In its purest form, ABW is an environment in which an employee has no ‘allocated real estate’ (a space or desk facility) other than a locker or draw pedestal for personal belongings. The employee selects from a suite of available work settings an environment/facility which will best complements or supports that day’s range of work activities/challenges.
Like all fresh concepts it takes a few innovators to lead the pack. Sure enough, companies like KPMG and IBM have embraced ABW – or at least what might be branded as ‘hybrid’ environments, which comprise elements of both more traditional (allocated real estate enabled by technology) and ABW accommodation options.
This subtle difference is important to note before the masses follow suite: ABW should rightfully be a term used to describe how people work, as opposed to a type of physical space. It’s not about having a flashy, ‘funky’ office design – although this might be a welcome side-effect of a shift towards a non-territorial work environment – but rather it’s about breaking down work tasks, defining the range of different activities that might require a range of different activities, and developing a range of different physical work settings to be most effective and efficient.
“All work can be termed activity based,” says Graham Kirkwood, managing director, Resource Architecture. “The spectrum of environments to support work activities can range from a single desk in an office to a suite of settings including meeting rooms, interaction spaces, quiet private work rooms and so on. In practice, we all move from one setting to another and we never occupy all of the spaces at any one time.”
This idea of a spectrum or scale is handy to keep in mind in any discussion about ‘readiness’ for nontraditional work environments: at one end of the spectrum are employers that do not allow people to take ‘ownership’ of any space; at the other end are employers that might allow people to have a space that they can call their own.
“The choice depends upon not only cost, but also how to get the best outcome from your people,” says Kirkwood. “If we look at the workplace as we would a factory, we would only assign a work setting on a Just in Time (JIT) way, in order to reduce the level of un-used stock.”
Taking the lead: the education sector
Interestingly, the corporate world is not the leader in this space. The education sector (particularly secondary schools and universities) has led the way, and offers some pointers for coporates. In the opinion of Simon Gunnis, managing director of design firm PCG, the modern tertiary campus is the purest form of ABW environment. Tenure is premised on a relationship of trust and success measured by outputs as opposed to inputs. The University of Melbourne, The University of Adelaide and The University of Technology Sydney are prominent examples that have embraced the ABW concept.
PCG’s white paper, The Genesis of ABW, states: “Higher education is questioning traditional methods of teaching and learning environments that have been the cornerstone of their success, and turning to new pedagogies supported by new environments. As such, they are moving towards a wider range of teaching and learning methods and a more student centred pedagogy promoting active, collaborative and problem-based learning – the very skills business seeks from recent graduates.”
The driver behind these factors is the next generation of ‘agile’ students. They bring new traits and requirements that are challenging the status quo and forcing higher education to explore and understand how students (and teachers) learn, share and work.
HR professionals are by now familiar with ‘Activity Based Working’ (ABW), a term that has stemmed from the philosophy of ‘unallocated’ or ‘non-territorial’ work environments.