Many organisations are struggling with the “return to the office” approach going badly. Staff are pushing back on the return to the office, as they have now seen the flexibility and self-determination that working from home provides, and they want more. They want the choice that flexible working provides and have seen over the past 2 years, that it can work. To date the response from organisations is to communicate return to the official instructions, without answering “WHY”, then return to the office is important, or even necessary.

My experience is that this Working from Home movement is an extension of the Activity-Based Working (ABW) movement that has been going on for many years now. Many office buildings have now been quipped following ABW principles, providing various options for staff. But, the return to the office issue is being compounded, because organisations have made a bit of a hash of utilising these flexible office spaces as well.

Activity-based Working

Employees today want more flexibility, autonomy, and the ability to choose when and where they work. before COVID-19, this was limited to how the office space was configured but has now expanded to add people’s homes to the various work locations.

Thanks to technology, the traditional working model, in which everyone worked at a desk, whether assigned or flexibly, has been steadily eroding. In its place: workplaces have been steadily changing to provide a variety of space types, ranging from lounges that resemble living rooms to collaboration areas with writable surfaces for brainstorming, to phone booths for private calls. Welcome to activity-based working.

Originally coined by the Dutch consultant Erik Veldhoen in his 1994 book The Demise of the Office, activity-based working is a workplace design ethos that offers a variety of work settings geared towards different workplace activities and tasks, combined with a workplace experience that empowers them to use those spaces throughout the day. The idea is that employees will be more productive when they have the right spaces for the tasks they need to accomplish. To step into the future of work, workspaces themselves should be treated as living, breathing organisms that adapt to accommodate employees’ needs.

What activity-based working design looks like

At its core, activity-based working recognises that different people and even the same person throughout the course of a day need different working environments. Or, at the very least, the flexibility to choose the working environment that best works for them throughout the course of the day. This means thinking through the daily work behaviours of employees across a given organisation and creating workplace features that are both cost-effective and enable employee satisfaction and productivity.

The desired end state is to build a variety of workspaces that meet a large variety of needs. These range from individual-focused work to collaborative team projects. But under activity-based working models, it’s not just about building spaces dedicated solely to work. It’s also about designing places that cater to individuals’ personal and professional needs and that means thinking through how integral office staples like print rooms and kitchen areas can evolve into productive spaces.

In short, activity-based working design means thinking through every inch of the office and thinking about how it can be turned into workspaces that facilitate a variety of working styles and tasks.

While many organisations have embraced the design attributes of activity-based working as they design their new office spaces, however, they are lacking the organisational design elements necessary to deliver optimal benefits from the shift. There are three major elements that need to be considered when implementing the necessary change.

  • Physical Environments – the way the physical work environment supports different activities
  • Behavioural environment – the organisational culture, work styles and structures.
  • Virtual Environment – the way that information is mobilised, accessed, and consumed

The business benefits of ABW are clear. Activity-Based Work environments lead to more efficient use of office resources, enabling businesses to have fewer desks and fewer meeting rooms, while simultaneously improving the utilisation of those spaces and adding new degrees of freedom to office space design. From a staff perspective they experience:

Role of Technology

Without the anchor of a physical location, technology has a key role to play in an ABW environment:

  • To “connect the disconnected” and blend the physical and virtual workplaces.
  • To enable flexibility, personalisation, and choice.
  • To improve management, control, and visibility of workplace assets.
  • To enhance the experience of employees and guests.

And that is one of the reasons why I say organisations are failing to realise the full benefits of an ABW environment. While the physical space may be fully designed and equipped, the virtual environment is often lagging. I think part of the reason for this is the organisations not committing to ABW as a strategic change, seeing it primarily as an accommodation design. A good example of this is that many organisations have still not realised any cost benefits from the improved utilisation of space. Having created many work points in their building environment, organisations maintain sufficient desks for every employee, even though occupancy rates are well below 80% and collaborative workspaces become another meeting room.

The requirement to understand and drive for the benefits also applies to technology where different thinking is required to enable the flexible personalised environment staff require for their modern work environment. In the face of COVID-19, many organisations rapidly deployed collaboration capabilities such as Microsoft Teams. These tools enable a new way of working, connecting the disconnected through virtual information spaces.

This is important because, without the required changes to People, Processes and Technology, the organisation may struggle with continued location-based restrictions.

Return to the Office?

As we start to consider the future of work and the potential hybrid work environment, organisations need to rethink their flexible working approach leveraging the Activity-Base work approach. The current thinking of the often binary position of “In the Office” or “Work from home”, does not support hybrid thinking.

Under the activity-based model, the working from the home location is an extension of the Physical Environment. By thinking in these terms, we realise that working from home is specific to the activity being performed and whether that is the preferred location for that activity. The only difference is that in the office location, moving between activity spaces is quick and easy, so additional planning is required to avoid unnecessary travel.

Encouraging staff to consider what activities are best performed in what location in this way can help maximise the benefits of a hybrid physical environment. It also has the benefit of moving the conversation from being a simple binary in/out to one that includes staff considering why each location is preferred. This improves the feeling of empowerment for staff and enables them to properly engage in the location conversation.

Preferred, however, does not equate to the best. For example, team-building workshops can be carried out at home via virtual methods, and some staff, especially those more introverted, prefer them that way. But, they are best performed in a face-to-face group setting, where relationships can be developed.

Personally, I have worked flexibly for several years. I know various activities are best performed in various locations. My preferred location is not based on a simple Office/WFH decision. It is based on the activities I am looking to accomplish at that time and the preferred location for that activity. I enjoy talking to people and gaining energy from those interactions, so for me, building and maintaining relationships is in the office or, my alternative office, a cafe. But focus time for me is best accomplished at home, where I can close myself off from distractions, except for the occasional visit from the cat. Sitting at a desk in an open-plan office is my least preferred location for any activity.

How to get started

Encouraging staff to think about the activities they do on a day-to-day basis will enable them to think about the best location for that activity. This simple worksheet can be used to facilitate this conversation.

Including an alternative location, recognises that activities can be carried out in different locations, giving staff additional permission to be flexible in their choice. This approach also gives management some level of visibility into how staff are working and where they can be found.

Once teams have mapped activities across locations, then it is easier to schedule their time in advance to reduce travel between locations.

Including details of the equipment and data necessary helps determine if there are gaps in the fit-out of any location, or if a location is inappropriate, due to it being unfeasible to provide the equipment in that location. That also ensures that locations can be maintained as activity-specific, and organisations don’t incur the inefficiency of equipping multiple locations for the same activity. For example, if the activity requires specialised computer equipment or access to sensitive data, it won’t be feasible to equip every employee’s home with the necessary supporting requirements.

That is the conversation organisations need to be ready for. While, during the recent restrictions, organisations have been able to continue to operate it was in less-than-ideal circumstances. As so many were able to work from home during the restrictions it has created the expectation that all work activities can be carried out at home, for almost every role. That is not the case at all.

By taking this activity-based approach, organisations can have that conversation in a transparent and engaging manner, that also answers the “WHY” for staff. Without that to support understanding, staff will continue to see the return to the office as an edict from on high, unsupported by evidence.

Next Steps

If you would like to talk more about the challenges of returning to the office and how taking an activity-based working approach can support your organisation, contact me via the link below.