As with so many aspects of business, enabling technologies have driven changes in the way we work. Activity-based working (ABW) is the newest trend to take off in the design and use of office accommodation – a trend that appears to be getting universal approval.
But there may be a downside to ABW and it may not work for all companies. So what are the key indicators that ABW may not be the right accommodation solution for your business?
What is ABW?
As business systems and technologies have evolved, the concept of workplace has also evolved through a number of distributed and flexible working arrangements.
ABW, having emerged as the latest workplace solution and supported by wireless technologies, is centred on the principle of no permanently assigned work-points for staff members and no private offices for senior leadership.
Instead, there is a wide selection of differently styled work-points designed to support various functions and activities.
Precincts in buildings are loosely allocated for particular work functions or team activities – but usually with only 70 to 80 work-points per 100 staff members. In more traditional office layouts, observations over time indicate there are usually many unoccupied work-points – often more than 50 percent.
These vacancies are a result of occupants being away from their assigned work-points in meetings, on lunch-breaks, travelling interstate, on leave or interacting with others elsewhere, making the rationale for ABW understandable.
The workplace philosophy is based on the principle of 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 appropriate technologies and management systems.
This is in stark contrast to the traditional office, where employees arrive at work and head to specific ‘owned’ workplaces.
But strict workplace disciplines, such as clean desks, no clutter and limited personal paraphernalia, are required for ABW.
Employees are allocated the latest in technology devices, laptops and personal lockers for work papers and personal items. An array of brightly coloured, less formal work areas, funky breakout areas and barista machines usually provide a context for the office space.
This ‘unstructured’ approach to office accommodation is only possible because of enabling technologies that have emerged, such as cloud computing as well as the forever-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 percent, reducing recurrent occupancy costs. Studies have also shown clutter and paper usage in the workplace is reduced significantly. Other accommodation benefits include churn costs being virtually eliminated, carbon footprints reduced based on smaller leased areas and appropriate energy-saving technologies. However the capital costs of technology may be significantly higher.
With all these great advantages why should any company contemplating a relocation or new fitout not embrace ABW? The answer, as with many other changing business approaches enabled by technology is … it depends!
To assist in determining whether ABW may be suitable for your business, there are some key questions that should help the decision process.
Does management understand that cost savings cannot be the primary (or only) motivation for ABW?
Accommodation savings can be significant in terms of lower rental, outgoings, energy and other on-going occupancy costs. Smaller leased areas also mean less up-front fitout costs and the inherent workplace flexibility eradicates on-going fitout changes and churn costs. But don’t get caught out in the details – there may be other major up-front costs for technology solutions, furnishings and implementing new management processes that need to be factored into the cost benefit analysis.
Is the organisation mature enough to cope with the enormity of the change?
It may be that you are still having problems getting the senior executives and leaders out of offices or, even worse, these leaders think their offices are an expression of their importance within the business. Or your senior leadership team may find all new technologies a headache that has to be endured. If these situations ring true, it is probably best to wait for the organisation to join this millennium before contemplating ABW.
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 just don’t get it. Implementing ABW successfully is complex. Without the appropriate suite of technology solutions – and more supporting sets of business processes – it won’t work. To be successful, ABW should be backed up with a totally new company management philosophy embracing new technologies and processes.
Does the organisation have enough scale?
To date, ABW has tended to be implemented in a work environment of significant size. Reasonable scale, as well as a variety of work activities and different work-points, is required to provide the flexibility that employees are demanding. The minimum threshold is yet to be determined, but it is likely that having fewer than 50 employees may not provide sufficient mass and workplace variety for ABW to be successfully implemented.
Is it understood that the economic benefits of productivity improvements may be difficult to measure in dollars?
Empirically measuring productivity benefits continues to be the holy grail of the property industry. Although there are many quoted anecdotes, actual productivity improvements generally still need to be verified. Isolating other change improvements from property decisions is problematic. There is little evidence to prove employees have taken or stayed in a job, or worked more productively because of funky work-points, digital games, coffee bars, conversation pits or nap rooms.
Is top leadership committed to embracing the change without reservation?
Mature companies transitioning to ABW – but without top management embracing the concept, the required technology and process improvements – are likely to have a disappointing result. There should be no exceptions made. The C-suite should not be treated differently – no ‘owned’ work-points, no technology luddites and no enclosed dedicated offices.
Are the new technologies and business processes re-education requirements of management and staff understood?
Too often, with new business process, technologies and operating models, 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 re-training. Managers need to relinquish the need for total control and learn how to lead an unstructured, flexible, distributed and technology-enabled team. Employees need to understand that being productive does not mean sitting at a desk, it is about delivering planned outputs.
Does the leased space or building suit ABW?
Most ABW solutions have been designed into new, highly flexible, modern office buildings. It is likely that major design and technology solution compromises may be required in adapting older buildings with small floor-plates and limited services for ABW.
Is ABW suitable for the primary functions and activities of the company?
Some business sectors have primary functions and activities that may not be suited for ABW, such as call centres and solicitors’ offices. Although the levels of autonomy may vary significantly in these activities, both are process focused and seldom require different work-points from which to choose. With these types of functions and activities the potential benefits of the ABW design solutions are likely to be wasted.
Has the company considered that ABW may not work for everybody?
Finally, companies need to consider the desires of their key personnel. For some staff members, the desire to have a sense of place is sacred. No amount of technology and funky design will compensate them for not having a workspace to ‘own’.
ABW may be too confronting and there are likely to be resignations – some may be the company’s top producers.
Provided the answers to the majority of these questions are in the affirmative, and senior leadership embraces the opportunity for new technologies and business processes, it is likely that ABW may be appropriate.
However, some negative responses such as the maturity, size and key functions may be immediate deal-breakers. Working through the questions diligently will ultimately answer the ‘it depends’ outcome.
Rodney Timm is director at Property Beyond.