An Interview with Iolanda by DFocus
DFocus: Within the past few years, Activity Based Working has gained lots of attention in China. As the pioneer in Activity Based Working consultancy, what is your main focus when helping companies implement an ABW environment?
Iolanda: As Activity Based Working experts, whenever we are working with companies, we are looking at implementing a new way of working. It starts with the “Why”. Why do people want to change the way they work? At the very core, Activity Based Working is a philosophy that drives the principles that people should be trusted, empowered and equipped to work in a way that is independent of time and location. Of course there are physical environment implications, digital implications and behavioral implications. So the main focus when we start working with an organisation is to get them to understand for themselves why they would want to change their way of working. Then, once that “why” is quite clear and it is aligned with their business strategy, we can support them in their journey to uncover what would be a better strategy for how they work and their workplace.
The Activity Based Working concept started in Europe and has been around for about 30 years. In the last 5 to 6 years, we are seeing much more interest from Asia-based companies, especially China-based companies.
DFocus: Veldhoen + Company has implemented hundreds of projects globally. What industries are key targets for Activity Based Working Transition?
Iolanda: We’ve completed about 600 different projects globally in the last 30 years. I do not believe that any one specific industry is more suited to Activity Based Working than any other. Having the experience of working in various industries with organisations allows us to demonstrate our worth when meeting leaders in terms of their attention to their people, their talent, and level of autonomy that they give to employees and so on.
About 10-12 years ago, we saw big up-take of Activity Based Working in the financial services sector e.g. banks and insurance companies. And it was not because it was trendy in the industry but the industry was facing fierce competition in regard to talent attraction. So, changing the way people work, changing the environment that you offer, giving a higher degree of autonomy to your employees became a way to attract talent.
In the last 5-6 years, we have seen quite some interest from pharma and medical devices companies. Activity Based Working is not any more relevant for this industry compared to others, but again pharma and medical device industries were facing quite some talent competition, since they started to compete with the tech organisations for top talent. More pharma companies started to embrace Activity Based Working to attract the right talent, to retain them and to drive more innovation. Actually some of the leading pharma companies we have worked with have embraced activity-based thinking holistically, and are currently running deep organisation and culture changes fuelled by the principles of distributed teams, empowered employees and trust – which are very much sourced in the activity-based philosophy.
We also work with government institutions, hospitals and city councils. So I would not say there is one industry which fits Activity Based Working better than others. Because there isn’t simply one formula. The formula of activity-based working is very organisational specific.
DFocus: Speaking of the benefits of Activity Based Working, one of the major motivations for companies to pursue ABW transition is cost reduction of Corporate Real Estate (CRE). Are there any significant cost savings that have been achieved from your recent ABW projects?
Iolanda: I think you raise a very important point. A lot of companies initially think that activity-based working is just about saving space. And many clients did achieve 20-25% or even more RE reduction through creating spaces designed based on Activity Based Working principles. However, I would say that if you choose activity-based working as a means only to save cost, then you are not going choosing the path of least resistance. Because the easier journey to save costs would be either implementing a traditional open plan workplace strategy (and just give people smaller desks), or just using hot-desking approach to get people to share a bunch of desks.
True Activity-based working is quite complex to achieve in an organization. It requires both behavioral change and mindset change. The transformation is more than just renovating and placing a bunch of work settings there and therefore you’ve got activity-based working happening. It’s about what do we, as a company, think that we need to prioritize? Do we need to value more collaboration, do we value more focus time, do we value more creative and brainstorming between people? Do we value all of these? We should design our organization systems, processes, policies and workplaces for what really bring value to us. It is about, allowing and empowering people to make choice about time and location of their work. Additionally, to be able to make a choice using different tools or to move to a different space to achieve the optimum result.
So for those companies that came to us and said that they want to save costs. I asked them if they were sure that that was all they wanted to do. If they only wanted to do that, maybe it was easier to achieve that in a different way. But if they not only want to save costs, but also pursue a deeper change in ways of working to drive more innovation, more collaboration, attract more talents and increase the organization agility, then they should embrace activity-based working. This choice will support their aspirations with the right space needs and will also shift their mindset and behaviors.
DFocus: Generally, people resist change. As an expert of workplace strategy and change management, what advice would you give to facilitate a smoother Activity Based Working transition?
Iolanda: Yeah, you’re right. People normally resist change. We’re built like that. At the same time, I think people resist change if the change is ‘done to them’. So what I would advise for facilities managers and workplace strategists, is not to create a solution and then ‘sell’ it to the employees. Instead, involve people in defining what change will look like. I sometimes hear customers say, okay, now we’ve completed the design, can you do the change for us? I’m like, well, if you have already got so far in decision making and you have not created the idea with the involvement of your people, it is going to be an uphill battle because people will just see it as something ‘done to them.’ Plus you can’t really ‘do’ change to people – you can inspire, guide, support but the change needs to be taking place in the organization.
Firstly, I would encourage them to involve every employee and team as early as possible. Not in voting for the colours of the task chairs, but in defining the holistic concept: why would we change? Why should we change? What are the business imperatives to change? What would be the benefits? Do we see any positives? What are the negatives? Having all of those conversations very, very early on with as many representatives as possible, makes for a very different final concept, and a totally different discussion around ways of working. Most of the time, even though people initially react with a bit of, ”Hmm, what is this?” or “ I don’t know about that”, once they start to contribute, they actually come up with brilliant ideas that make the overall work concept even stronger.
Secondly, in some regions, especially in the countries that we’re both operating in, like China and Singapore and Japan, it is important to get the buy-in of the leaders. The leaders of workplace and real estate, can’t (or shouldn’t) initiate or drive this transformation on their own. It needs to be very much anchored into the business leadership. Business leaders would be able to indicate whether the intention is to innovate more, or accelerate the launches of product. I believe the facility managers and workplace strategists should work from the very beginning with business leaders, with people leaders, with technology leaders to define that “why?”. Then the leaders become big supporters and hopefully role models of the transition that you’re trying to drive and the success rate for such transformation increases significantly.
The third thing would be to make sure that you have a project team formed from multiple functions, represented by multiple capabilities. You have to partner not only with facility managers or real estate leaders, but also human resource and IT at the minimum, and ideally with business, too. Because it is about transforming the way all people work.
Then the last one, I think you need to be very sensitive to the local culture, both national culture and organization culture. I have seen many efforts to drive change, taking a rather Western world approach to change with a lot of focus on individual and individual autonomy. In our experience from working on a lot of projects in Asia, change efforts around teams and the collective values would work much better and more smoothly. The new ways of working become THE way of doing things because team members support each other, they challenge each other and also give each other feedback. It becomes a team-gig and effort as opposed to an individual-centric approach to change.
DFocus: What do successful ABW Transitions have in common?
Iolanda: I think there might be a few differentiators between successful and unsuccessful Activity Based Working transitions. One of those is having a formula that fits for that particular organization in that location. I’ve seen sometimes global organisations, they come up with the decision to embrace activity-based working globally – nothing bad about that. And then they come up with a fixed ‘design guideline’ that they then want to apply everywhere. But teams are different. Even if you have the same teams in multiple locations, the activities that those teams do could be quite different. So applying the same formula doesn’t work all the time. We see that the physical space actually fails to meet the requirements and the needs of the local teams and their activities. The companies that do Activity Based Working transitions well really spend time in understanding the activities of the local teams.
Secondly, I would say the other big differentiator is the way that you’re truly able to not only talk about empowerment and choice, but also allow people to really have it. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that you are creating an environment that you think supports more collaboration. So, you say that you want to support people to socialise more, but when two of us would try to socialise, there is the manager who passes by and sees us sitting together, and he/she says, “how come you’re not at the desk? how come you’re not working?”. What is that going to create? Such behavior it is only going to create the sense that we were told we have this choice but we can’t really use it. We’re not truly empowered because we’re not trusted enough. So companies that are successful in embracing the true activity-based thinking are the ones that also empower their people with trust, where the managers, especially the middle layer managers, are confident that they can trust their people to do work and to decide on their own activities. Also, there is an open conversation between them and the employees.
DFocus: Mobility and flexibility are basics of Activity Based Working. How do you think digital transformation could help ABW in terms of that?
Iolanda: First of all, when we try to assess what’s going on within a customer’s organisation, technology plays a big role because you need to collect data around how people are currently working, and collecting data is important. You can do it in multiple ways, but obviously sensor technology and IP-based technology give you a lot of rich information. What is equally important in this data collection phase is to validate the data with employees, so that you’re making full sense of what’s going on. If an employee truly has a choice about where he/she work from and with whom, they should be able to have real-time data of the availability of people they wish to work with or work spaces that they wish to use.
Especially nowadays in the New COVID world, a lot of people are indicating that they would like to work remotely for a number of days a week so I think technology plays a big role in figuring out if they do choose to go to the office because they are supposed to meet people there. Technology should help make an informed decision.
Lastly it is about collaboration tools, and it is about shifting a lot of collaboration from potentially face-to-face. So we can choose to sit face-to-face and have discussions in the same room. We can choose to use technology to be in the same time in the same meeting, but also we could use technology to work and collaborate with everybody present there between certain hours. And if you start working in a more asynchronous way, you have to rely on technology much more. So I think technology is a super enabler and very important throughout all the Activity Based Working transitions.
DFocus: Prior to new workplace transition, do you think office occupancy data plays an important role in supporting the right workplace design and high-performing activity-based transitions?
Iolanda: For sure. I think you need to start at the very beginning collecting data and insight into behaviours of people, understand where from they carry out those activities and how is the workplace being utilised. Collecting data is very important as well as combining the data with the qualitative inputs that come from the users. I think, those two together make for a very strong start.
For some type of data, we want it to be consistent, so we always do in depth survey of employees and occupancy studies. You, at DFocus are experts on sensor-based occupancy studies and we find it important to collect data regarding the activities and how the space is being used.
DFocus: During the past few months, COVID-19 is reshaping everything, especially the way we work. How do you think ABW can help organizations get through the crisis? And what do you think would be the new normal for post-pandemic workplace?
Iolanda: I don’t think there would be one single ‘new normal’. I think that there would be multiple ‘new normals’, or we could be experiencing a series of ‘next’ and then we’ll evolve from there to something else. Even before the pandemic, every organization already had its own culture and its own way of working, its own ‘normal’. Everybody had its own flavor.
Now I think it is quite important that organizations pay attention to what their people are saying in terms of activities that they would want to continue to do from home versus go to the office versus work from somewhere else. But I also think that taking time to discuss and revisit the business and workplace strategy is important. We have seen some organisations immediately jumping to a conclusion, like cutting ‘half of their real estate in x number of years’. I can imagine that it could be the case if they have already thought about it for a few years, but taking a big decision like that in two months or three months might be a bit rushed. I’ve also seen companies that can’t take any decision at the moment. They are more taking the approach to stay put and decide later on. And every bit of the spectrum is just ‘normal’ for that organisation. It is about the varied ways we react to the unknown.
But I think in the future, we will see a much more tailor-made approach, organisation-specific or even team-specific. Again, it all boils down to the activities that you do. There is no formula that fits all. That is why I believe there will be no one unified ‘new normal’. And it is quite important to analyse it company by company, and sometimes even team by team to reach the right decision that aligns with the business strategy. So it will result in quite a lot of models, but the general data seems to indicate that in many countries, especially in Asia, people do mention now that they would want to have two to three days being able to choose to work remotely. So I think that the concept of activity-based thinking and activity-based working can play a major role. If nothing else, I think it’s even more relevant now than in the future. Because if you start understanding the activities of teams and organisations, then you can design the workplaces and the third spaces in a more informed way and you can also decide on equipping your people to be able to do certain work activities from home as well in the best way possible.
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