Did activity-based working get a bad rap?

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Who is to blame for ABW’s bad rep?

It’s obviously a case of mistaken identity.  That’s how it looks from where I sit/stand.

A number of years ago, we all came to the realisation that everyone is different and therefore there may be some pretty significant variances in preferred workstyles.  Not that people were stating that in such categorical terms.  Nonetheless, it became apparent that with a broad spectrum of office-based jobs out there, there were indications that people who worked microscopes, for example, didn’t necessarily want to sit hunched over the instrument all day.  Further, we’re told that some people think better when standing up.  There’s even a scene in an older Tom Cruise movie (A Few Good Men) where the actor categorically states that he “thinks better when he has his (baseball) bat” as he paces around the room.  While we’re not suggesting that everyone be given room and license to swing a bat in the office during the course of their workplace ruminations, it’s fair to say, many people feel that solutions come easier when they’re upright and walking around.

So, if you do find yourself standing or pacing at your sit/stand desk or even simply standing by a window in a breakout area, don’t be surprised if that flash of inspiration suddenly strikes.  And when it does, you may need a quiet place to think it through, write it down and flesh it out.  That’s where a booth, an isolated workstation or small office might make the perfect ideas incubator.

Alright, let’s review.  During that example, thinking through one aspect of an employee’s day, we find that three related aspects of their best work may have been completed in three separate settings.  Now multiply that by 5 employees or 12 or 100 or more.  This is the heart and soul, the intent and raison d’être of what we now, sometimes derisively, call activity-based working.

What ABW is not

Here’s another question related to the somewhat damaged reputation of activity-based working – where and why did it all go so wrong for ABW?  The answer is of course both in the definition and the application.  More so the application to be fair and by application, I do of course mean design.

But let’s start with a working definition for our ABW-inspired workplace.  You’d be forgiven for beating a path to wikipedia’s definition but I’ll save you the trouble (by the way the editors at wikipedia have inadvertently backed up today’s general consensus by suggesting that “this article (on ABW)has multiple issues”):

“Activity-based working (ABW) is a transformational business strategy that provides people with a choice of settings for a variety of workplace activities”

Notice the word “choice”.  That’s where modern ABW designers are going wrong in droves.  The word “strategy” is the other, as the implementation of the strategy is also vitally important.  To varying degrees, the (poor) implementation of the strategy – or execution – phase signals the death knell for choice:

  • Your bags and workaday accoutrements must be placed here (yes all of them)
  • First in best dressed even if you’re rostered to start a little later (you have no choice)
  • If you want/need to work in isolation for an entire day… or week, you probably can’t
  • Reminders of home, that holiday, your array of pencils or exotic writing instruments, degrees… etc can’t go here… or there… or anywhere
  • Etc

Sure enough, these are all potentially negative aspects that don’t take into account the undeniable benefit of working in an environment best suited to efficiently completing the task(s) at hand.  Again, a result of poor execution, no doubt – or even design… It’s great for teamwork, cross-functionality and of course for your mind and body (variety is the spice of life, even as it pertains to working in the sitting/standing/prone position).

Collectively catering to the individual

In short, ABW is not the denial of basic freedoms in and around the workplace but, when properly thought out and executed, represents their enhancement.  Of course, every coin has two sides and if the execution, design and/or strategy is wrong, botched or mismanaged, employees will come to resent the:

  • Quiet rooms
  • Open plan workstations
  • Constantly sitting/standing, perching or becoming one with and ergonomically interesting seat
  • Informal meeting spaces
  • Multi-functional areas for food service/study/raucous interaction/sobering introspection…

Make no mistake, these are all good things, but they’re cast in a poor light when a robust and purpose-driven process has not been undertaken.

Back to ABW’s bad rap

Surely, someone, somewhere botched the investigation and if ABW does have a bad name, don’t blame the concept, look to the generic design, the groundless assumptions and slipshod briefings that took the gloss off something that could have worked.  Really worked – well.  So ends my passionate defence/closing argument for ABW.  Remember, any design, look and solution to workplace issues can get a bad reputation if the briefing, preparation and/or due diligence is poorly handled.  If designers aspire to truly solve issues and create better, more effective workplaces, we need to remember this.

At Powerhouse Group, our aspiration is to create beautiful workplaces that delight and enthuse.  We want people to love their workplace and, like the people we seek to impress, our commercial office fit outs (even the ABW designs) must collectively cater to the individual.

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