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The Shades of Grey in Activity based Working

Posted/ 08 August 2012
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There is currently much hype around Activity Based Working (ABW), but it is a natural way of working in our contemporary world; having its parallels in how we worked as university students. To achieve its true potential ABW must be finely tuned to your business and your people within it. Often companies mistake it as only as a cost saving device and miss the opportunity it provides as a key strategic lever to deliver your business objectives.

 

In 1983 Bikram Chowdrey established the Bikram Yoga franchise and effectively laid claim to having ‘invented’ yoga by copywriting a series of yoga ‘asana’ or postures that had in fact been practiced in India for thousands of years before he was born. Similarly absurd is the claim that the dynamic workstyles becoming increasingly popular and prevalent today, coined Activity Based Working or ABW, were invented by a group of designers who could do with a little less hubris.

 

The premise of ABW or choosing a place to work based on the activity at hand is one that has been practiced by millions of university students around the globe for a long time. It is not new, nor can it be labeled an invention. The unique aspect of the ABW phenomenon and real reason we are hearing so much about it is not the manner of working itself, but who is doing it and why. Primarily the concept has leapt from university campuses to company campuses around the globe.

 

Initially the corporate world discovered the benefits of abandoning hierarchal notions of real estate, promoting collaboration and empowering their workers to have a choice. In doing so they learnt they could increase productivity and they have not been able to shake the idea since. It didn't hurt that in realising those benefits there can also be a significant drop in capital expenditure.

 

The interest is understandable, millions of students couldn’t possibly be wrong. There are many very good reasons to consider adopting more agile work styles beyond aligning the working environment with the dynamic, mobile, highly collaborative and casual ways we now work. Companies can expect reductions in real estate holdings by up to 30%, energy consumption by as much as 50%, paper usage by up to 50% and the extra bonus of having work environments that are not seas of sameness. Unfortunately, any of the core benefits and rationale have been forgotten in the pursuit of cost savings.

 

The bigger challenge with ABW being the flavour of the day comes with its adoption without the thorough investigation required to ensure it is appropriate; this is particularly critical when adopting a ‘free address’ version of ABW where workers are not provided a dedicated workspace to call their own. The catalyst for adopting ABW must go deeper than cost savings and be built on a foundation of business, brand and cultural drivers that will lend the buoyancy necessary to keep the concept afloat.

 

The recent spotlight on ABW that reveals a part, but not the entire agile work story is another challenge. Every organisation is comprised of people who play different roles and in turn require unique approaches to how their job and personal working preferences should be supported. Yet what is communicated is company X, Y or Z has adopted ABW! In reality it is not only unusual, but unlikely that every person in an organisation can work effectively in an ABW environment.

 

ABW tends to be painted in black and white and a large percentage of companies that declare they have adopted ABW fully, have not. The reality is most people and organisations are better suited by a shade of grey that is rendered through the most appropriate and able teams adopting free address, others working in an activity based fashion, with some continuing in traditional work styles.

 

Hopefully we have reached the zenith of this phenomena and are ready to acknowledge that ABW, shared desking, club environments, hot desking, hotelling and telecommuting are all just manifestations of how we work now and interestingly how we worked in university. Can we just call it contemporary work and drop the title de jour?

 

There are many other important aspects of our new workstyles that are more deserving of our attention. The workplace is a delicate ecosystem with space, people and technology, all mutually reliant and co-dependent. Technological advancement has led our ability to consider alternative ways of working and we have responded with new workplaces that take advantage of our new found mobility. They are also significantly more exciting than monotonous rows of bench desks, scattered break outs and conference rooms that are the mainstay of most workplaces today and this appeals to our desire to have more meaning and richer experiences as a part of our work life.

 

What we haven’t adequately addressed, and where opportunities lie, deals with understanding and developing solutions that address the emotional and psychological challenges of alternative working. As human beings we are drawn to other people and want to be a part of a broader community, the inherent nature of dynamic work blows this apart. We have not yet experienced the social and business ramifications of this yet, but we will.

 

The next step will be in identifying ways we can integrate the emotional hooks of a physical environment into virtual space. We must discover ways to personalise and feed our souls without real estate anchors and we must make every experience we have in our new workplaces rich, rewarding and inspiring or we risk fracturing the organisations we are hoping to unite.

 

Geyer is collaborating with Great Place to Work and Swinburne University to explore how trust in the workplace is an important factor when considering new forms of working. Trust is the framework for personal interactions; it also contributes to our acceptance of technology, new work processes and the adoption of new working styles, such as ABW.

 

Read about our research and work in identifying ways physical space can foster trust in an increasingly virtual workplace.

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