The Rise and Rise of Activity Based Working

Activity Based Working is synonymous with organisations who embrace change. So in March 2015, Leesman set about a global research project that would test the claims of ABW. Here we seek feedback from renowned strategy consultant and prolific Leesman Index user Louis Lhoest of Veldhoen & Company.

Louis, Veldhoen & Company are recognised as the foremost global authority on Activity Based Working (ABW). For anyone new to the concept, could you set the ABW scene?

Simple: it’s a concept that recognises that through the course of a typical working day, employees engage in different and varied activities and they would therefore benefit from a range of work settings, each designed physically and virtually to accommodate these activities. It is recognising diversity in the workforce and enabling people to perform at their best.

That’s a major change in direction for organisations where employees have designated desks or even cellular offices.

Yes, we openly believe in challenging or breaking with this convention by making workplaces elastic and linking different spaces to different activities, not least because all of those fixed workplaces are typically used for only 50% of the time. And that’s a huge waste, not just in terms of square metres and sustainability, but also in operating costs. Activities must become the principle unit of analysis.

Erik Veldhoen’s 1994 book The Demise of the Office was the catalyst for the numerous ABW projects that have come since, but what of the “demise” – we still have offices

It’s not about the loss of offices, but is certainly about the demise of a traditional Tailorist approach where cellular spaces are statements of hierarchy and open plan of total equality. That doesn’t automatically mean that people will become less important or completely equal, far from it. People perform better precisely because they first take a look at the entire spectrum of their work. And then they gear the facilities around those needs. Both inside and outside the office.

For most organisations, that will need a monumental cultural and workplace strategy shift. So is ABW a design solution or a strategy?

Neither and both! This is much more about change management, than about designing an office. The point is that you use the momentum when creating a new office to accelerate and support the change you want. Most organisations are very limited by the place where they are working. So ABW challenges habits and routines, the way we lead and says goodbye to unnecessary rules and procedures, to permanent workplaces and to regular working hours and in its place provides a variety of choices that make the workplace fit for everyone.

Leesman’s year-long ABW research project has delivered a number of key findings that support your stance, which do you think is the most important?

Erik’s original book makes clear that people who are faced with largescale changes have to be guided carefully. For us that is the most important but unsurprising finding that 20+ years later, it is still the biggest obstacle to the successful delivery of ABW programmes. Project owners are too often seeing ABW as a physical interior design project alongside an IT mobility project and completely underestimating the magnitude of the behavioral change management needed to deliver a successful outcome. Creating an ABW based way of working entails a leadership evolution as part of the process.

But observers looking at your portfolio of successful projects will see a glut of visually stimulating, even design award-winning spaces. Are you saying this is coincidental or essential for success?

No. But it’s a finely balanced mix of IT solutions, human behaviour and new workspaces, aligned with the client’s business goals. Employees need to be able to choose a work point best suited to the activity they are going to do. The new interior has to provide the right mix and help the acceleration of the behavioural change you’re trying to implement. Most organisations are very limited by the place where they are working, so it is often a key infrastructure element to fix and is then the easiest to see from the “outside”. Give people more guidelines and fewer rules. Trust is the key element, together with letting people make their own choices. It is making sure the whole experience in the way we work and the workplace is consistent. That is the key to success.

This article was originally published by Leesman (Issue 20, Q2 2016)

Other ABW background news and journeys of Louis Lhoest:

Louis Lhoest Veldhoen + Company
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+31 6 21 89 18 48 louis@veldhoencompany.com