Activity-Based Work: How to Get Started

Welcome to the world of activity-based work! Robin Weckesser of a3 Workplace Strategies breaks down what you need to know to get started in your workplace.

activity-based work
Harmonic, the worldwide leader in virtualized cable access and video delivery solutions, hired a3 for project management for its 65K SF cold shell new headquarters and R&D center in Santa Clara, CA. Image by a3.

As many employees trickle back to the office while others to be virtual, there has been much discussion about where people are best suited to work. If it’s in the office, what will the environment look like? And even if workers remain at home for the most part, what are the plans for whenever they return?

While we need that connection with our co-workers, we also need to be safe and productive. So the question is: how do we best address these complexities and find a solution that works for all? As the workplace evolves in the new normal, a combination of options, venues, and locations will likely be required.

Corporate leadership and employees can expect a non-traditional workplace that continues to adapt. So, where will the employees fit in? Will it be in an open-space workstation, at a shared desk, or in a private office? Most likely, they will want to be mobile, working at a desk, in a lounge, the cafeteria, the conference room, or the courtyard. In any event, we believe that organizations need to be more flexible and give staff a choice as they consider more hybrid work settings.

But beyond location, what about the critical question of what the work consists of? What is the work function based on required tasks? And how do specific activities affect office layout and floor plans?

It’s a New Day – And We Need a New Workplace Model

Welcome to the world of activity-based work (ABW). ABW isn’t a new concept, but in our on-demand world, a world of uncertainty, labor shortages, and flux, ABW is now taking on new meaning. ABW recognizes that people perform different activities and need different work settings along with the right technology to support them.

This includes space accommodations for heads-down, focused work; high-energy and sensory-enriched collaborative areas; presentation areas with AV provisions; impromptu meeting spaces; and rooms for formal meetings with colleagues and clients.

The goal is to design flexible work space that allows employees to select which environments will enable them to be more comfortable and more efficient.

How to Implement Activity-Based Work

The benefits of ABW are clear, but is it right for you? How can you customize a program that meets your needs? While there is no quick answer and the first response/iteration may well need to be revised, the overarching goal should be built-in flexibility and user-defined areas.

The path to an optimal solution is process-driven. If the process is correct, the outcome will support the work process and assist in cultural reinforcement.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Use tracking. First, you should assess your current working dynamics. How many workers are expected on a given day? What percentage is full-time or part-time? Where do they typically perform their tasks? What is the utilization of conference rooms and other meeting spaces? How does the present footprint and space layout support individual efforts and corporate goals? 
  • Recognizing that some business models are more conducive to ABW than others, it is important to consider whether you are a good candidate, depending on the nature of your industry and the work performed. If you think your business qualifies, you may still need a culture shift, which will entail an adjustment of your mindset and your visions.  
  • Due diligence. Next, it’s a good idea to do your homework by exploring best practices of companies that have rolled out some kind of an ABW program. What worked and what didn’t? How did they engage staff and encourage teamwork? How did it affect productivity and ROI?
  • Buy-in. For ABW to succeed, the staff must first be involved, and that starts with eliciting their feedback. It also involves the buy-in and participation of the C-suite, IT, HR, and marketing. A key part of this equation is change management, which includes appropriate education, training, and communication.
  • One size doesn’t fit all, and that certainly applies to ABW. To optimize your workplace and protect ROI, consider engaging professionals who have the experience and skills, including change management, to customize a plan that works for you. Increasingly, organizations are partnering with project management firms to oversee ABW strategy and implementation, including new space configuration, seating arrangements, furniture selection, and overall project oversight.

Working to Make It Better

So, how is activity-based work working? Recent statistics show that 98% of highly satisfied employees work at a company that allows them to move freely around the office; further studies show that ABW reduces operational and occupancy costs; it also increases physical and mental health as well as productivity. However, if ABW environments aren’t designed and managed well, employees could become frustrated and disorganized. Therefore, management must be aligned with ABW objectives from the get-go, and staff must be engaged.

With proper execution, studies show that ABW enhances a holistic, people-centered workplace that promotes recruitment and retention and furthers the bottom-line. In this way, it can be a win-win for employees and employers. For this reason, CBRE reports that almost half of real estate executives anticipate migrating to an ABW environment.

One thing we have learned in these times of turbulence is that organizations need to accept that the workplace will never be the same. Accordingly, they need to re-evaluate their approach and challenge old methods that may no longer apply. They need seek the best routes toward workplace transformation, including the right investments in technology and people. They need leaders who will set the tone and empower their staff by creating an environment built on trust. Perhaps most important, organizations must be flexible—and that is what ABW is all about.

Today, space is becoming a more powerful tool that fosters engagement and drives productivity. As more executives appreciate this, ABW is gaining more traction in the Bay Area and beyond. Looking ahead, perhaps we can learn a lesson from the 1990s, when Interpolis insurance in the Netherlands coined the term “activity-based work” and gave employers autonomy to choose where and when they worked. Their motto: “As long as the work gets done.” The results? Apparently, the work got done.

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