reinventing the workspace

October 5, 2015

the growing movement to activity-based working will change how you and colleagues interact and get things done

If your office view is dull grey walls or if you feel trapped behind your desk shut-in by your cubicle walls, cheer up — change is coming. The traditional workspace — whether cubicles or enclosed offices — is giving way to activity-based working (ABW), a concept that has been around for decades but is now gaining momentum in organizations around the world, embraced by companies such as Google, Microsoft, and many others. And it promises to change how you will work and collaborate with colleagues.

What exactly is ABW and why should you care? Whether you are an HR professional or a business leader, one of your perpetual mandates is to nurture greater teamwork and collaboration. In traditional offices, staff are typically confined in their own functional space and often disconnected from co-workers in other departments and teams. While in the past two decades architectural trends have been shifting to open-floor concepts, many of these workspaces weren’t specifically designed with activities in mind nor did they fully encourage worker interaction aross the traditional business silos.

ABW, on the other hand, was developed with all these goals in mind. By designing space around office activities — it’s estimated that nearly half of all work is conducted outside of the primary space — workers are more engaged with each other, more productive, and more satisfied with their jobs. Aside from the people benefits, ABW also raises office efficiencies and reduces facilities costs.

how it works
In an ABW office, workspace is defined not by individual owners but by the activities conducted. The first rule, then, is no assigned desks. Rather, the activities you engage in will dictate where you are at any time. Workers essentially flow from one space to another throughout the day and they have lockers to store personal items in.

Need to collaborate on a project with several co-workers? You now gather around space designed to promote interaction. Need to video conference with colleagues at other sites? You might find yourself tucked away in a video pod. Want to chill out and check emails on your phone in between meetings? The lounge might be the perfect setting.

The concept behind ABW is that the workspaces will be optimized to each activity, and workers inevitably become more collaborative, free, and excited about their daily tasks. More importantly, the spaces are flexible and inviting to a diverse group. With three generations in the workplace — Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials — offices need to accommodate a variety of work habits and comfort levels.

This shift to ABW has been most pronounced in Europe, where Dutch consultant Erik Veldhoen first coined the phrase in 1994. In fact, Randstad is one company currently transforming its global headquarters in the Netherlands to an ABW configuration. Many others such as Google have also been undergoing this transformation. Some industry observers predict that most companies will change their workspace to a variety of ABW approaches in the next two decades.

While the concept has many benefits, it’s not without challenges. The transition from traditional spaces to the free-flowing habits of ABW require a work-style adjustment by managers and workers alike. Highly effective change management is absolutely necessary. Workers accustomed to having a “nest” at the office — complete with personalized photos, decorations, and even furniture — will have to adopt a new approach. Managers will also have to be at ease with not having employees within sight.

Some employers report old habits are hard to break. Some workers find it difficult not having a dedicated space while others may monopolize desks or rooms. Then there is the logistical problem of quickly tracking down an employee in the office.

All of these may be just minor issues compared with the greater benefits an ABW space offers. By raising productivity and collaboration, the concept may lead to tangible results on the bottom line. Better yet, it may also lead to the demise of the isolated office cubicle and a mode of working that enhances employer attractiveness and talent engagement.

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