Agile Working: One Year Out

Steven Bernstein
GSK’s headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard provides lessons learned on the transition to agile working.

Agile working is relatively new in the United States, but it is catching on fast. Real estate managers, intrigued by the potential for reduced operating costs and right-sizing their office space, are increasingly looking to agile working as an office solution. By removing physical barriers in the office, such as dedicated offices and cubicle partitioning, firms have long reported not only a reduction in operating costs but also a host of "soft benefits", such as improved communication and collaboration among employees.

The problem for U.S. employers is that the concept is so new stateside that few companies have gathered hard data on the effect of such a transition. In the absence of local information, U.S. firms considering the move to agile working have had to look to their foreign counterparts for hard data. However, global pharma company GSK has taken the plunge, providing both a case study and a roadmap for other firms.

Agile working is relatively new in the United States, but it is catching on fast.

For more than 10 years, GSK has been converting its office space to what it calls SMART Working: an open concept that removes all barriers such as dedicated office space and cubicle partitioning. Although GSK has reported a host of soft benefits for years, it wasn't until the firm decided to move its U.S. headquarters from a traditional "cube farm" of the past to a new, ground-up building founded on the SMART Working concept, that stateside employers had their latest case study for this environment.

In April 2013, GSK moved from leased office space in downtown Philadelphia to its new home at the historic Philadelphia Navy Yard. An innovative layout allowed GSK to relocate all 1,300 employees while reducing its office space by circa 600,000 square feet – a reduction from 275 square feet per person to 130. Faithful+Gould provided comprehensive project management services on the fit-out of the new building and our workplace solutions service line helped develop and lead a structured training program to prepare workers for the move. Based on experiences moving to agile working in the U.K. and other locations overseas, GSK hoped for not only a reduction in operating costs but also improved communication and efficiency. So what was the result?

An innovative layout allowed GSK to relocate all 1,300 employees while reducing its office space by circa 600,000 square feet...

I recently took part in a panel discussion to answer that very question. Sponsored by research collaborative WorkDesignNow, Post-Occupancy Lessons Learned at GSK, featured stakeholders discussing the move, and what we’ve learned about this transition one year out. I was joined in this AIA/CES certified webinar by John Campbell, principal at design firm Francis Cauffman, and Ray Milora, head of design and change management and worldwide real estate and facilities at GSK.

The discussion was based on a post-occupancy survey of GSK employees in the new space. Ray Milora explained that GSK conducted these evaluations via face-to-face meetings followed by a survey. At the time, there were more than 1,350 people assigned to the building and more than 900 responded to the survey. The results, while overwhelmingly positive, pointed out some room for growth as well:

  • Sixty-eight percent (68%) of employees reported that their social interaction increased after the move. "One the key things we were trying to gain with the move was more collaboration," said Milora. "To see that number come in [within] one year after the move was amazing."
  • Seventy-one percent (71%) of employees reported that finding a closed meeting room can be difficult. "We knew it was going to be harder to find meeting rooms," said Milora. "What's not shown is that over the course of the last several years, GSK has been reducing our overall travel… It’s harder to find a room because more people are looking."
  • Sixty-five percent (65%) of employees report that they are satisfied with the physical workplace environment. "The building itself is a big part of the story and it’s really playing out unlike any space we’ve ever had before," said Milora. "Our occupancy has grown considerably. At the old office we averaged around 40-50% occupied and now we’re well over 80%."

Other notable results include a nearly 50 percent reduction in complaints about pain and discomfort related to conventional workstation use. John Campbell noted that deploying 100 percent height-adjustable workstations, may account for the reduction in complaints. GSK also saw a dramatic increase in the use of mass transit and reduced waste and paper use.

Faithful+Gould is seeing similar positive results in our own move to an agile workspace. As we embark on this project in our offices across the country, the feedback from our employees has been overwhelmingly positive. Our people tell us that they feel more connected to one another, are able to communicate and innovate more effectively, and productivity has increased. Companies have been yearning for data measuring of the efficacy of agile workspaces in the U.S. – and that proof has begun to emerge from firms like GSK and Faithful+Gould.