THE BLOG

The Myths of Activity Based Working

04/09/2013 12:32 | Updated 03 November 2013

Activity based working has had a lot of bad press lately. There have been articles about the woes of open plan, the cultural damage of remote working and the over-collaboration of the workplace. But to declare these evidence of the failure of ABW is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think much of this backlash boils down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what ABW is, and what it isn't.

Myth #1: Everyone hot desks.

"ABW means everyone will just float about willy nilly, with no place to call home." (I actually heard a presenter say this at a conference and had to be restrained.) Activity Based Working means offering up a variety of worksettings. And while some businesses may decide that means no assigned desk for anyone, this is the exception, not the norm. Most good ABW offices have a hybrid of assigned and unassigned desk based on criteria.

Truth: Hybrids usually work best. The fact is not everyone needs an assigned desk and a London desk costs about £10k a year. So unless you have money to burn, a mixture of assigned and unassigned desks is probably going to make the most sense.

Myth #2: Everyone sits in open plan

I'll be the first to say it. Many, and perhaps even most, open plan designed offices are pretty poor. Acoustics make it difficult to have private conversations, large floor plates feel dehumanising and the whole environment is reminiscent of a battery chicken farm. But this is not the fault of ABW. It is the fault of poor design, frequently driven by cost pressures (see Myth #4). Rather than an application of sound ABW design, organisations are trying to "max pack and rack" more people into less space. But well-designed open plan, with a variety of work settings (spaces for collaboration AND contemplation) can work very well. And they can work well in harmony with a smattering of private offices. Yes, even offices are "allowed" in ABW. But who gets an office? That can be trickier, and this is where we come back to the recommendation of criteria setting. The key to ABW is for offices to not be doled out based on job title, but on the activity of a person.

Truth: No corner offices (or offices gobbling up the best sunlight.). In ABW space is not a symbol of power or hierarchy. It is functional and, in a perfect world, egalitarian.

Myth #3: Everyone is allowed to work from home

The Marissa Meyer backlash and then the subsequent support for her decision, has brought home working discussions to the front (scalding) burner again. Realistically, not all jobs can be performed from home. And home working is not for everyone. But most office employees can do some part of their role away from the office, and evidence shows that most people's performance improves for it. Presenteeism, the notion that you must be seen working, kills innovation. Autonomy and choice empower staff and drive better outcomes. And if a business doesn't wants a more cohesive culture, for starters, make your workplace compelling. People perform better when an office has buzz, and buzz is not all about colocation. How much do Googlers work from home? "As little as possible" says CFO Patrick Pichette. But they make their workplace a place you want to be.

Truth: ABW is output based, not presence based. So if someone can meet their targets while still keeping their golf handicap at 16, that's ok by ABW.

Myth #4: ABW always saves businesses money

This one may make some people very unhappy, as it is a pretty big selling point of designers and consultants globally. But it just isn't always true. Every business is at a different place in their evolution, and there are periods in that evolution when a business can save money from a workplace transformation. But many of the offices I see already made the move to poorly designed open plan (see Myth #2) and to undo that may cost you money. It's sort of like rectifying a botched facelift. You might have to pay to fix it, but in the end it is always worth it.

Truth: ABW creates ROI. Increased engagement, reduced absenteeism and more efficient use of space will return benefits to your business over time.

Myth #5: ABW is just all about design
This myth deserves its very own blog post so check back to read more. (Spoiler: Culture eats design for breakfast.)