Is activity-based working all it's cracked up to be - and if so, how do you get the most out of it?
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The rising interest around Activity Based Working (ABW) sees no sign of abating. A raft of exciting and well-publicised ABW projects are paraded as workplace revolutions… but does ABW actually work?
Early in 2015, IFMA, the international facilities management association the world's most widely recognised international association for facility management professionals, partnered with Leesman, the world’s largest measure of workplace effectiveness, to embark on a wide reaching investigation into the subject.
Over the course of a year, the research project has harvested more than 70,000 employee responses that have tested the concept of ABW at a depth never before achieved.
Before we explore the key drivers, stress points and obstacles to delivering a successful ABW environment, it’s worth spending a bit of time getting our heads around modern-day knowledge workers’ activity portfolios. Some 46% of respondents actively partake in ten or more activities as part of their role.
Considering that half our workforce are doing at least ten different things at any one time, we should perhaps question whether the days of the standalone desk, once regarded as a central feature of the workplace, are over…. or, at the very least, dying out. Desks are still important, but they are no longer the epi-centre of the workplace.
Without bombarding you with stats, those who have to juggle their time between a multitude of tasks are more likely to select ‘variety’ as being a crucial component in their workspace if they’re to work effectively.
The people who have to perform between 16 and 21 activities, just to honour the terms of their employment contract, are 24 times more likely to stress the importance of a variety of spaces; that’s compared to the control group consisting of those who only have up to five different things to do at work.
Put simply, variety is key for the people with more complex activity portfolios. And yet, only 29% of the employees we spoke to are satisfied with the level of variety in their office. This is the first of many problems when it comes to creating an activity-based environment.
You need different workplace features and services to complement the array of multifaceted activity portfolios operating within your workforce.
1. Offer a variety of spaces.
Whenever we see high performance we also see workplaces that offer a wide range of types of workspace. It has a number of benefits, not least working on the basis that someone can choose the right environment for the specific task in hand. It also has additional benefits, like reducing the impact of noise.
It works if you have lots of individual spaces
Our research has also revealed that noise levels are the single biggest problem when it comes to boosting productivity. Only a third of people who are dissatisfied with the amount of noise in their office say their work environment allows them to work productively - which means that two out of every three employees may be effectively bringing very little to the overall business performance.
Of those that say they’re happy with noise levels, 82% say their environment allows them to work productively. That’s a 50 percentage point improvement. Suddenly, only one in five workers are clogging up the payroll. This, again, prompts us to wave the ‘variety’ flag.
2. Offer a variety of spaces with a range of environments.
Variety isn’t just about giving people the option of what desk to sit at; it’s about genuine choice. Too often organisations think they’re creating an agile, flexible environment simply by not allocating employees with a desk, but all they’re doing is creating the illusion of choice. Employees just get to choose which desk they’re going to work sub-optimally on.
No, the right variety isn’t a counting exercise. This isn’t about creating as many zones as you can dream up but it is about getting the appropriate choices for your workforce (where our activity analysis comes in real handy). Understand your people, understand how they work and then build the workplace offering around that.
3. Offer a variety of spaces with a range of environments, and give your people the freedom and choice to select a suitable work setting.
We haven’t quite reached the peak of our pyramid yet. There’s one more thing our research has revealed as being crucial to making ABW effective, which is… the way employees choose to work.
A number of organisations that are trying out activity-based working models are populated by large numbers of employees that are stuck in traditional work styles, which actively conflicts the work setting. So, despite commendable business intentions, employees can’t seem to break the habit of heading to a desk everyday.
People who can choose their space get more out of activities
Employees who naturally and actively use a multitude of work settings, depending on the nature of their tasks, state that their workspace allows them to work more productively than those who don’t. 66% of workers in ABW environments, with a more transient nature report that their workspace enables them to work effectively, compared to the 43% that admit to being anchored to their desks.
Conversely, 3 in 4 workers (73%) within activity-based environments are not working in a mobile or fluid way, despite the variety and flexibility offered by their organisation. This could be because ABW is not appropriate for their role or it could be due to the failings of the change management programmes and processes in place.
The research overwhelmingly proves that businesses that let employees work in an activity-based way, in environments that support that workstyle, see significant organisational benefits, so it is worth investing the time to educate the people in your business about how to use the space.
4. Offer a variety of spaces with a range of environments, give your people the freedom and choice to select a suitable work setting, and help them adopt the behavior necessary to improve mobility.
As the appetite for business strategies that fuel growth or competitive advantage grows ever stronger, Activity Based Working has become synonymous with those organisations that embrace change in an era of unprecedented complexity.
These four mission critical components will allow organisations to successfully deliver effective activity-based work environments.