Losing fiefdom in the transition to Activity Based Working

In the rush to Activity Based Working (ABW), can losing fiefdom from a two-speed implementation be good for learning across the organisational board?

A couple of days ago, Hiromi and I paid a visit to the offices of strategic innovation of another of Australia’s major financial institutions, at the top of one of Sydney’s CBD towers. Our purpose was to check out, by invitation, how workplace operations run within its ABW-style accommodation, and in particular those facilities accommodating the activities of its office for strategic innovation.

What we found was, to my eyes, not surprising. The walls, mainly in the form of floor-to-ceiling whiteboards on rails, which could be reconfigured to meet the thinking and information-sharing needs of any (within limitations) given group of individuals, were bedecked with post-it notes, diagrams and flowcharts.

Spaces away from the action’s centrepieces were divided into those for relaxed one-on-one armchair discussions and others for more serious screen-based deskwork.

The movable spaces had been adapted from existing office stock and some sort of colour coding seeming applied to signify which were for what purposes.

However, in this office, not all the implications of the technologies had yet been worked out, as not all cabling yet drops from the ceiling, restricting the movement of certain workstations.

When I asked if this space and the department’s work came with metrics attached, our host told me that it wasn’t so much that the need to do this work could be measured, but that the work involved couldn’t be performed in any other way. It needed expansive white surfaces on which its participants could post, think out loud and share their insights.

Fair points.

Yet, across the corridor and beyond the offices afforded to the creative insights of strategic innovation, although the rest of the organisation might also have been moved to a looser way of ABW engagement, its implementation was clearly somewhat less joyful. This may perhaps be reflective of the necessary conservatism of the industry itself.

In these spaces, ABW-style worker mobility might have been incorporated, but its fun hadn’t transported, as the colour and breakout areas enjoyed by the department of innovation had seemingly not been accorded to those beyond. At least, if they existed they were less visible to our visitor eyes.

Moreover, when the decision had been made to move the rest of the enterprise over to ABW-type activities, I think I understood that 900 people had had to make this transition within a three-month period, necessitating the end of dedicated private working spaces populated by personal effects, with pictures of families, pets and so on.

When I observed that the speed of this transformation must have been extremely painful for many of its workers, our host conceded that it had been, and had been accompanied also by the deconstruction of many fiefdoms.

Where in any traditional office environment there are obstacles to sharing in workplaces of all sizes, many are bound up precisely in the hierarchical signals of the dimension, layout and location of a worker’s personal space, and therefore their need to engage with others.

But, while it might bring down office costs and enable greater workplace mobility, one has to wonder just how ripping up the rulebook and offering something even less personalised, colourful or playful benefits learning across the organisation when it is implemented like this.

In due course, I am looking forward to finding out more.

About this post

As architects, we aim to get commercial property occupiers, developers, owners and investors a better return on their built space, which means we have to be active observers of technological advances that have impacts for effective workplace design. Many of these parties are of course already acting in line with the inexorable trend towards Activity Based Working-style work environments, but I am conducting unique, proprietary research, to be published here and elsewhere, trying to identify what lies beyond this trend. My interest is driven in significant measure by the ways in which social workplace technologies can be engaged in transforming business thinking and practices, as well as in the design of work environments capable of enhancing workplace culture and advancing organisational learning and innovation.

Please also read:
The learning organisation: An interview with Robert Hillard of Deloitte Consulting
Losing fiefdom in the transition to Activity Based Working
Can you compete against the minimum viable office?
Designing for creativity attracts better workers
The challenge of instituting collaborative workplace designs that work across the shop
How will the Learning Economy transform your workplace?
Google wants you to use its minimum viable office. How will you cope?
How might your property be put to better strategic use?


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