Without trust, Activity-Based Work environments cannot succeed

If you haven't run across Activity-Based Work (or ABW) yet, in all probability you will soon.

This Jones Lang LaSalle report from 2012 provides a typical pro-ABW assessment. The report defines ABW this way:

ABW is a workplace strategy that provides people with a choice of settings for a variety of workplace activities. Rather than forcing individuals to undertake all their work at one
setting, ABW allows people to physically locate themselves where it is most suitable for them to complete their work.

With non-assigned seating, ABW typically reduces desk ratios from 100% (one desk for every employee) to 70% or 80%. This is possible because of the fact that most offices are never more than 60-70% occupied due to leave, off-site assignments, attendance at meetings, and fluctuating employment.

So the starting point for an ABW business case becomes the lower cost of real estate per employee. However, since this is not generally a major concern to staff, ABW is almost always sold to employees as a way to "improve collaboration and productivity".

Let's brush all the marketing aside and cut to brass tacks:

  1. Management wants to spend less on office space, and ABW can cut office space requirements
  2. The trade off of implementing ABW is that managers can no longer tightly control where employees work
  3. Therefore, implementing ABW requires an increase in trust in staff compared to traditional command and control models of management

Employees typically raise concerns about ABW such as: loss of privacy, loss of personal space, loss of storage for books and papers, and increased workplace interruptions. But would these concerns apply as much if employees genuinely felt they could collaboratively create shared workspaces that reflected the projects or tasks they were working on? Would the ability to choose to work in a coffee shop or from home as required mitigate this problem?

Managers typically raise concerns about their lack of ability to supervise staff. But would close supervision be necessary if staff had clear daily, weekly or monthly objectives that they were empowered to complete in whatever way they chose?

If your gut reaction to the idea of you, or your staff members just up and rearranging the office furniture, or working unsupervised in a local coffee shop without asking permission was negative ... there's a pretty good chance your organisation lacks trust. And without strong trust in your employees and the ability to manage by objectives rather than observation, ABW is doomed.

(If your objection lies in a lack of available technology -- eg no wireless points, laptops, or remote access to tools -- this has the same net effect. You are making employees do their work in a way that undermines the flexibility at the core of making ABW work -- ergo, you don't trust them to make the right choices.)

Without strong, top-down leadership enforcing a culture of permission, empowerment, and trust in staff activities, ABW will simply ask your employees to work pretty much the same way they always have ... but without privacy, sound separation, team member co-location, and the convenience of having needed work items in the same spot all the time.

This loss in amenity from ABW without any positive counterbalancing outcomes will corrode employee morale, lower productivity, and increase turnover. In all probability, in five years time managers will have to deal with a long-term decline in organisational effectiveness as corporate knowledge evaporates.

That's why the organisations I see who are doing ABW right don't rush into it. It's a multi-year project, involving a significant change in corporate culture. Leaders need to educate their managers in how expectations will change, and to be an exemplar of this new approach through their own actions.

And most importantly: When your employees think that their current workplace (with all of its "inflexible walls" and "fixed desk allocations") is a hindrance to doing their job rather than a help -- then, and only then, is your organisational culture ready for an ABW environment.

Did you know...

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