Beyond ABW: What’s next for workplace design?

By Deborah Ellison, Ellison Consulting

Activity Based Working (ABW), as a concept, was introduced in the Netherlands in 1996 by the Dutch firm Veldhoen. Since then, the concept has appeared in organisations across the world. In its simplest form, ABW is the idea that workspaces should vary based on the type of activity being undertaken. Whilst I applaud the impact this concept has had on office design across the globe, I believe it is time to elevate the concept, take office design to a higher level and truly transform the way businesses operate.

I spend a lot of time meeting with clients and the one thing I hear time and time again is “we just want an ABW office.” Nothing exasperates me more than the assumption that ABW is a cookie-cutter design that can just be dropped in to any office environment. There is a genuine belief in some organisations that ABW is a lick of paint, some funky furniture in the break out area and lockers. Unsurprisingly, the organisations who fall in to this category rarely see any benefit from the transition to an ABW workplace and actually end up with disengaged and disgruntled employees.

So, if a lick of paint and some lockers isn’t the answer, what is?

The first thing I tell my clients when starting out is, don’t feel obliged to give what you are doing a “label”. It doesn’t have to be an ABW or Agile or Intelligent workplace, but it does need to be a place that allows you to be the best that you can be.

So forget the labels and instead think hard about what is right for your organisation and what success looks like for you.

To understand what is right for you, you must understand there is a critical link between your organisation’s strategy and its workplace strategy. The workplace strategy must always support the overall strategy for the business or it will not work. For example, if part of your business strategy is to be environmentally conscious and responsible, then your workplace strategy should not include the use of unsustainable products or services. A complementary workplace strategy would include recycling, refurbishing and detailed energy assessments of all products. Equally, if a business strategy includes a people engagement push, then the workplace strategy needs to enable collaboration and connection.

By linking the two strategies from the outset you can then create a set of guidelines that will drive your decisions throughout the transformation process and ensure you remain true to your aspiration.

Once the workplace strategy is defined and validated against the organisational strategy it is important to communicate that strategy to your people. Employee engagement is critical to success and a high level understanding of your vision and aspiration from the beginning will ensure people feel a sense of ownership, understanding and are part of the process This will reduce the negativity often associated with workplace transformation programs.

Workplace design has become a very emotive topic and while engaging with employees and understanding their needs and requirements is mandatory, it is also important to articulate up front that there are a set of guidelines that will underpin decisions and a group of people that will be ultimately accountable and responsible. In no circumstance is it a good idea to ask employees for their opinions of paint colours or carpet swatches. However, it is important to listen to what your people think, feel and need in order to do their job more effectively and efficiently. Understand what inspires them, what makes them get up in the morning and then ensure your designers understand the connection between those things and the business and workplace strategies.

Overlay the employee needs, organisational and workplace strategies with hard evidence from workplace observation, social networks mapping (typically done through surveys) and you have a recipe for real success.

So what exactly is hard evidence? Hard evidence is obtained through detailed workplace observation. Collecting data on the occupancy levels of each type of work setting, the activities being undertaken at each setting and the level of collaboration between staff members.

There is a general belief throughout the commercial property industry globally that workplaces are never more than 80% utilised at any given time. Having said that, some organisations have utilisation rates as low as 30%. Understanding your organisation occupancy through such studies is critical to understanding how much space you’ll need. And knowing what people are doing in the occupied spaces is critical to determining your workplace design.

Consider the below:

Two of the key characteristics of a successful workplace are choice and freedom. A choice of various work settings and the freedom to make a choice. While the idea behind ABW is that people will choose a different work setting depending upon their activity, my research indicates that is not necessarily the case. Working with multiple clients over a period of 3 – 4 years has allowed me to identify a pattern of behaviour which I refer to as the rule of thirds. This is most easily articulated in the diagram below: Deb Ellison Consulting

To further explain; if you picture three students all carrying out the same activity, in this case studying. You will likely find one student studying in a very quiet space such as a library, a second student studying in a noisy space such as a coffee shop, and a third student studying on their bed with headphones in their ears. So, while they are all carrying out the exact same activity, their personality and personal working style preferences actually determines where and how they best perform the activity. The same applies in an office environment. Personality and personal working styles and preferences drives workspace selection.

So, how do you determine the best mix of spaces for your workplace based on personality type? You research, analyse, survey and study your people. Through evidence-based design, you spend time upfront understanding your business and your people in order to deliver an environment where the spaces align to the tasks your business performs and supports the people you have (and want!) in your business. Do not fall in to the trap of believing a “standard” ABW approach will work for you. As we all know, one size does not fit all.

Good office design delivers workspace solutions based on an understanding of what people say they want and need. Brilliant office design comes from validating those requirements with hard facts and delivering workspace solutions that go beyond expectations. This means providing a work space that anticipates your people’s needs, even if they haven’t articulated them. Evidence-based design takes time, it takes commitment, but the results will speak for themselves.

From the ABW concept we must take the characteristics of choice and freedom, but we must apply hard evidence for a business to ensure that the right choices are being offered, not only for activities, but for different personality types.

So, don’t fall in to the trap of labelling your workplace journey, just start the journey with the vision of the best version of you.