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Does flex work for SMEs?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Coffee / Pixabay)

Although commonly associated with Silicon Valley startups, it is London not San Francisco, or indeed New York, that wears the crown for flexible and co-working spaces.

Flexible workspaces already account for 10.6 per cent of office space in the UK capital, compared to just 2.9 per cent in Manhattan, and this figure is set to climb to as high as 30 per cent by 2030. Flex-office spaces are set to continue to conquer London into 2020, with flexible workspace locations totalling an estimated 14.5 million sq ft of the city.

At a time of economic and political uncertainty in the UK, the appeal and increase in flexible workspaces for London’s SMEs is clear. Free from long-term leases, businesses can ensure that their office space meets their requirements for both today and tomorrow, and can flex and scale as they do. If they need to grow quickly, the flex model allows them to. Equally, if an economic downturn hits, and a scale-back is required, the flex model allows for this as well.

There are few small business owners who would want to return to the rigid long-term leases of old, while equally, few employees would want to return to the static, cubicle farms of years gone by - so the sector has been able to secure buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. As such, the flexible office model is here to stay.

However, what’s often missed in this equation are individual requirements, and while some employees thrive in open plan and shared office spaces, others are left feeling exposed and crave privacy. At present, the open-office model (which the flex sector seems to be a great proponent of) doesn’t cater particularly well for personal preference – especially when it comes to the provision of quieter, more private spaces to do work without distraction.

For flex to continue on its growth trajectory in London, and in fact everywhere, a fix is required that caters for privacy as well as open spaces. Even the smallest teams in open offices have at one time struggled to find a space to have a quiet moment of concentration, a phone call or a group discussion at work.

Over time excessive noise and distractions can hinder productivity levels, as highlighted in a 2019 study by Density which found that distraction can lead to a 28 per cent decline in efficiency. Instead, workspaces need to be adaptable so they meet the needs of individuals and provide the agility that business owners need.

With lots of small businesses clustered into one open working space, facilities can become strained. Co-working spaces usually reach full capacity quickly, and businesses often spend months ‘just about managing’ before upscaling. While commercially efficient, this can limit the amount of space workers have to be flexible within these supposedly ‘flexible office environments’. This can place real strain on employees at these businesses - according to a 2019 survey by Gensler, privacy is more in demand than ever before with 28 per cent of those surveyed wanting an open space with on-demand private areas, in comparison to a mere 7 per cent who would prefer a completely open workspace.

As a nation, the UK has seen a huge decline in productivity over the last decade. Falling 30 per cent behind the US and 10-20 per cent behind Germany. If our office spaces are actively worsening productivity levels, this could create quite serious economic issues.

While businesses will continue to optimise their space as efficiently as possible, they must also consider the impact that this ‘goldfish bowl’ like approach to the office is having on their employees. The pressures of flex/co-working and the known productivities gap issues that the UK has will cause long-term problems if not effectively dealt with. 

Priorities have shifted from office management and partition to office experience, and focus will centre on creating workspaces that balance productivity and wellness. ‘Human-centric’ office design, i.e. offices designed not just to maximise square footage efficiency, will be an essential HR tool to build and retain professional talent.

As workforces expand, making sure office space is optimised for all employees can be a challenge. Businesses must take all working styles in account to adapt working environments to meet varying needs, and to diversify skills. Customer engagement platform Braze recently welcomed this ‘human-centric’ approach at their New York headquarters. Working across 80,000 square feet, they wanted to ensure that their open plan office space promoted collaboration, while accommodating different types of activities.

As a part of this, they integrated our booths into their office layout. As a result, Braze was able to find a solution to varying requirements of different departments and activities - keeping their employees, and their varying needs (which change day-by-day), at the forefront of the organisation.

The future is not fixed

More than 216,000 new businesses were registered in the greater London area in 2018, which was a 6.5 per cent increase on the previous year. This is a factor contributing to the amplified demand for flexible office space - these businesses are drawn to the agility it provides, giving them the room to find their feet.

As office lease prices in London are expected to climb 3 per cent in 2020, businesses are having to become wise on how they use their spaces. Real estate is the biggest financial liability for a company, meaning businesses have to utilise space effectively to get the most bang for their buck. In the near future, one of the most certain ways to ensure real estate value will be with the widespread use of modular furniture. Through reuse and redesign, prefabricated solutions can be customised and adapted to the rapidly changing needs of organisations over time.

Sustainability will also be at the forefront as ‘conscious co-working’ becomes more prominent. Needs change as companies grow and evolve, adaptive architecture could be the simple answer to the many spacing issues businesses face in flexible workspaces.

From phone booths for maximum privacy, to conference rooms for group discussions, these solutions can be built, modified and moved within a matter of hours, offering maximum flexibility in a constantly changing world. Modular furnishings can transform the open office with ease, reducing waste and replace the need for typical cycles of construction.

It may not always be practical, desirable, or cost-effective to reconstruct fixed workspaces from the ground up. Adopting these solutions is an innovative way forward for all businesses to address the growing needs of their workforce, and the next step in the development of the flexible office model.

Morten Meisner-Jensen

Morten Meisner-Jensen is the co-founder of ROOM, a startup setting out to redefine the modern workplace with modular space solutions for the open office.


Morten is also a mentor at the Copenhagen School of Entrepreneurship, and is a co-founder of Danish communications agency Revolt.