What’s So Good About Activity Based Planning?

When Advanced Workplace Associates invited New York Real Estate executives to weigh in on the May 2018 Harvard Business Review article maligning the open plan workspace, all agreed that the study lacked enough workplace data and success measures to draw any meaningful conclusions. Additionally, we all concurred that the studies missed opportunities to increase employee communication and satisfaction by failing to provide the choice of alternative spaces that activity based planning affords.

Initially meant to provoke a “if we build it will they come” sort of conversation, the evening’s discussion turned upon itself. The success or failure of the Harvard Business Review studies, notwithstanding, the question asked and left unanswered at evening’s end was “what’s so good about activity-based planning? It’s not that our guests were against it; they just felt that thus far we haven’t done a good-enough job of conveying the benefits of an activity based workspace environment to stakeholders.

Not exactly what we wanted to hear but let’s face it: for every “pro” offered we’ve encountered at least 2 “cons.” –  To list just a few:

An activity-based planning plan can:

  • encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing and cross-selling
    • “We already do that”

    • “Our team needs privacy”

  • provide more visibility to senior management
    • “I feel uncomfortable knowing everyone can see and hear me”

    • “Now that managers have lost their offices, they’re just working from home more”

  • create a more exciting, dynamic workspace
    • “I come here to work, not be excited”

    • “I can’t stand that red!”

  • increase access to daylight
    • “The seats by the window are always taken”

    • “The seats by the window are too cold; too hot; throw glare on my screen”

  • offer people more choice
    • “You mean I have to cart my stuff around everywhere?”

    • “The team rooms are always taken”

  • attract talent (the millennial’s are not complaining, so what’s the problem?)
    • “Right. They just tune out with their headsets…and they’re going to leave in two years anyway”

    • “Hey – we (Boomers) still here, and not everyone can work in Starbucks”

  • save lots and lots of money on corporate real estate run rates
    • “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!

    • “Why don’t you just cut the ‘Pollyanna Pitch’ and just tell us the truth?

Surely there are more, but it’s the last one everyone gets stuck on – especially because it’s the one we spend the least amount of time explaining. While saving money for the company and creating a dynamic, appealing workplace are not mutually exclusive goals, it’s one thing to communicate the business rationale –

It’s another thing entirely to make a human connection, and in the end, the human factor is the most essential. Our job is to tell a story that connects the rational “why, when, what, how?” to something that has a personal/emotional relevance to the individual. And boy, does that take a lot of extra work.

When furniture manufacturer, Steelcase, transitioned their headquarters to activity-based planning a few years ago, SVP, Chief Administrative Officer and General Council, Beth O’Shaunnessy, spent an entire year in individual conversations with her staff, preparing them for the change by helping them find the “personal positive” in the transition. An extreme example, perhaps, but think if colleagues working for a major manufacturer of open plan/activity based working furniture were this change resistant, how difficult must change be for everyone else?

Ultimately, it’s demonstrative of how a simple “broadcast” approach is not enough to get the job done. The trip will be different for everyone and there are no shortcuts in bringing people along on the journey. Making that personal connection is job-one in being able to demonstrate with credibility that for every loss there is a potential gain – and that activity-based planning can indeed be a good thing for everyone!

Read the next installment of this activity based working series here.

This is the third of a 4-part series jumping off AWA’s October 4th dinner with New York real estate executives to opine on “The Impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration,” as published in The Harvard Business Review, May 2018.


Written by Fran Ferrone, Senior Consultant, Advanced Workplace Associates USA

Fran Ferrone holds a BA in Speech from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and a degree in Interior Design from Parsons in New York. In addition, she has experience working with senior leaders in a varitey of Fortune 500 companies in the US and abroad.

She has published numerous articles on a variety of workplace topics, including her piece on Workplace Design that featured in Entrepreneur Online. Other features include a monthly column in Real Estate Investor Magazine, CoreNet Leader, and Buildings Magazine. Currently, Fran sits on the Strategy and Portfolio Planning Committee of CoreNet Global’s New York Chapter.