Want to know what benefit employees value most? Flexibility.

Why? Because employees want to be trusted to do their jobs and have the flexibility to make decisions to make that happen.

That was the conclusion of a Pew Center study on worker engagement, a finding that dovetailed nicely with a May 16 Business Breakfast Forum on the agile workplace.

The description relates to office environments where employees are not tethered to a particular work station. But it also embraces a bigger concept that you can enhance employee recruitment, retention and productivity by ditching some long-held rules of business.

Three panelists shared their experiences with agile workplaces to a crowd of about 100, touching on topics from company culture to leadership to dress codes, and how those can be affected by workplace environments. Sharing their experiences were Lisa Whited, CEO of Workplace Transformation Facilitation; Giovani Twigge, chief HR officer at Idexx; and Mark Pettingill, CEO of Patrons Oxford Insurance.

Whited has written more than 50 articles on workplace transitions and taught at a number of New England colleges. Twigge, who has been with Idexx since 2010, has seen its global workforce double to 7,000. The company just broke ground on a $62 million expansion, and expects to hire 600 more locally, bringing its Maine-based workforce to more than 3,000. It tested agile workplaces during its last expansion in 2014.

Pettingill oversaw the company’s relocation last year from Auburn to Portland, a move it made to enhance recruitment for the 48-employee company. It built a new building in Portland and designed the interior to embrace agile workplace concepts. In the aftermath, Pettengill said he has seen employee productivity increase “tremendously.”

Here are some takeaways:

• Twigge: HR policies are written for the 5 percent of your workforce that will break the rules, no matter what. Flip that around. Establish HR policies that allow the other 95 percent to flourish. Employees who were resistent to the idea of an agile workplace now say they “would never go back to cubeland.”

• Whited: Companies that use design to encourage their employees to innovate outperform the S&P 500 by 228 percent. Only 14 percent of employees are highly engaged at work, acording to a Gallup poll, which leaves a tremendous number of people unsatsified and unproductive at work.

• Pettingill: The cost to create an agile workplace in its new home was about $650,000. That works out to $14,000 per employee, or $1,400 per employee over 10 years. Compared with the cost to recruit and train new hires, it was a simple decision to invest in the agile concept.

• Twigge: Innovation is core to what Idexx does. To encourage that, people must collaborate, and people don’t collaborate if they don’t connect. Design can help that in big and subtle ways. For instance, Idexx creates two-story buildings so people will use wide stairs that encourage communication. On-site cafes are spread around the campus so people will pass other employees on their way to lunch. From that interaction has sprung organic social groups — for instance, people who play softball together.

• Whited: The four tenants of a successful workplace are community, autonomy, mastery and purpose. Building community at work is just as important as building community in towns, cities and neighborhoods. Agile workplaces provide opportunity to build that community. Also, in real estate, it’s location, location, location. In this work it’s leadership, leadership, leadership. If a leader doesn’t buy in and demonstrate that through their behavior to everyone else, don’t even bother. A CFO at a large medical company said go ahead and do whatever you want during a feasability study, “but don’t touch my corner office. At that point, I really should have just walked away.”

• Pettingill: We created pods, where four people with different job titles work near each other. That has created an almost organic professional development program as the less experienced people can listen and learn from the more experienced staff. The arrangement fosters collaboration and allows Patrons to promote from within.


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