Using ABW to break boundaries in the mind, not just in the building

Interpolis ABW

Interpolis ABW offices. Source: Veldhoen + Company

By Florine Kemp – Workstyle Consultant, Veldhoen + Company

The need to re-think how we organise ourselves

The world has changed yet our mindsets have been slow to catch up. Operating in a fast-moving world means that the ‘right’ answer today may be obsolete tomorrow. Organizations are continually pressed to innovate their products and services in order to remain competitive (Ouye, 2011). Tom Goodwin senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Havas Media sums it up:

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening”

The rapid development of technology has perhaps the most impact on our daily lives and the way we work. Today we find ourselves being accessible anywhere anytime, which challenges the notion to work the conventional nine-to-five days. The uptake of cloud technology tools has accelerated the ability for workforces to become more mobile and providing employees flexibility in when and how work gets done. However, having the right technology tools available and the right workplace strategy does not guarantee flexible work practices. A face-time culture, excessive workloads, manager scepticism and fear of negative career consequences often prevent employees from feeling empowered to determine where and how employees can deliver utmost results at best (Johnson, Noble, & Richman, 2011).

The Nature of Work Has Changed

Recently, the Wolff Olins (2015) released a report about the current state of the corporation with the headline “Impossible and Now”. It highlights how in today’s economy, thinking and changing cultures is vital to rethink a better way to a more flexible and resilient workforce. One of the main challenges that organisations face today is how to blur their traditional boundaries to respond to this more fluid business environment. The problem is that the traditional organizational map that companies use describes a world that no longer exists (Hirschhorn & Gilmore, 1992). The roles that people play at work and the tasks they perform become correspondingly blurred and ambiguous. Traditional rules and hierarchy are no longer one-size fit all for all organisations.

ABW as the Catalyst

So how can organisations rethink the way they work? A growing trend has been to create a more flexible and resilient organisation through Activity Based Working (ABW). ABW is a philosophy that challenges unnecessary rules and procedures, permanent workplaces, and regular working hours. It promotes knowledge sharing, collaboration, personal accountability, and encourages entrepreneurship (Kamperman & Zautsen, 2013). ABW recognises that through the course of any day, people engage in many different activities and need different types of work settings, tools, and technology to accommodate these activities, both inside and outside the office. An apt analogy is that of the home, where different spaces provide the tools, settings, and ambience for the different activities of the occupant. Furthermore, ABW challenges organisations to consider, “What purpose should the office serve? What activities are important to us, to our people, and to our customers, and how do we support that?” Generally speaking, fixed workpoints, desks, or offices are now used less than 50 per cent of the time, signifying a huge waste, not only in terms of square meters and sustainability, but also in operating costs. Breaking with the convention of individualised workspaces provides huge opportunities.

Crystal Clear Insurance

Activity based working is anything but new. One of the earliest adopters of ABW was Interpolis, the insurance company in the Netherlands, which created a remarkable workplace based on ABW principles more than 20 years ago. The success of Interpolis was overwhelming. On a yearly basis it receives thousands of visitors, not just from the Netherlands, but from all over the world, who are keen to see an organisation that continually evolves their approach to work. This revolutionary workplace allows visitors to experience first hand the energy and buzz ABW can bring to a workplace and see how the physical environment primarily acts as a tool for facilitating an imbedded culture of working differently. Perhaps more importantly for Interpolis however, was the ability to instil the now iconic sense of trust, ‘crystal clear insurance’, in their customers, by first providing it to their own people.

Leveraging ABW to Change Culture

In contrast to Europe, the ABW concept is relatively new in Asia Pacific. In 2008, Macquarie Bank and Commonwealth Bank were the first companies to successfully implement ABW in Sydney, Australia. The success of these projects has led to a buzz around ABW. Primarily suppliers of the physical environment (architects, developers, etc.) have jumped onto the bandwagon, but unfortunately this is often focused on the building and furniture, which means incorrect parallels are drawn between ABW, hot-desking, and open floor plans. ABW is sometimes seen as a new workplace hype. However, ABW is much more than this, and the real benefits can only be assured when ABW is implemented in an integrated way with the right focus on the virtual environment (technology and information management), the physical environment (the physical fit-out), and the behavioural environment (people and culture). All of this needs to be supported by a change management program that ensures it’s not a hollow and intellectual change, but truly embedded in how we work and lead differently in the future. A transition to ABW has to be underpinned by an organisation’s vision and culture, and many companies oversee the importance of this and focus only on the physical office, which is a major risk that can be very painful in various ways over time.

The Motivation Behind ABW

Increased engagement, more dynamic and ad hoc collaboration, the breakdown of silos, improved employee satisfaction and therefore increased productivity are often quoted benefits and outcomes of moving to ABW (Clarijs & Smulders, 2014). An independent, national benchmarking study in the Netherlands has been researching the topic for five years in which a total of 5300 professionals participated in 2015. This study shows that ABW has a positive influence on employee well being, when compared to traditional or alternate ways of working; 64% of respondents state they have more energy, 69% feel more productive, and 66% find work to be more enjoyable. The most important reason for organizations to introduce ABW is to cut real-estate costs (56%). Besides financial savings, ABW is being introduced for reasons that have to do more with retaining talent and enhancing collaboration. 34% of the professionals want to give more responsibility to its employees, 30% want to become more attractive to potential employees, and 17% stated increased productivity as a reason.

Breaking the Boundaries

Another key driver for organisations to move to ABW is to create an organisation that is more flexible where vertical hierarchies are replaced with horizontal networks and where traditional functions are linked through inter-functional teams. Creating a new way of working is about developing the right relationships. All too often, organisations think that knocking down the walls that separate people from each other will “get people working together”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good working relationships don’t happen automatically; they are not the simple product of good feelings, team spirit, or hard work. In fact, as traditional boundaries disappear, establishing differences in authority, talent or perspective becomes simultaneously more important and more difficult. Therefore ABW implementation requires organisations to develop new and different attitudes, competences and skillsets. A combination of attitude (‘I want’) and skills (‘I have the ability’) is vital for success. People and teams need to be guided to understand the changes in the informal structures and the impact on team connectedness. Creating and supporting a sense of team spirit is important. Leaders need to consider why it is important for their team to connect, and how to best support this.

The Era of Command and Control is Behind Us

Without changing leadership behaviours, old working patterns will remain. Fundamental to an ABW approach is to turn conventional thinking about the ‘command and control’ culture on its head. Creating a trusting culture in which leaders have adopted an outcome based management style is crucial for success. Most managers like to believe they already lead their people by appraising performance based on their added value (Hirschhorn & Gilmore, 1992). Yet the truth is often at the other extreme; staff are monitored, not only by managers but also by colleagues; when they arrive for work, when they leave and how long they take for lunch. To get this right there needs to be a balance between freedom of choice and deep trust, with clearly set and understood boundaries and accountabilities. Increasing levels of trust and freedom without boundaries and accountability will not result in anarchy’ rather people will still desire direction and leadership. Leaders who trust others to do their jobs foster trust in others that they can do theirs. By learning to let go, leaders liberate both their employees and themselves for the better of the organisation.

So what does this all mean? It means changing the workplace and introducing new technology will achieve little if the organisation remains wedded to the values, culture and management methods of the past. Moving from a push model where organisations assume that ‘face time’ equates to productivity to a pull model where flexibility, trust, autonomy and collaboration to drive innovation and high performance. The greatest success has been achieved by those organisations that have been able to change people’s thinking along with the change in the physical and technological space. Our philosophy is if the implementation of ABW does not challenge the organisation, it won’t change the organisation for the better.


Brady, D. G., Grey, C., & Jones, R. (2015). Impossible and now: How Leaders are creating the Uncorporation. The Wolff Olins Report. February, pp. 1-17.

Clarijs, D. & Smulders, S. (2014). Het nieuwe kennisdelen: Mogelijkheden en uitdagingen om kennisoverdracht te borgen in een flexibele organisatie.

Goodwin, T. (2015) The Battle is for the Customer Interface. Tech Crunch. (March)

Hirschhorn, L. & Gilmore, T. (1992). The New Boundaries of the “Boundaryless” Company. Harvard Business Review. May-June, pp. 104-115.

Johnson, A., Noble, K., & Richman, A. (2011). Business Impacts of Flexibility: An imperative for Expansion. Washington: Corporate Voice for Working Families.

Kamperman, L. & Zautsen, S. (2013). How Actvity Based Working will alter facilities managers’ role. Facilities Management Magazine. pp. 66-67.

National Survey about New ways of Working 2015. Source: Over het Nieuwe Werken. Netherlands.

Ouye, J. A. (2011) Five Trends that are dramatically changing Work and the Workplace. Knoll Workplace Research.