively, as Chris Batt, product sector manager at Herman Miller, explains.
“Over the last few years we have seen a shift away from high density uniform clusters of dedicated workstations to a much less formal office environment where individuals can choose where and how they work, with much more postural change supported throughout the office,” he said.
“When an individual wants to concentrate they can do this, but now they can choose if they want to sit or stand. If people want to work in a socially connected environment, rather than at a desk, they can choose a café or break-out area.”
Steve Bays, managing director at Century Office, says that compared to the boxed-in cubicles of the ‘80s today’s informal, open plan offices give workers much more freedom to move around and interact with colleagues.
“We’re now creating offices that boost collaboration and encourage employees to move around during the day and at regular intervals. Informal spaces, such as sofas, the office café, breakout pods and booths, allow for a change of scenery and a welcome excuse to step away from the desk. These areas also help to break down communication barriers, while increasing the opportunity for spontaneity,” he said.
Bays added: “Conversations made in these areas can lead to great ideas that may positively affect the future of the business.”
Health and wellbeing
For Steelcase UK brand manager Alexander Gifford, standard desks no longer offer the functionality workers need. Nor do they do enough to support the wellbeing of their users. Instead, modern solutions like the Steelcase Bivi desking system support a variety of postures and heights, as well as individual and collaborative work.
As Gifford put it: “With a more agile workforce, it is crucial that desking allows you to do more with less.”
While not a new idea, sit/stand desks that improve circulation and posture have become a workplace phenomenon over the last few years, as employers have begun to recognise the importance of ergonomics to the health, wellbeing and productivity of workers.
Chris Batt says that in this respect the modern office is getting closer to the vision of a healthy office expounded by Herman Miller researcher Robert Propst 50 years ago.
“In 1968, Robert Propst, designer, inventor and researcher at Herman Miller, wrote: ‘Man’s physical machine has evolved to do many things well but no single thing continuously. The office can be a kinetic, active, alert, vigorous environment’. His Action Office system featured a stand-up desk that he argued ‘would do more than anything else to overcome sedentary decline’. Herman Miller has offered standing surfaces ever since.”
Batt added: “Research has shown that a choice between sitting and standing combined with training on the benefits of standing is most effective at reducing sitting time, which has benefits for the individual and the organisation.”
More than 15 years ago, office furniture manufacturer DAS started designing height-adjustable desks that made it easier for IT and facilities team to access tech underneath desktops on bank trading floors. Lars Brown, account manager at DAS Business Furniture, says that since then their use has become much more widespread.
“Now, sit-stand desks are unquestionably the most sought-after solution as our clients are looking for furniture that is going to complement activity-based working. The little things count, too, such as electric controllers with programmable pre-sets, which make adjusting the height of the desk easier in a hot-desking environment,” he said.
Where to invest
Tony Antoniou, managing director of Rainbow, an independent supplier of office furniture, says that businesses of all sizes are now looking to integrate design elements that support flexible and agile working and that to do so some will some will seek to save money on desking.
“Those with limited budgets are purchasing the most cost-effective, but still visually pleasing and functional, desking ranges,” he said. “The company then allocates the money that they save to collaborative furniture, so even on a budget they are trying to fit in some soft areas and informal spaces into their office; what they save on the cost of desks allows them to do that.”
He adds that organisations with more generous budgets tend to upgrade their space by using wooden benches and soft-seating, with a focus on breakout areas and informal meeting spaces so that employees can find a space they’d like to work in.
“Other companies are focusing on more ergonomic desking products such as sit stand desks, which have excellent health benefits,” he said.
A better balance
Flexible working policies give employees more autonomy in when and where they work, but Steelcase’s Gifford points out that it’s still important to make the office a space they want to visit and where they like to work.
“While flexible working has its benefits, coming together in the workplace is what keeps employees engaged and helps them to build trust and collaborate. The key is in designing workplaces to be destinations that people want to be in, while still providing tools and technology to support employees when they choose to be remote or flexible.”
Lars Brown of DAS recommends solutions that can be expanded to meet changing requirements. “We often find that a client may not initially want the entire office to be height-adjustable, so it is important that DAS offers solutions that are upgradable with minimal disruption,” he said.
In an era of flexible working, it is important to offer not only a greater variety of places where staff can work, but also furniture solutions that support their productivity and wellbeing.