Activity based workplace – good or bad?

Activity Based Workplace is the future for offices apparently. But what is it and what is the benefit?

My company has recently moved to a new office. With that came the introduction of Activity Based Working (ABW) as well as a Clean Desk policy. Many of us welcomed the move and to finally get an office designed for a modern way of working. But ABW and Clean Desk?

Activity based working (ABW) is based on the premise that no employee ‘owns’ or has an assigned workstation. Rather, the broader workspace provides employees with a variety of predetermined activity areas that allow them to conduct specific tasks including learning, focusing, collaborating and socialising.

The old office had an open work environment where everybody had their own desk and sat grouped in departments according to the organization flavor of the year. We also had a few rooms for upper management and of course meeting rooms of different size as well as a few kitchen areas.
Given the fact that we had seating for about 300 employees while only had 150 on the roster, about 80-90 being in the office every day (rare occasions could see 120 working in the office), a move to a more suitable workplace was necessary.

The new office, designed for activity based working but not taken to the extreme, introduced a open work environment with around 110 desks. Only a handful employees got their own permanent desks for various reasons and only the HR manager got his/her own office. The rest of us can choose any of the approximately 100 desks available.

Since we apply Clean Desk it means that we have to empty our desk at the end of the day to make it available for someone else to use it the day after. This includes disconnecting computer, mouse, keyboard, headset etc. The next day we pick another desk or the same if it is available and connect everything. Personal items are stored in your own plastic box (big enough for your laptop, mouse, docking station etc.) and stowed in your personal locker overnight.

Not having your own desk will, as an example, allow people across departments working on the same projects being able to sit together for the duration of the project. The idea is of course to create effective and collaborative teams.
The Clean Desk policy is not focusing on the security aspect of leaving documents etc. available on the desks but rather efficient utilization of the desks we have. If you are not in the office you should not occupy a desk.

Note: just a random ABW office. Picture found on the Internet.

We also got Meeting Rooms of different size, Focus Rooms (one person office which you can book), Media Scape areas (six seat high tables with dual TV monitors in the open environment) and Phone Booths for your private calls etc. Two kitchen areas are available and new, modern coffee machines are at our disposal (Swedes are sensitive about their coffee).

From a technology stand-point the office is equipped with LCD TV monitors of various size in every meeting room for presentations etc. Media Scape areas also have them. Finally we get rid of these noise making, poor quality projectors… We also have conference phones in the bigger meeting rooms and regular phones with speaker phone capabilites in the smaller meeting rooms. Finally, we have a dedicated video conference room with state-of-the-art equipment.
Modern offices these days, at least in Sweden, usually have sit/stand desks as default. So have we! Each desk also have dual monitors for efficient working as well as a telephone with a headset.

Note: just a random ABW office. Picture found on the Internet.

So you would think moving from an open office environment to another but with a much more modern touch would be without issues, right? Well, not quite…

The Good

Not having your own desk has really made people move around in the office. One day you can sit next to people from Sales or Project Managers (I’m neither) and get a glimpse of what they do and how they work. The next day you sit among the Operations team or perhaps Finance. It is up to you. I think it has energized the whole staff. Well, it has energized me at least.

A modern facility encourages us to use the rich media tools we actually have (but maybe seldom use) and  ABW should help collaboration and efficient team working.

The Bad

Moving to an Activity Based Workplace requires clear communications and an open mind. Is the Clean Desk policy set in stone or is there room for flexibility?  We are all individuals and have our own preferences and preferred way of working. Forcing Clean Desk on people to effectively utilize desks while there is no shortage of desks makes no sense… On average 20-30% of the desks are free every day in our new office.

In our case we have a Clean Desk policy stating you should empty your desk every day. At the same time our Facilities team where more flexible stating that ”people will adopt to this in different ways and let’s see how it all works out”.
The majority of the staff do clean their desks every day and many do change desk every day. Some of us ”Cowboys” has made some tweaks to the policy and sit a week in the same place. On Friday’s or when you know you will work from home you clean your desk. This has not passed by without some controversy hence my request to have clear communications as well as clear objectives and an open mind to people finding their ”best practice”.

Do not forget that connecting your screens and adjusting your chair every day because you had to move desk is not work efficient nor does it help work ergonomics.

What puzzles me are those that are in the office every day and pick the same seat every time. Why do they bother to clean their desk?

The Ugly

A key to ABW and Clean Desk adoption and success is hardware harmonization. What I mean is simply to have the same technical environment on every desk so people actually can sit at any desk, quickly get connected and really use the benefits of dual screens etc.

My company has unfortunately four different dual screen setups. Each with different cable connectors (VGA, DVI, mini-DisplayPort or DisplayPort and HDMI). Then the staff have three different types of laptops and only the lucky few have docking stations (makes it much easier to connect dual screens with various connectors). So people either can’t really move around as desired or don’t use dual screens or carry their own cables and have to make some additional adjustments every morning at the new desk.

Best practice would have been to have the same laptops across the whole staff and put docking stations on every desk. Then dual monitors with different connectors would not have been an issue.

Note: just a random ABW office. Picture found on the Internet.

To summarize

Activity Based Workplace is a very good thing in my opinion. The new office brings good energy to the staff and offers plenty of different ways of working together. But designed and adopted wrongly can leave you with a stale after-taste.  My suggestions are:

  • Welcome the Good
    • Every office needs to be energized. ABW can help with that and create more effective teams as well as get people to mix between departments.
  • Consider the Bad
    • What is the key driver for you? Effective utilization of the seats because you want to minimize office space or is the focus on creating a collaborative environment with good use of the desk area? Maybe your Clean Desk policy can be flexible enough to meet different demands of your employees?
  • Avoid the Ugly
    • Make sure it is easy for your staff to pick different desks every day while at the same time be able to use the technology offered to them. The more time they have to spend setting up their work space the less they will move around. If your Clean Desk policy is very strict, forcing people to empty their desk, you might not get the positive results of Activity Based Working as you desire.

…and remember: well thought-out design is important but acceptance and adoption is fundamental.


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