The Activity Based Working [ABW] environment is fast becoming a buzz phrase in workplace design circles.
Progressive companies like Google have pioneered this new model of workplace structure which alters the ways people interact with one another and complete their tasks.
ABW has shown to significantly increase productivity, improve staff morale and reduce absenteeism, thus it’s not surprising that many large companies, such as Medibank Private, have embraced concept.
While by nature the ABW model is best suited and most beneficial to large workplaces, conceptually it can still be applied to a smaller-sized firm with, say, 50–100 staff located in a typical one-floor tenancy of 500 – 1000 m2.
Traditional workplace layout
The main premise of an ABW environment is to provide workers with a series of spaces that can be utilised during the day based on the type of work, personal preferences and even the mood the worker is in, with the goal of achieving optimum performance.
Traditionally, the tenancy would be divided into departments with a top-down ‘managerial footprint’ where corner offices are for management and workstations in the aisles for the rest (see picture above). Each worker would have a fixed work spot and they would be encouraged to use enclosed meeting rooms; staff room areas would be located in offices and predominantly be used for eating lunch. Thus the behaviour of workers in an office like this is fairly rigid, with only set channels of interactions, task compliance and management.
Now, compare that to the The ABW environment
The ABW environment is completely democratic. For starters, there is no immediate distinction or ranking of work spots; staff are encouraged to interact and communicate freely. This is encouraged by dividing workers into teams rather than departments. Below is a summary of key elements of ABW:
- At the heart of the office is a large breakout/kitchen area, where everyone, regardless of position, can come together and share food. The kitchen area needs to offer a number of seating scenarios – large communal tables for social gatherings, lounge seating for winding down, and benches along windows for quiet contemplation.
- Second to these are ‘touchdown’/home spaces for teams. For example, this can be a large work desk or high bench with stools where members of a team can gather when they need to share information and connect as a group. Each team should be encouraged to individualise and modify their home zone in order to promote positive team culture.
- Consider placing several shared enclosed offices. These can be booked by anyone for when they need to get work done in peace and quiet.
- Similarly provide several ‘think-tanks’. These are sound proofed, somewhat smallish rooms with semi-casual seating; make sure you provide ample surfaces to be used for note taking and demonstrations.
- Scatter several ‘studios’ where colleagues can meet for a short period of time. These could include bar-height benches where people stand while chatting.
- If space permits, try to designate an area for quiet work similar to a ‘library’. It would need to be enclosed with casual sitting and small desks or tables. No talking or phone calls should be permitted in this zone.
- Provide ‘shelters’. What I mean here are small spaces for one person in a shape of padded niche or pod, or just a sofa with very high back and sides. The idea is that when working inside of one of these pods, a person feels comfortable and protected but at the same time visually connected to buzz off the rest of the office.
- Many companies still require large boardrooms or ‘war rooms”, and these too can be adapted to ABW. This is where senior executives can come together to strategise and plan. In a smaller office, consider building two adjoining meeting rooms are divided by a bifold door which can easily be retracted and converted into a large conference area when necessary. A room like this would probably need a somewhat autocratic feel with defined leader positioning, and be heavily layered with technology.
ABW is only going to become more popular as increasing numbers of progressive companies, especially in the technology space, start adopting its principles of organisational workplace design.
However, the message is clear: You don’t need to be a Google to make ABW work for your organisation. Even a small office can be organised in a way that provides a comfortable working environment and productive atmosphere.
The key is to devise an environment that is flexible and can be changed easily according to the needs of teams and people who work in them. The goal is to cultivate a sense of camaraderie, belonging to a workplace community and the responsibility that comes with it.