This is a guest post written by Workplace Change Management Consultant Robert Garrett.

Why everyone’s talking about activity-based working

In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about activity-based working (ABW). Many organisations have discovered that the world has moved on from the boss in the corner office keeping an eye on the workers all seated in neat rows of desks busily working away. So what’s behind this shift?

Firstly, the type of work we do is rapidly changing. Computers now take care of a wide range of routine tasks, freeing up workers for more value-add, idea generation, and problem-solving type activities.

Secondly, the expectations of people entering the workforce for the first time has also changed. Throughout their time at school and university, the type of space they use has always been determined by the task or activity being undertaken. At school they went to the laboratory for science, the music room for music, the field or the gym for sports, and so on.

At university the element of choice was introduced with students having the freedom to choose whether to do small group work in the library, the café, or in the garden under a tree. Having only ever known this relationship between activity and space, the idea of joining a traditional workplace where every task must conform to an owned desk or a formal meeting room is completely foreign. Moving forward, organisations that don’t embrace 21st century ways of working, such as activity-based working, will increasingly find it difficult to attract (and retain) talented people.

However, the shift to activity-based working is not for the faint hearted. It is probably the biggest change to the way that people work since the Industrial Revolution because it decouples the relationship between individuals and an assigned or individually ‘owned’ desk.

Related topic: What Does the Agile Work Environment Look Like?

10 things you need to consider before making the move to ABW

Before embarking on a journey to activity-based working, there are a number of key factors that should be carefully considered:

1. Implement for the right reasons
Just because lots of organisations are implementing activity-based working doesn’t mean it’s right for yours. ABW can encourage better collaboration across your business, and it provides flexibility to quickly respond to opportunities and changing needs as they arise. For example, if a new business opportunity presents itself, it’s easy to pull together a team from different parts of the organisation to work on the project when everyone is set up for working in a mobile way.

From a diversity perspective, activity-based working acknowledges we’re all different. One person requires isolation to put together a presentation whereas another needs a busy setting with visual and auditory stimulation to do the same task. Activity-based working treats people as adults and lets them choose where and how they do their best work. On the flip side, if you’re just looking to reduce your lease costs, any savings will quickly be forgotten if you damage your employee value proposition (EVP) in the process. Don’t ignore the most critical people component of the transition.

2. Ensure the C-Suite is fully on board
As the biggest change to the way people work in over a century, it’s going to require strong support and advocacy from your senior exec team. Having them lead by example, becoming visible early adopters of activity-based working, will shut down a multitude of self-important arguments that will invariably surface.

3. Equally respect the three pillars
Ensure there is equal focus on the people, technology and spatial elements of the change. There’s no point providing people with a suite of great collaboration and concentration spaces if (a) they don’t have mobility enabling technology to go and use them, and (b) their leader still equates ‘work’ with sitting at a desk.

4. There is no ‘one size fits all’ model
There are a wide variety of activity-based working models around. Explore the various options and then settle on (or indeed create) the model that best suits your organisation.

5. Invest in change management
You can have the latest and greatest technology and a beautifully designed workspace, but if your people haven’t bought in to why the organisation is changing and if they can’t see the benefits i.e. ‘what’s in it for me?’ then the shift to activity-based working will be a failure.

An effective change management program is more than a communications plan. An effective change management program will take the organisation on a journey – it will involve and engage with people through a variety of mediums and at every level of the organisation so that everyone knows what’s changing, why the organisation has chosen this strategy, what the future looks like, how we’re going to get there, and the opportunities for individuals to be involved.

6. Try before you ‘buy’
Setting up a working pilot space is a very effective change tool as it enables you to trial new technology, spaces and behaviours before committing the organisation to such a huge change. Not only will you learn a great deal from the pilot that will help tailor your chosen activity-based working model, but a pilot also provides a tangible mechanism for engaging with your employees about their future ways of working. On a change of this magnitude, this hands-on approach is far more effective than a program based only on emails and PowerPoint presentations.

7. Don’t lose your conviction
It’s inevitable that some of your people won’t be excited by the change. Learn from these people, but don’t allow small vocal minority groups to determine the agenda. After a large, highly successful activity-based working transition, one middle level manager made the observation of a handful of naysayers, “You could give everyone a bag of gold and some people would still complain that it’s too heavy.”

8. Commit culturally
For activity-based working to be successful it needs to quickly become part of ‘the way things are done around here’. A good change management plan will look for ways to embed and promote new behaviours through a broad range of channels and initiatives.

9. Get rid of paper
Few people are completely paperless, however it’s almost impossible to work in a mobile way if you’re weighed down with lots of paper. Systematically address the processes and systems within your organisation that create paper. It’s unavoidable – activity-based working requires a significant investment in electronic records management.

10. Recruit for cultural fit
Activity-based working requires a different style of leadership, one that is based on trust and is primarily focused on the delivery of outcomes. If the organisation doesn’t recruit new leaders with these skills, it could see the investment in activity-based working quickly unravel.

Related article: 10 Keys to Success With the Agile Work Environment

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