Eoin joined Veldhoen + Company in 2019 but had his first taste of Activity Based Working (ABW) as Business Operations lead of Pfizer for Australia and New Zealand.
In his Life at V+C interview, Eoin shares with us about his first experience with ABW, how it felt to experience it from different levels of a multinational organisation and subsequently, how this curiosity propelled him into a behaviours-first approach now in his work as a Senior Consultant.
Eoin also shares his personal philosophies, why he hates the word transformational, and a fond experience with leadership that may have nudged him onto the road of workplace strategy.
V+C: Tell us how you found out about ABW?
Eoin Higgins: It was in my previous role as Business Operations Lead for Pfizer. The manufacturing campus had shut down and the space was more than the organisation needed so they decided to relocate to the city, and try this newfangled thing called Activity Based Working.
At the time I remember my manager saying to me “this is going to be the biggest change that Pfizer Australia and New Zealand will ever do.”
I was on the steering committee and part of the sub-streams leading the ‘etiquettes piece’ (as we call it at V+C) to develop our team agreements.
It was in this role that I got a window into two things: one was the behavioural elements of ABW in a lived experience way. I also got to see from my place on the steering committee how this might be perceived by an executive and how the dynamics played out among the stakeholders.
V+C: In your work, you have the opportunity to affect a lot of people. Is there an instance where you were on the receiving end of really great leadership that now inspires your approach?
EH: I was inspired when I first entered the leadership realm at Pfizer by the leader who thought beyond the typical team building hoops. It was more about “how do we build a network of people who see each other as humans first and then functional leads or responsibilities second?”
This helps when things get tough because otherwise you just associate people’s titles with the problems of their departments. It’s easier to place blame when you’re not seeing the human side of a person.
So, a team becomes a network of relationships rather than a network of tasks or deliverables. That really affected how I see teams can operate. It’s not a set it and forget step either but rather it its ongoing relationship management.
V+C: Going from your first taste of ABW, how has your version of ABW changed or, has it changed?
EH: My understanding of ABW has deepened but some of the fundamentals landed early and still hold true today.
One was that a systemic change with Activity Based Working is fundamentally transformational – and I do not use that word lightly. I often joke that this word is overused, and it loses its weight, but ABW comes as close as can be.
It's an existential moment if the organisation allows it to be.
Existentialists will say that you have these moments in life where your life is disrupted. It’s existential because you must review your world perspective and, ask "how do things work?" It compels you to interrogate how it was before and how it might be different.
A move to ABW, is like that because people who are working in the traditional way (who are used to that flow and structure) must interrogate how they work now before adopting this New Way of Working with ABW. They have an opportunity to ask fundamental questions about what they want to retain, about how they work and what they can let go of.
I work to open them up to the possibility by imagining what might improve. For a lot of people, once they get over that fear hump, they experience that there’s an immense liberating factor to ABW because they realise, they never needed the office or the desk.
V+C: How do you work with clients to translate their values so that they align meaningfully in the transformation journey?
EH: We try look for a set of aspirations, we're looking to get beyond, “we want an efficient use of space or, "reduce the floor plan.”
ABW provides an opportunity for them to really take a step back and ask: How do we want to be together? Who do we want to be together? What do we want to achieve together?
Since ABW is so flexible and mailable, it allows individuals and teams to continually work in different modes and configurations. So, the opportunity is there to retain things that are working and jettison things that are not.
At a strategic level, we are identifying how the New Ways of Working will enable organisational success. It needs to support what they’re already trying to achieve.
Common hooks include the desire to be more innovative, issues with silos, or changing the brand positioning in the market. Work is a human behavioural thing first. Then, it can be about how the environment and the technology will that support.
Except, you can’t measure behaviours as easily which means often organisations lean on the aspects that are easier to manage and quantify. Even though you need a building and technology to complete work – the intangible cultural stuff is equally as important but gets a short shrift because it’s so abstract.
So, we use the existing challenges within the organisation and my job in my practice as a workplace consultant is to find my place on the continuum between principle and pragmatism.
V+C: It’s interesting to hear your personal philosophy on the new ways of working. Do you hope to see a more philosophical approach become common?
EH: The systems are so complex but there are areas around philosophy of leadership, philosophy of management which is less about scientific management. I think philosophy and social sciences are more suited to understanding organisational life.
Organisational trends that I hope to include, are concepts like continuing to become more loving. Love and compassion get a bit of bad rap and can be seen as softness or weakness, but I’ve seen leaders (mostly women) show up as loving. I realise that they're choosing this approach even though it's harder to get the results.
A lot of corporate organisations are coming to adopt this mentality as they realise that people want to be a part of something bigger and do work that goes beyond themselves in the long term.
V+C: Is there a piece of advice that you once received that you find most helpful in your daily work?
EH: My manager, Martijn has a regular piece that feels absolutely true which is that it’s the people who are dead set against the change that are the most invested in their organisation.
It’s not that they don’t want to give up their desk. Rather, they feel the closest to the organisation and so their resistance stems form their passion and engagement.
V+C: What’s something that you read that has inspired you to think differently?
EH: There’s an incredibly beautiful book that’s surprisingly not grim (though it takes place during World War Two) called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The author was an Austrian-born Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned in Auschwitz.
He was an existentialist and through his experience being imprisoned he concluded that those prisoners who could find meaning in their circumstances were more likely to survive longer than those who could not make sense of it.
I read this book, and it confirmed that we are meaning-making machines.
Often in change management we are encouraged to position ABW through the lens of WIIFT or “what’s in it for them” and, I do not think you can tell someone what it means to them.
You can only present what is known and not known and what the circumstances are. I firmly believe it’s up to them to find their meaning.
V+C: What does a better world of work mean to you?
EH: When I think about the context of a modern, knowledge-based workplace, a better world of work is about putting humanity, compassion, and love central to the proposition and channeling drive and ambition through that rather than the other way around.