The media is inundated with articles talking about activity-based working (ABW) as the next best thing in office accommodation. Seldom are there industry articles that indicate there may be a downside to ABW or that it may not work for all companies. Could it be that ABW proponents have vested interest in these new workplace designs and are committed to positively spreading the word about this new approach to working?

ABW as a Concept

The concept of ABW is centred on the principle that there are no permanently assigned work-points for staff members and no private offices for senior leadership. Generally, there will be a wide selection of differently styled work points within precincts in the building that are loosely allocated for particular work functions or group activities, including collaborative brainstorming sessions and team meetings. And there are likely to be only 70 to 80 work-points per 100 staff members.

The rationale is understandable when typical office layouts are observed as generally having a significant number of unoccupied workstations at any one time – often in excess of 50 per cent. In these layouts, this high level of vacancy exists because the occupants will be away from their assigned work points due to meetings, lunch breaks, interstate travel, leave or interaction with others elsewhere.

The ABW workplace philosophy is based on employees arriving at work and setting up in a designated area at a work-point relevant to the type of activities that they are planning to undertake during the day – all supported by an appropriate management system. This is in stark contrast to the tradition of employees arriving at work and heading to a specific ‘owned’ workspace.

But, this new philosophy only works by implementing strict workplace disciplines such as a clean desk, no clutter and limited personal paraphernalia. As compensation, employees are allocated personal lockers for work papers, laptops and personal items. In addition, there is usually an array of brightly coloured less formal work areas, funky breakout areas and barista machines. This ‘unstructured’ approach to office accommodation is only possible because of enabling technologies, such as cloud computing and the ever-increasing capacities and capabilities of mobile devices.

The exemplar projects – usually very large – have shown that ABW can typically reduce the amount of office space required by up to 30 per cent, reducing recurrent occupancy costs. Other benefits include churn costs being virtually eliminated, carbon footprints reduced based on smaller leased areas and the appropriate energy saving technologies. Studies have also shown that clutter and paper usage in the workplace are reduced significantly.

Is ABW Suitable For Your Faculty?

With all these great advantages why should any company contemplating a relocation or new fi tout not embrace ABW? Surely it will deliver great operational advantages and cost savings? The answer is, as with many changing approaches to business, it depends. To assist in determining whether ABW is suitable, below are some key questions that should help the decision process.

  1. Does management understand that cost savings cannot be the primary (or only) motivation for ABW?

Savings can be significant in terms of lower rental, outgoings, energy and other ongoing occupancy costs. Smaller leased areas also mean less upfront fitout costs and that the inherent workplace flexibility eradicates ongoing layout changes and churn costs. But, don’t get caught out in the details – there may be other major upfront costs for furnishings, technology and implementing new management processes that need to be factored into the cost benefit analysis, resulting in cost savings not being realised despite capturing longer term corporate benefits.

  1. Is the organisation mature enough to cope with the enormity of the change?

If you are still having problems getting the senior executives and leaders out of offices or, worse, if the leaders think their office is an expression of their position in the business, then it is likely best to wait for the organisation to move into this millennium before contemplating ABW.

  1. Is ABW viewed as more than merely an office layout and furniture solution?

Those who think ABW is merely a furniture layout or office accommodation solution don’t get it. Implementing ABW successfully is complex. Without the appropriate technology solution – and, more important, without a new set of business processes – it won’t work. To be successful, ABW should be backed with a totally new company management philosophy.

  1. Does the organisation have enough scale?

To date, ABW has tended to be implemented in a work environment of a reasonable size. Reasonable scale, as well as a variety of work activities and different work-points, is required to provide the flexibility that employees are likely to demand. The minimum threshold is yet to be determined and this metric is still a work in progress. It is likely that having fewer than 50 employees may not provide sufficient mass and workplace variety to be successful.

  1. Is it understood that the economic benefits of productivity improvements may be difficult to measure?

Empirically measuring the ABW benefit of productivity improvement is still the holy grail of the industry. Although there are many quoted anecdotes, in most project analyses the actual improvement metrics still need to be verified. Isolating all other change impacts that may have simultaneously contributed to any productivity improvements is problematic. There is still little evidence to suggest that any employees have taken or stayed at a job, or worked more productively because of funky work-points, digital games, coffee bars, office concierges, conversation pits, relaxation or nap rooms, and the like.

  1. Is top leadership committed to embracing the change without reservation?

Even for companies that believe they are mature enough to transition into the ABW way of working, without top management embracing the concept – without any compromise – the outcome is likely to be disappointing. There should be no exceptions made. The C suite should not be treated differently – no ‘owned’ work-points – and particularly no enclosed dedicated offices.

  1. Is there an understanding of the need to re-educate management and staff in new business processes?

Too often, when new business process and operating models are implemented, middle management and staff are not educated along the journey. Expectations are that they will just ‘get it’, but this is unlikely to happen. A healthy budget is needed for retraining managers in how to lead a more unstructured, flexible and distributed team. Managers may need to relinquish their need for total control. Employees need to become familiar with the concept that productivity no longer means sitting at a desk; it is about delivering planned outputs.

  1. Does the leased space or building suit ABW?

To date, ABW solutions have generally been designed into new highly flexible modern office buildings. Although there are some exceptions, it is likely that major compromises to the ABW design solutions may be required in trying to adapt older buildings with small floor plate and limited services.

  1. Is ABW suitable for the primary functions of the company?

In some corporate sectors the primary functions and activities may not be suited for ABW application. Examples may include call centres and firms of solicitors, albeit the level of autonomy may vary significantly, both activities may be seen as process focused seldom requiring different types of work-points. In addition, solicitors may still be document bound for the foreseeable future, needing work-points that support confidentiality and ongoing concentration. With these types of functions and activities, the potential benefits of ABW design solutions may be wasted.

  1. Has the company considered that ABW may not work for everybody?

Finally, companies need to consider the desires of their key personnel. For some, the desire to have a sense of place is sacred. Not having a space to ‘own’ may be too confronting and, despite change processes, there are likely to be resignations. Some of the company’s top producers may leave.

ABW Deal Breakers

Provided the answers to the greater majority of these questions are in the affirmative, it is likely that ABW may be appropriate for your company. However, some negative responses, such as the maturity, size and key functions of the company, may be immediate deal breakers.

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