How to Implement Activity Based Working

I was recently asked to write a blog on how to implement activity based working (ABW) / agile working. I decided that as this is a huge subject, I’d take a look at how other organisations explain what needs to be done and I found that there is a lot of advice about what to do, but not so much about how to do it. Advice is very straightforward and makes everything look easy – and although this isn’t rocket science, it is far from simple to implement activity based working and an approach that you will be able to sustain.

So, here are 5 key things that I think are important for anyone that is embarking on any journey of workplace transformation to know – with some thoughts about how to tackle the challenges when you want to implement activity based working.

1. Understand why you want to make the change and implement activity based working

There may be a financial / real estate driver which is the absolute focus and objective for the organisation and the reason it has decided to implement activity based working. If so, the next question is – what opportunities does the move to activity based working give to the organisation – and therefore why is it good for business?

In truth, both reasons should be driving the change. The cost / real estate reason may be the catalyst, but nobody should implement activity based working for its own sake – they should do so because it facilitates other organisational change‘s to take place.

Why might an organisation want to move to activity based working?

  • If an organisation wants to be more agile – i.e. to implement change easily in response to market changes – then it needs a flexible infrastructure, a flexible / agile culture, management practices and ways of working (all deliverable through ABW). All these elements should be consciously designed to enable the organisation to change more quickly and easily, with a minimum of pain.
  • If an organisation works in silos – where people in each silo are inward looking and don’t share information, expertise or market knowledge with each other – this may lead to missed business opportunities, reinventions of the wheel, duplication of skills, wasted effort etc. In this case, Activity based working would help tackle these working practices by providing the right infrastructure to support different ways of working – assuming there is an appetite to tackle the cultural / managerial / behavioural aspects.

On the other hand, if activity based working is seen purely as a way to save space / money – then it may still do so, but at the expense of capitalising on a whole range of other business benefits.

Being clear about what can be achieved and agreeing what opportunities the organisation would like to leverage is critical. If there is no logical, understandable “Why?” story – people simply won’t buy into the change.

2. Remember who the customer is

Those of us responsible for delivering the modern workplace probably regard our CEO/MD, Director or stakeholders as our prime customers when delivering ABW. This is fundamentally about objectives and how success is measured. While this is important, the true customers are all those working within the organisation – not just the senior decision makers.

Who’s important?

Often, workplace change is driven by financial / property drivers which propel organisations to make decisions based on maximising the usage / value of real estate assets and/or reducing the cost of the portfolio. These are very hard, financial drivers prompting decisions that are often made without considering the impact on those working in the organisation. That is understandable, but we often find that the rationale for the change is presented to the staff as something that is being done for their benefit – and most will see straight through that smokescreen. The truth will out – and it’s better to control how the truth is communicated than to have staff distracted because they feel deceived.

To truly support workplace customers (staff!) requires commitment and evident involvement from the very start. Everything that happens during the project has an impact on how people see the journey, their perception of how they are being treated and in turn influence their decision to get involved.

Workplace consumers

Please don’t just say the project is “people centric” – take steps to ensure that it really is. Again, easy to say – more difficult to achieve. Simply having this in mind will be positive – thinking about each step of the process and how it will be seen by those affected should help guide communications and how to engage employees.

When gathering information about how people work, pay particular attention to things that deliver friction in their day. Every piece of friction (the printer is always breaking, I can never find a meeting room, the tech in the meeting room is difficult to use, I can’t concentrate when it’s noisy) is equivalent to lost employee performance for the organisation.

When explaining how the new workplace will operate, take time to explore how people will use different areas of the office for different tasks. Recognise that people are all different – they’ll need different spaces for similar tasks – but choice will enable them to secure the right conditions for their needs. Help people to explore and make sense of things for themselves – self-discovery is very powerful, and people are more likely to sign up to something they’ve helped identify / co-create.


3. Avoid the seduction of “buzzword” solutions

The cult of collaboration

One of my bugbears is the over provision of “collaborative space”. There is a trend to providing settings where people can collaborate more – but no explanation as to what they should be collaborating about, and with whom. Leaders often say they want more collaboration but are incapable of explaining why.

There may be very good reasons why the people should collaborate more – but if nobody can explain this then if won’t happen, even if the spaces are provided. If the collaboration space is provided at the expense of quiet areas for focus and concentration, then again this will produce a deficit of the right type of conditions for people to do the work that they DO know about!

The visual is over emphasised

There is also a tendency to focus on the look of the workplace, often at the expense of functionality but also on the acoustics in the office. The look of the space is obviously hugely important, but so is the ability of people to achieve acoustic separation from the things that distract them – when they need to concentrate. It’s much more difficult to think about how the space will work acoustically, but nevertheless this is a critical aspect of how the users will experience the spaces.

If there is an over provision on collaboration space (inevitable generators of noise!), this often results in there being insufficient quiet space – or that the quiet spaces aren’t correctly located away from areas of noise, such that they are truly quiet. Noise has a significant impact on workplace performance.

In delivering excellence in workplace experiences, take time to understand how people work, what they need, and how the needs can be met (i.e. for the range of different tasks). Step into their shoes, understand their needs, appreciate the impact of different types of distraction and see this in the context of productivity – every distraction results is lost effort.

4. Take your time

When embarking on a major organisational change, such as a move to activity based working, time is critical. It’s not always easy to “Take your time”– particularly when there are multiple drivers and pressures surrounding the initiative.

Change takes time

Generally speaking, the physical and technology aspects of an activity based working implementation are easier to implement than the human / behavioural (hearts and minds) aspects. This is not to say that the physical / technology aspects are always quick and easy, but they are largely associated with:

  • finances (what’s the budget?)
  • functionality (what do we want it to do?)
  • office design (how do we want it to look / how should it work?)
  • procurement (where are we getting it from / how long will it take?)
  • delivery (when can we get it here?)
  • installation (what needs to be installed, in what order, when?)
  • maintenance (how do we keep it running in the future?)

On the other hand, humans have an altogether different journey. One of:

  • discovery (what is the change / what’s in it for me?)
  • understanding (why are we changing?)
  • further discovery (what does it mean for me – what will I win / lose – does anyone care how I feel?)
  • acceptance (I’ll give it a go and see how it works)

This means ALL the humans involved – you, your team, your senior leaders / CEO, middle managers, project sponsors, team leaders, team colleagues. If there are 1,000 people in your organisations, then that’s 1,000 individual journeys that need to be supported. I’ve heard of leaders that have spent months talking to individual members of staff, helping them identify their personal “wins” when making the change to ABW.

You might ask – does anyone have that much time available? I guess the answer is – look at what is at stake, to determine whether the investment in time is worthwhile. Imagine what that leader learned by engaging with each person – in terms of building trust, demonstrating support, sharing information and ideas from outside their immediate world, explaining the vision for the organisation going forward. These benefits are also recognised as the six factors of knowledge worker productivity which contribute to team performance and really add value. It’s like having a 1:1 coaching session with each person in the business – it must have been hugely valuable.

Plan for the long haul

Now, I don’t imagine you’re currently thinking “I must arrange a 1:1 with each person in the business”! But you could consider having a 1:1 discussion with each person that you are responsible for, and encourage others to do the same.

Taking your time when considering how to implement activity based working is vital because if you are rushing, you’ll cut corners and miss the important aspects (the hard bits). We see many clients that have left it very late to embark on the change management process associated with ABW. They are backed into a corner with little time to do anything other than “tell” people and hope for the best.

As with any complex, multi-disciplinary programme of this nature – the key is to understand the journey, plan meticulously and keep the implementation under constant review – focusing not just on the aspects you can control personally, but on how the people affected are being treated. The people are at the heart of your organisation – their performance and the degree to which it is affected by the new plans should be your prime concern. Everyone says communication is key – but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “communication” = “tell”. Communication should mean engage, listen to understand, engage in dialogue so that people feel heard, even if in the end there are decisions made that they don’t agree with.

5. Don’t avoid the difficult things – they WILL come back to bite you

My trawl of “how to implement activity based working” on the internet provided advice to “get senior management on board” and “get them to lead by example”. Wise words – but often very tricky to achieve, particularly when you may not occupy an influential position in the organisation.

That said, avoiding the issue doesn’t make it go away. Focusing on the things you can control seems very seductive at this point. Often project teams beaver away gathering data or implementing solutions, trusting that when everything is ready, the leaders will somehow magically come on board (after all they told us we had their support!).

As with every aspect of change management – employee engagement is vital. The journey outlined in the previous point is important whether the audience is front line staff or senior leadership. Experience shows that everyone has the same concerns (what are they losing, how will things work, will they be less productive after the change?) plus the leaders are expected to lead something they probably don’t understand, let alone endorse.

So, we return to the power of the 1:1, having dialogue, providing information, identifying and addressing concerns. This may be a powerful group of people, but they should be handled the same way – with compassion for their concerns so that their journey can be made easier.

If we don’t get this powerful group on board, we may as well not bother – as the lack of support will definitely come back to bite you!

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