When Better is Best: The Evolution of Activity Based Working

In thinking about some of the terrific new workplaces on view during AWA’s annual Workplace Week New York this past June, the comparative adjectives “good, better, best” come to mind. Some very impressive “best practices” were in evidence, all deserving of high marks for successfully creating dynamic spaces that invite, engage and support colleagues and clients on many levels. Among the most notable –   

  • A global media giant that co-located multiple entities in a space that carved out individual identities for each (competing) brand
  • A national consumer insurance company that combined practical, individual workspaces with dramatic public amenities
  • An international leader in global wellness who really walks the talk in their own clean and green headquarters

Looking forward to next year, there’s a project on the boards now that bears watching. (Let’s call it Project Omega, and in full disclosure, it’s one this author is presently working on). Project Omega is one of the last large undertakings by a global advisory company seeking to rationalize portfolios and create a cohesive culture between two merged entities. In creating ideal new work environments, all new projects over the past 5-years have included spaces with plenty of access to views and light, state of art technology, a good mix of heads-down and collaborative areas and amenities such as showers and cafés. While business neighborhoods were maintained, the biggest change was the move to free address. A rigorous change management program supported the journey, along with a comprehensive post-occupancy performance evaluation program. (6 months post-move, even resistors have admitted a preference for their dynamic new workspaces.) In other words, they seem to be doing all the right things.

Still, there’s always room for improvement, right? With the advantage of hindsight, Project Omega is seeking to make best practices better by pushing the boundaries of agile working. They’re doing so by eliminating business neighborhoods and replacing them with a combination of active, quiet and living spaces:

  • Quiet – like a library. No talking, no phone calls, just an enclave for private, heads down work. Would you spend the day there? No. But it’s perfect for deadlines when you need full concentration
  • Active – informal seating, cafes, places for informal meetings, taking a break, having a coffee, meeting someone new. Strike of a conversation; expand your base of knowledge (and your opportunities.)
  • Living – desk setups – some, not all (because hindsight shows their in use only 30% of the time) – docking station, dual monitors, keyboard and mouse at each position. Where you do the bulk of your work, where calls (in moderate tones, no speaker phones) are taken
  • And of course, the multiple call rooms, team rooms and conference rooms you’d expect

It’s stunningly simple, and addresses two issues this company continued to wrestle with, even as it successfully rolled out its new program:

  1. Utilization – even after reducing its portfolio by almost 15% it still shows a maximum occupancy of 67% globally. (Project Omega is moving from 10 floors to 3, with still plenty of room for growth). Removing the boundaries of business neighborhoods makes the space so much more flexible.
  2. Complaints about distraction, lack of privacy and territoriality are expected to reduce if not disappear. You’re not meant to stay in one location all day but go where you need to, depending upon what you need to do.  (Not unlike we did in college, rotating between library, classroom, student center and dorm.)

This evolution of activity based working design could be the end of adjacencies as we know it. “Sit with who you work with, not who you report to.” And eliminating territories supports not only growth and change, but promotes the kind of chance encounters that support collegiality. Management’s predictions for this project are reasonable: once through the anxiety of anticipating the unknown and the bumps of a settling-in period, they’re expecting it to be “horrible at first; then wonderful.” This is a company that takes formal accounting of success factors to see how the needle moves post project. Check back with me mid-2020 when we get the results. What’s most impressive in this undertaking is the willingness of management to stretch the realm of possible – taking the spirit of the initiative and the lessons learned from past projects and tweaking the program – is an acknowledgment that workplace-making is an ever-evolving process. That incremental adjustments are not only encouraged but essential. That the end of each project is really the beginning of the future.

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