ABW: Love it or not?


Is activity-based working another corporate fad, a way to reduce corporate overheads or a healthier and more productive way to get the job done?

Remember the old days when you got to work, went to your office, sat at your desk and felt it was a home away from home? On your desk you had pictures of your kids or your last skiing holiday, post-it notes on the computer screen, and that’s where you sat, taking phone calls, writing emails or whatever your job entailed, until morning tea or lunch which you ate at your desk more often than not.

And remember the weight you gained as a result of that sedentary existence? Now imagine the old silos that stored grain by the railroad track? That’s how corporations are now describing your old work practises: ‘siloing’. It seems those unhealthy siloing days are over and more companies are taking up the latest trend, Activity Based Working (ABW). 

Less desks, lower costs

The thing is, office space costs more than most other things associated with running a business. So, with ABW, employees get to choose from a selection of available work sites around the office throughout working hours, rather than having an assigned workspace or office.

This space-saving approach to office design has gained in popularity since the 1990s, when hot desking was introduced. With hot desking, employees were assigned a desk for the day when they arrived at the office in the morning. In businesses where a high proportion of employees were out of the office on a regular basis, meeting with clients for example, this meant substantial savings on office space required, and therefore substantial savings on office rental costs.

Another space-saving solution was ‘reverse hotelling’, where a permanently assigned office space was fitted with a lockable cupboard for personal items that could readily be closed when the occupant was out of the office, and the space utilised for meetings etc.

With ABW, the ‘activity-based’ part means whatever activity you are engaged in during a particular part of the day determines where you will work in the office, and it means you have to move around more. It’s a method of working that has been enabled by the rise of mobile devices – rather than sitting in front of a fixed place desktop computer, we can take our work anywhere.

According to real estate experts Jones Lang La Salle Australia, ABW is here to stay and whilst it might not suit all styles of companies, adaptation to and consideration of business strategies and objectives will allow for a workplace that breathes new life into an organisation. That’s corporate speak for ‘it makes for profits and happy workers’.

No place to call home

Most agree that the creative process requires greater collaboration, and is one of the arguments in favour of the adoption of ABW. But research on information processing suggests an understandable reaction to moving about the office with no place to call home –  it isn’t popular with all employees.

Sedentary office jobs are known to cause health problems, but some studies show that when multiple users work on a computer the bacteria levels on the keyboard are increased. This has been shown to be five times the bacteria of a single-user keyboard.

Workers need space to concentrate without distractions, and interruptions do inhibit creativity, so there are suggestions that open work spaces could instead undermine creativity by normalising group behaviours towards structures and boundaries.

Some research suggests frequently relocating employees to different desks can also waste time and generate more work, and if you add the noise that’s generated by more open work spaces it could lead to more distraction, fatigue, stress and an increased mental workload. All of these can have a negative impact on productivity.

ABW is gaining momentum both in Australia and world-wide and has now moved beyond hot desking by creating multiple areas customised to work tasks, such as ‘hubs’ for team working and collaborative areas for meetings and brainstorming.

Many large companies such as Samsung, BHP, KPMG and others have adopted ABW practices and some research shows productivity has increased as a result, however, one of the major criticisms of hot desking is that it reduces employees’ ability to express their identity and personality at work. This can decrease job satisfaction, commitment and engagement, which have been shown to be positively associated with performance.

The who’s who of ABW workplaces

Global companies such as Google and Microsoft have road tested ABW, as well as others  such as PwC in the professional services sector. Companies in the financial sector, such as NAB, the Commonwealth Bank, BankWest and Macquarie Bank, are also adopting the ABW philosophies. More recently, government departments have been getting on board, in some cases using office refurbishments to integrate ABW.

However, it has been suggested that hot desking could add to a sense of loss and marginalisation, thereby having a negative impact on mental well-being since having managers take control of a person’s work space can cause workers to feel uncomfortable and identify less with the organisation.

A few years ago, BHP Billiton introduced its draconian ‘office environment standard’, part of an ABW approach, and forbade thousands of its workers from such things as eating food with strong odours, placing jackets on chairs and even sticking post-it notes on computers. The rules were ‘enforced’ by senior executives on each floor of the company’s Brisbane offices.

The severe tone of the policy, rolled out to all other offices, upset many of the company’s employees. In an email memo, BHP workers were told that cleaners would inspect their desks each night and throw away anything apart from a monitor, docking station, keyboard, mouse, phone and ‘one framed picture’.  Food was not to be eaten at the work station, mobile ring tones had to be lowered, and workers had to lower the tone of their voices.

There was a backlash in the media, with some commentators saying people spend the majority of their waking hours at work and most just want to be left alone to get on with it.

In a Business Review Weekly article, journalist Fiona Smith noted: “If they feel comfortable shovelling in fistfuls of trail mix while at the keyboard, they should be allowed to. If they motivate themselves with a gallery of family happy snaps, then why not?”

“Laying down excessive rules on behaviour and appearance just makes people feel uncomfortable and harks back to the old Industrial Age view that people are mere cogs in a machine and are easily replaceable and interchangeable,” she added.

The missing ingredient

Yes, it’s true, humans are emotional, unpredictable and messy creatures and they all have individual reasons to go to work and for how they work, which seems to be the missing ingredient or consideration in the corporate styled policies of those who advocate ABW.

On the positive side, regular communication helps to maintain organisational attachment in hot desking/ABW environments. It’s obvious from the studies that different job roles require different settings. Hot desking works best when there are clearly defined ideas, yields, and set goals, and in many cases these are unlikely to be sufficiently defined for every employee and team within every organisation.

There’s also evidence to suggest that employees have different preferences. The preferences of conscientious individuals, for example, align most closely with goal-orientated settings. For organisations and managers this means fitting the person to both the job and the workspace.

Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Undoubtedly, some of the challenges associated with hot desking will continue to be evident with ABW and the question as to whether the benefits outweigh the costs will still need to be answered. Its possible ABW environments will become the norm in certain sectors and that there will be work spaces to fit the needs of every work role and every employee.

While the jury is still out with regard to the financial returns of ABW, there are a still many benefits, including retaining high performers, a lessening of sedentary practises and the attracting of talent. Most believe that in the long run it’s still about matching the worker to the task in the right environment with the right technologies that brings about greater efficiency and effectiveness.

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