Could Activity Based Working be the solution to the problems encountered with the open office?
Managers and companies are usually quick to adopt new types of office plans that are touted as a solution to all sorts of problems – communication, productivity, collaboration, and so on. But too often they defeat the whole purpose by applying the same inflexibility to every new layout that comes their way.
Rather than simply trying to give employees the tools they need to do their jobs, they start focusing on goals like getting the most use out of square footage, packing employees in like sardines, whether it be in cubicles or at open desks or tables. These are the wrong goals, and they are the reason that the open office has become the focus of condemning research on productivity, employee isolation vs. collaboration, and even the physical health and overall wellness of employees.
It’s not the plan that’s the problem. It’s the way we implement them. So how do we implement the right plan in the right way?
There are two factors to consider: the layout of the office, and the approach that is taken in using it. The main idea is to increase productivity and wellness by giving employees the opportunity to choose the space that best suits their needs at any given time.
The layout of the office
To do this, an office needs to be designed with different ‘zones’. In fact, it will still probably fall under the category of an open-plan office – but this time, it’s open-plan done right.
Different areas of the office need to be designed with different activities in mind. Quiet, sound absorbing ‘phone booths’ or focus booths might be created for people who need to go somewhere quiet and private to make a phone call or have a one-on-one meeting or video call. They can even be used simply for an employee to go and focus on a project or task without being interrupted.
Larger, enclosed meeting rooms can be created for larger teams to have meetings and work on projects. Even if the volume level goes up (to be expected, with all that enthusiasm), the enclosed rooms are designed for this and won’t bother anyone else.
Lounge areas can be created for small teams to work together or even for individuals to find a comfortable seat. Even the break room can be utilized for a quick task between meetings, if an employee so desires.
A layout like this supports a culture of Activity Based Working (ABW).
What is Activity Based Working?
As the name suggests, ABW is a style of working that is based on whatever activity you are doing and the space that best suits your current task or project. When businesses implement an office layout that supports activity based working, they are entrusting the choice of location to the employees, and are focused on results as opposed to being able to keep a watchful eye on employees all day long. In fact, the freedom to choose in itself can improve employee wellness and productivity simply by reducing the feeling of being constantly ‘watched’ or assessed.
ABW at its fullest extent means that employees don’t have dedicated desks, either. Instead, it is similar to working in a coffee shop, or a library. Employees carry their essentials with them and can pick whichever area they want when they arrive at work each day.
The idea is to give employees options about what their environment looks like on a day-to-day basis. If an employee would rather spend most of his or her time working in a lounge area, and remains productive doing so, then so be it.
An employee at Gensler documented her trial period as an ‘agile worker’ (someone who uses the ABW model on a daily basis), a working style she continued to use after the trial run.
Tips for implementing Activity Based Working
As mentioned earlier, ABW goes hand in hand with an office design that supports it. A thoughtless open-plan layout with rows of tables and no partitions will not get the job done. A business looking to implement ABW should get in touch with an office space planner to ensure that they have areas for all types of needs.
Secondly, employees need to know what is expected of them and be on-board with the idea. This applies to everyone from junior assistants to the CEO. Upper-level management must be enthusiastic about the plan and be willing to give the choice to the employees as to where they work. Junior employees must understand how the system works and what they are expected to do every day when they arrive (choose a space based on what they are planning to work on).
Above all, flexibility is key. Any new system like this one will take some getting used to, but even if there are a few initial glitches, everything should smooth out to an even routine – if everyone is prepared to commit to it.
A business planning to implement this working style could take their cue from Gensler, allowing individual employees to opt-in to a ‘trial run’ ABW program – and subsequently commit to it as their everyday working style if it succeeds.
In conclusion: It’s not the plan alone, it’s the way we use it
We need to remember that it’s not the type of office plan alone that causes poor results – it’s the way in which these plans are implemented. The open office isn’t going to work if managers attempt to force every employee to work in the same way, in the same spot, all the time. The cubicle, like the open-plan office, was designed to be a solution, not a problem – and look what happened to it.
When we take office plans and fit them to rigid, inflexible molds, focusing on reducing costs or treating employees like automatons, they are not going to work the way we want them to. They are not going to work the same as they do for the businesses who are flexible and willing to let the office look a little different every day.