Flexible working: what are the boundaries?

What has been called the “New Way of Working” has now become the norm. Sharing the workplace has become much more common as access to a good work environment is more important than the ownership of it.

More people per square foot

A workplace costs around $13,000 per year, which makes the calculation simple: reduce the number of workplaces (in other words: the required amount of square feet of work space) and you will save a lot of money. A fantastic business case quickly arises: consolidation saves costs. From a cost perspective, this argument is spot on.

However, there is a danger to the far-reaching sharing of the workplace with an increasingly smaller surface area: a diminishing user experience and reduced employee effectiveness.

In terms of costs, there is one that counts among the highest in every organization, namely wage costs. Furthermore, the “work” factor is the most critical in creating value for the organization. Every manager will confirm that employees and their ability to work well together largely determine the performance of the organization. That is why the design of the workplace currently plays such a major role: we want to stimulate the productivity and creativity in and around the workplace.

Success factors for the workplace

Which requirements must a workplace meet in order to be successful? Perhaps we can learn something from science. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is the location of the City Form Lab, a research department that conducts scientific research into the design of urban areas.

The City Form Lab argues:

“One of the primary challenges of good city design is to maximize interaction between people and places while minimizing friction.”

We can directly translate this to the work environment:

“A good work environment promotes interaction between people and their environment while minimizing elements of friction.”

If you have too many people working together in one place, the chance of friction increases. When there is no workplace available, a noisy colleague is distracting you, or the coffee stains of the previous colleague are still on the desk, you will see decreased efficiency. In other words: there is a saturation point beyond which further consolidation (more employees per workplace) will most likely be counter-productive. The cost profile will look great, but the work performance will lag behind.

The turning point

The main question which arises is: Up to what point is consolidation sensible?

Finding this turning point is important to effectively manage new generations of work environments. Measuring work productivity is the holy grail of workplace design, but we have yet to succeed; in spite of all the claims that are regularly made, it continues to be fodder for sociologists, psychologists, and economists.

We can, however, gain some control over this phenomenon by incorporating new types of information and relating them to each other. The starting point is for us to look at a limited number of parameters: effective availability of desired facilities and general satisfaction with the workplace.

The good thing about availability is that there is already a lot of knowledge on this subject, but in totally different environments, namely the (IT) network theories.
The higher the demand for a certain service, the bigger the chance that this service will not be readily available and the longer it will take before this becomes available. In other words: your employees are looking for a space to hold a meeting, but all suitable rooms are occupied or reserved.


Sharing the workplace is a trend that will persist in the coming years. However, to prevent sub-optimization, we must better understand where the boundaries lie. The basic technology for this is available. It is now just a matter of applying it. Only when you know what your optimal capacity utilization rate is can you be truly flexible.

Erik Jaspers is Global Product Strategy Director.

About the author

Erik Jaspers | Global Product Strategy Director

Over the past 20 years, Erik has worked at Planon in several leadership positions concerning the development of Planon’s software solutions. Erik is a member of the IFMA Foundation’s board of trustees, chair of their Knowledge Management Taskforce, member of the IFMA Research Committee, and part of the “Workplace Evolutionaries” leadership team. He contributed to a prize-winning scientific publication on agile product management (2009), to IFMA’s “Work on the Move” (2011), and to “Work on the Move 2” (2016).

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