The truth behind what really makes Activity Based Working a success

As a workplace consultant, I encounter a huge spectrum of people who have their own unique ideas of how a workplace should work. Seems that when an opportunity to re-design your space comes about, suddenly every person has an idea or opinion on what furniture works best, what paint colours will stir creativity, and what funky details would make the culture ‘hip’. All opinions are valid, however many of them are misdirected and misinformed, which leads to a lot of anecdotal evidence that Activity Based Working fails and simply does not work.

In reality, Activity Based Working (ABW) can work and succeed…but only if we turn these around to re-direct and re-inform organisations on what truly makes Activity Based Working a success.

Re-direct focus

Activity Based Design and Activity Based Working are two different things. Let’s not continue to confuse the two. When we talk about Activity Based Working, we’re not merely talking about the design of the workspace supporting different activities, we are talking about the behaviours that make the space come to life; we are talking about how people work differently. For example, if a company wants to foster more collaboration, it is simply not enough to knock down some walls and create open spaces. People have to learn different or new behaviours in order to put those collaborative spaces to use. This includes behaviours that are enabled by tools and technology, allowing people to interact and connect in vastly different ways. So let’s stop focusing on the furniture and paint colours and re-direct the real attention on what matters – human behaviour.

Re-inform organisations on real success

In order to chase real success, leaders have to realise that ABW is a high risk, high reward workplace strategy. Real success relies on three critical factors:

1. A clear and shared reason why ABW makes sense for the organisation.

There is a spectrum of reasons around why organisations decide to pursue ABW. Somewhat simplistically illustrated, it may look something like this:

Activity Based Design v Activity Based Working

Being very clear on what it is the leadership team is collectively trying to achieve will help leaders take informed decisions because, in all honesty, many organisations will say they want to pursue ABW, but what they are really after is activity based design. The design industry perpetuates this mindset, with the latest discussions around workplace focused on “what comes after ABW”. If ABW is to help organisations gain true value as a strategic enabler, then it should be viewed as a long term strategy, not a short term trend.

2. True leadership engagement.

If leadership is aligned on pursuing ABW, then they must recognise it as a high risk, high reward strategy which involves commitment, visibility, and action; plainly said, leaders must engage.  The number one reason why Activity Based Working fails is due to leaders not engaging in driving the workplace vision.  More often what happens is that once the decision to pursue ABW is made, leaders are quick to form project teams that implement the program, with little to no further involvement from the leadership team. However, to change organisational behaviour is not an easy thing. Leaders must prioritise the program and engage to discuss and anticipate potential resistance to change and create and take action against the solutions that will help them achieve their workplace vision. No external partner or consultant can perform this magic for them. Leaders should act as the custodians of the vision.

3. Staying focused on the big prize.

As ABW programs can span multiple years, along the way employees from everywhere will experience pain, frustration, and resistance to change. This can look like anything from outright digging heels in (i.e. they can tell me anything they want, but I’m just going to come into the office and do the same thing I’ve always done and sit in the same seat everyday) to spreading toxic materials around the office in hopes of swaying public opinion (e.g. emailing around articles and data around why Activity Based Working fails). I’ve frankly experienced it all. True change involves leaders who will listen to and acknowledge concerns, but not seek to solve everyone’s pain. The role of a leader is to articulate the bigger prize, one that most employees in the organisation may not clearly see from where they stand. What often happens is during the multi-year journey, leadership resilience erodes and concessions are made on the workplace strategy and concept to alleviate short term pain. This is most often in response to employee concerns because leaders are often uncomfortable in delivering tough messages and/or have lost sight of the reason themselves (which is a symptom of #1 and 2 above). Whatever the reason, we all know that true visionary leaders can stand up against the heat to seek something greater than themselves.

It is not enough to rationalise the numbers, hire experts, and execute a well laid out implementation plan. This will not equal ABW success, rather it perpetuates the growing literature and research out there around why Activity Based Working fails. And I agree! Because all of these articles are saying the same thing….misdirected and misinformed decision making and execution leads to failed ABW programs. ABW takes real human effort and demands leadership time and attention to truly succeed. There is no short-cutting that.

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Allison Tsao
Australia & New Zealand Want to know more? Contact
+61 431 847 327 allison@veldhoencompany.com