How To Cultivate The Best Value From Activity Based Workplace Design

Tim Oldman - CEO and a founder, Leesman speaking at the workshop

Tim Oldman - CEO and a founder, Leesman speaking at the workshop

Applied Learning in Boston

Recently we attended an exceptional seminar given by Leesman Index at 9OFS in downtown Boston sharing their latest research findings on Activity Based Working.  The seminar was hosted by Tishman Speyer, a global real estate, design and construction consultancy. Facility managers, workplace strategists, interior designers, real estate developers, software companies and architects like ourselves attended. 

Rising Augmentation, need for trust and self-direction

Moving further into the 21st Century finds us veering away from mere knowledge based work alone so crucial to productivity and success in the mid to late 20th Century. Today we increasingly work with processes and systems augmenting our own knowledge and abilities with artificial intelligence (AI) hybridizing how and why we work, how we write and more.  Today we already have begun to learn to work in tandem with these smart tools as they begin to auto-prompt us with predictive intelligence and suggestions helping us (if we are willing and able) to work smarter and at greater capacity than ever before.  

With this increasing augmentation of how we work, employers, depending on industry and type of work processes, are finding the need to shift towards more trust based work cultures relying more on self-directed workers.  More than ever before, critical thinking, curatorship, creativity in complex problem solving play an ever increasing importance requiring more autonomous trust based management styles. This strongly contrasts with work processes relying on traditionally managed knowledge workers working within more traditional 9-5 work settings rooted in late 20th century work styles.

Those older management strategies relying on more hierarchical and fixed in place work, worker and workplace design mindsets may no longer suffice.  Hence the recognition of the value and rise of alternative business transformation strategies like Activity Based Working and Workplace Design where choice, variety and integrated operational and soft systems reign; All working together to empower employees to behave and work differently because they have to.  We think competitiveness and value differentiation demands a shift in mindset transforming how, why and where we work along these lines.

Thus Activity Base Working and ecosystem workplace design offer a clear alternative pathway to help transform business processes and fuel innovation.  But we have to be careful to be thoughtful and ensure as Tim Oldman, the Leesman Index CEO said, "Define fit to purpose when considering shifting towards such transformative business model."  But it is surely not the only answer.  We know one thing to be true, these principle, and others like them, must be tailor fit to each organization's business processes, workforce, brand promise and culture. 

There is no cookie cutter approach to workplace design.

Why did we attend this event?

We went to learn more about this design framework and gain a clearer sense of its value to the mission driven companies and organizations we like to work with.  We wanted to know if ABW might be valuable and adaptable to our clients needs and helping them thrive over the long term.

A year or so ago Leesman released its first version of this survey detailing the rise of Activity Based Working. This work established the context and promise of measuring ABW as a business transformation strategy. Leesman had the goal to revisit research progress with the participants and companies 12 months later to assess and report back on ABW's continuing effectiveness and rising use.  Last week, they were in New York City and Boston where we saw them. They were reporting back their findings over the last twelve months with updated information.

You might wonder what Activity Based Working means and how best to cultivate its value for your organization?

So first, what is Activity Based Working? 

Activity Based Working (ABW) provides employees with (a variety of) purposefully designed settings to best support the many different activities that are undertaken in a workplace. Rather than an employee carrying out their work in a single allocated desk or cubicle, ABW encourages (the recognition) different work activities can be better supported by spaces and features designed specifically for that task.
Spaces are designed to create opportunities for different activities, from intense, focused work and solo telephone calls, to impromptu meetings or more formal collaborative work.
...ABW requires a different approach to workplace design and this often results in visually stimulating spaces. But it also needs an equally different approach to to technology and manegement/staff behaviour.
— Leesman Index, The rise and rise of activity based working

Many confuse this working approach to merely hot-desking, hotelling or flexible sharing desk sharing strategies to assist in providing greater facilities operational flexibility, or reducing needed office square footage. A sticky point for ABW adoption and success is the 'clean desk policy' which come with not having personal and 'owned' workspace.

Example space program closeup

Sometimes viewed as anathema to expectations for a 'space of one's own' at work, ABW's business value proposition relies on shifting mindsets around work, working and the workplace. When well aligned with business fit, purpose and mobility oriented work processes, ABW and the matching ecosystem workplace design help transform businesses Leesman data shows. But it requires thinking differently about mobility based work, people and place.

Mobility Adoption

Leesman's study reviews four different types of Mobility Profiles working in ABW work settings as compared to traditional workplace strategies with 'owned' personal workspace and more familiar office layouts.  We find it really interesting how they define these Mobility Profiles and feel they have great value for consideration and reflection for design and planning purpose by a high performing organizations regardless of ABW adoption.

The Mobility Profiles

  • Mobility Profile 1: I perform most/all of my activities at a single work setting and rarely use other locations in the office.
  • Mobility Profile 2: I perform the majority of my activities at a single work setting but also use other locations in the office.
  • Mobility Profile 3: I perform some of my activities at a single work setting but often use other locations in the office.
  • Mobility Profile 4: I I use multiple work settings and rarely base myself at  single location within the office.

Cultivating Value Through Adoption of Activity Based Working and Workplace Design

Where does the value lay for organizations of various kinds, the most befitting management and organizational styles, business sector types, prevailing business processes and transactions?  We think Activity Based Working and Workplace Design offers value in the following ways, especially in combination with more than one of the factors below. Barriers to adoption must also be considered as well.

  • Mission and Purpose: Mission driven companies, valuing active and strong culture and pride in place.
  • Processes: Business processes requiring a high degree of mobility, agility of thinking, creative group and high value remote collaboration, and combined with self-directed working in high trust cultures.
  • Team with a team: Silo'd teams within larger corporate cultures with a degree of independent autonomy and internal oversight.  "They can help drive innovation within a larger organization." says Ed Cortis, CTO of Rocket Space, who said his "ABW team of 300, worked within an IT team of 1500 when he was a Bankwest."
  • Creative collisions: According to Cortis, "When there is value placed on enabling 'creative collisions', especially amongst agile teams which rapidly assemble and disassemble."   
  • Informality: More informal, flatter organizational work cultures valuing "We" not "I" performance, rotating leadership, servant leadership styles at all levels.

Barriers to adoption

  • Organizational misalignment: Mismatch of activity based working with incompatible leadership, management styles and culture, behavior.  (This is a hard one to parse out but it's worth a closer examination in applied research)
  • Look and feel focus versus really doing it: Admiration for appearance of activity based workplaces but unable to adapt to required workstyles and mindset shifts. You get the snazzy workplace but people aren't prepared to use it properly.
  • Poor acoustics and space planning: Lack of planning for acoustical quality with sound insulated walls, glazing, ceilings and floor surfaces. Poor space planning and lack of variety of open to more closed and private (quieter) spaces.
  • Not adapting and listening: Over-zealous unyielding management unwilling to adapt ABW framework to reality of their people, work culture and processes.
  • Inflexible, fixed mindsets: Team members with fixed mindsets, rather than those open to change. Can be people of any age or experience level. Not generationally specific. (Be careful of generational confirmation bias here.)
  • Ineffective technology infrastructure: IT support system, equipment and processes not in place to effectively support a more fluid, changing work setting, workers moving around on and off-site. 

Summing up

We have been thinking about Activity Based Working for some time and looking for learning ways like this seminar to better understand its value to our architectural and workplace design practice.  Clearly this framework has great potential and will continue to mature. This system appeals to architects and strategists like ourselves on many levels.  However, we must remember to not force this upon our clients when the fit isn't there.  

Remember, when considering this framework, ask the hard questions, examine with your design team your organizational DNA, culture, management styles, work processes and technology support capacity.  Like many things, perhaps adapting aspects of this framework to your design project has the greatest value and the conversation about it will surely unlock invaluable insight how best to design your office to help your business and people thrive.  

That is why we do what we do.

(More About Leesman)

If you have not heard of Leesman, also known as the Leesman Index here is a little about them. They are a data and analytics firm which provides 'collective intelligence' measuring how the workplace best supports people.  They share their data freely and widely, stemming from their practice measuring thousands of workplaces globally over the course of many years. They leave it up to others to use their data and insights, applying and synthesizing them to project work and professional practice needs.  

If you would like to learn more about ABW or other aspects of our design and professional services please contact us.