Have you noticed that the word ‘Agile’ is being used a lot these days?

It seems to be the ‘shiny new’ term. But different people mean very different things when they use ‘agile’ in the context of agile environment or office design.

agile environment

Peter Andrew from CBRE shares his thinking which we aptly named the “Urgh” matrix.

To seek clarification, together with our Asian business partner (MTM) we held a series of conversations with leading Property Strategists, Interior Designers, Constructors and Corporate Workplace Leaders on agile environment.

We had nine sessions in total with over 100 attendees from organisations including CBRE, HASSELL, Gensler, Aedas, MMoser, Space Matrix, 8build, OSCA and Merx among others.

After introductions each session started with a break apart exercise where we asked each group member to use work walls to answer a series of questions related to agile environment.

For example:

  • What is an agile environment?
  • What are the implications for office design?
  • How is an Agile office different from an Activity Based Working (ABW)?
  • What’s changed in Activity Based Working (ABW) design in the last 20 years?

There were some common themes and many interesting perspectives.

Peter Andrew from CBRE as an example, emphasised the role of choice & performance in considering design for individual space and shared space. We called it the “Urgh” matrix.

agile environment

What also came through strongly in the feedback was how old ABW is. People are wanting a new word. Agile seems to be it.

To the property strategists in the sessions, what’s really changed from the early ABW implementations is the level of uncertainty the future holds and the increasing vulnerability of organisations.  This works strongly against the cost and timelines of traditional property projects.

‘Agile environment’ to these folks more flexibility in the investment. The external boundaries of the firm are blurring with work taking place everywhere not just the office and the full time employees base eroding to more part time/contract roles and more outsources services. At the macro level this is leading to the boom in co-working spaces, increasingly focussed on the big corporates (eg. WeWork) as well as smaller firms.

To the Interior Designers and workplace leads in the sessions, Agile environment is all about increased flexibility inside the buildings. Less walls. More multi purpose spaces, more reconfigurable furniture options. Here Agile is being increasingly used as the new word for ABW or new style ABW.

Agile Origins

After the breakout work, we looked at what Agile means to anyone with a background in IT and how this Agile way of working, it impacting outside of IT.

To a purist, Agile refers to ‘Agile Method’ – a way to get big complex software projects delivered more quickly and cheaply. The manifesto for Agile development”  was introduced in 2001 (see Appendix). It was a response to a crisis within the industry over huge cost and time over runs on massive IT projects.

The ‘Agile Method’ quickly spread to have a profound impact on the way that large software development projects were run.  to be developed. The 12 principles upon which it was based (see Appendix A) included:

  • Co-location of cross functional teams
  • Breaking big things down into smaller pieces that are completed quickly
  • Using walls to create analogue infographics on the status of a project (Kanban boards)
  • Holding daily stand up (scrum) meetings

The success of this approach to large complex projects has meant that these ideas are now being adopted more broadly, not just on IT projects. So for many, an agile environment is a place where this ‘Agile method’ is being used. You’ll know immediately if you’re in this kind of space because you’ll see post it notes and other stuff all over the walls and windows.

So, our first clear conclusion around “Agile office” is that it means very different things to different people. It could be they are referring to more flexible business models, the generic meaning of the word, or it could be more specifically referring to the agile working approach – based directly or loosely on the IT project management (PM) methodology.
agile environment

The impact of these Agile work methods is Office designs that have more focus on project based work, often with cross functional teams.  Agile method has shown that the most complex and difficult work requires moving away for ‘business as usual’ electronic collaboration (email, phone calls, video conferences) to intense face to face collaboration – co-location and working analogue.

agile environment

When things get really difficult – go Analogue

As automation and Artificial Intelligence eat away at repetitive and low value tasks, we humans have had to master more effective digital collaboration.  But when things get really difficult, we have to move back to face to face activity and develop deeper personal relationships.  Hence the increasing adoption of these kinds of spaces in the more modern office designs.

But this way of working is very messy. The other big conclusion from all the feedback in the workshops was that it’s important to not get carried away with making all office space “agile”.  How much you need, where, depends.  At the industry level, some industries are more vulnerable to disruption than others.

agile environment

Source: McKinsey & Co

Within businesses, the requirement for creative problem solving with face to face teams varies a great deal within different functional groups. Some functional areas need stability. Other areas need to be more dynamic. Project teams and x functional groups tend to be on the higher end of the scale. Creative spaces need to be abundant in some areas and frugal in others. The ‘Agile office’ is now increasingly focussed analogue working as well as digital.

agile environment


People mean different things when they use the term Agile. Ask, don’t assume.

Modern ABW implementations are different from a decade ago because of increased uncertainty. An Agile ABW style office could well make use of external providers of co-working spaces to supplement their core.

Within offices, there is a greater emphasis on flexibility and more creative co-design space. These spaces use of agile working techniques – colocation of project cross functional project teams and analogue visual management. Each functional group and cross functional group will have different needs which need to be assessed as part of the design.


Appendix: The Manifesto for Agile development

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.