Digby Hall

If you’re a parent who drops the kids off at school in the morning then you’ve already lost out – by the time you make it into the office all the best spots are taken and you’re left to choose from the least favourable seats, those you wouldn’t normally choose. Being given the “cheap seats” at a restaurant because you have the kids in tow is understandable (sort of), but getting the same treatment at work is a step too far. I’ve heard the same story over and over again from friends who work in these new-age offices that have adopted Activity Based Working (ABW) for their entire workplace.

Activity Based Working is essentially workplace design that doesn’t provide assigned seating – it’s everyone for themselves, even the CEO (although in reality this isn’t always the case, perhaps for sensible reasons). The workplace is instead a kind of diversified collaborative space, a smorgasbord of different types of work setting. Of course it’s a bit more complex than that and ABW can be the perfect solution, and I’ll get us there shortly.

In another example, I overheard a post-work rant recently (yes people should be a bit more discreet) – their central HQ building, designed wholly around the ABW model, was overflowing with people because staff from anywhere in the business were able to come in there to work. Perhaps a great signal that the environment is attractive and vibrant (I’ve been there, it is), but to try to stem the inflow access was then restricted to only those staff permanently based in that location, which led to over-occupancy because staff were worried they’d lose their access. The 30 per cent of the workforce who are statistically shown to be out of the office, were in the office.

They were effectively flushed into the building from all around the city. Meaning unfortunately that many permanent staff couldn’t find a workstation or desk and were forced to work from cafe stools, hot-seats and other seating that was never intended to be used for more than a short period. Back and neck complaints galore and a swathe of permanent staff who no longer felt “at home”. And the school-drop-off Mums were even worse off.

Some ABW anecdotes have already made their way into urban myth, with “Banana-Gate” being one of the classics. At one un-named HQ, some staff would get in early (likely those without kids) and “reserve” seats for themselves and their mates by placing a banana on the desks. If you didn’t have a banana you were toast.

The growing concern I’ve had is that we continue to charge down the ABW path without a wiser consideration of the social implications. Yes we can spark great collaboration by increasing population densities, yes we can deliver considerable environmental benefits simply through making the building smaller (or more productive), and yes the workplace can be tailored to suit the business and make the business more profitable.

But we also seem to be disenfranchising groups of people who still don’t fit the ABW mould – mums who get the cheap seats simply because they had to drop the kids at school are, in my view, being discriminated against through workplace design. It’s worth a read through the Australian Workplace Relations System (under the Fair Work Act 2009) to get a better understanding of the gravitas this carries.

We’re often reminding ourselves (and being reminded) not to make generalisations in life – people are diverse and varied and we need to respect that. Yet in applying ABW principles across an entire office runs the risk of doing just this – treating everyone as the same.

I should stress at this point that there are some fantastic ABW workplaces around. I’ve visited many of them and agree that they can work extremely well as vibrant and diverse business cultures. To achieve this though requires great skill on behalf of the designers and change managers, including a keen understanding of how the business works. The point I’m getting to is that ABW isn’t always a good broad-brush solution, and might instead work better as one component of a more finessed approach.

Hybrid ABW

If we’re to retain the vibrancy and social atmosphere that ABW clearly delivers without disenfranchising portions of the demographic, especially parents of young kids, we need to adopt the new without discarding the old. We know that there are always the “mobiles” who are rarely at their desk (globally it’s around 30 per cent of all workers). Give them ABW. There are also workers who sometimes are desk-based and sometimes mobile – give them hot desks, some ABW, some permanent desks. And there are staff who need a permanent place because they spend all day every day delivering technical content.

Some of the newer workplace designs are now achieving this depth of customisation – some ABW, some permanent desk zones, some hot desk and touchdown zones, some collaborative spaces. Good change managers and design teams can analyse how your business works then customise work setting types to suit.

Some of the even newer approaches such as hotelling, work-shifting and time-shifting are giving us even more ways to reduce the demand on floor space, services and operating costs… it’s a literal dispersion of the workplace.

MLC Campus was one of the trailblazers in linking physical workplace design with business culture and business profitability. Fifteen years on we’re still learning and evolving and getting better at designing workplaces that are increasingly about the people. I’m a staunch supporter of ABW and its kin simply because it delivers a reduced environmental impact through “building shrinkage”, but let’s ensure that we’re not leaving anyone behind in the name of saving on floor space cost – disenfranchising the “outliers” can be the very undoing of a business that relies on diversity.

Digby Hall is principal sustainability consultant with Umow Lai

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Hello Digby,

    Thanks for your view and fact-finding around the experience of Activity Based Working. However I have to say if you apply and understand the philosophy (which it is in our mind and not being a solution) of Activity Based Working you will find out that all you’re talking about is this philosophy. Namely to support a company’s strategy, brand and culture by providing the right kind, nature and number of work settings to cater for the activities to be performed at its best. So let us stop thinking about ABW being a thing and a one size fits all solution and start reflecting on it as a holistic philosophy to find the right ways of working to develop the patterns and habits in a culture (and break the non sense making) for an organisation and its staff to become the best in its industry.
    I am glad you mention that it is a bit more complex than it looks like. Being the founders of the philosophy 25 years ago started in the Netherlands we know all about it!

  2. Great to see your articles again Digby. Always a good read and thought-provoking. ‘Banana-Gate’….love it!

  3. I agree completely with the point that ABW doesn’t suit every person or every business (or part of a business) and hence hybrid solutions are likely to provide the optimum outcome. The problems identified here though result from an overzealous approach to limiting the size of office and number of desks provided. I suspect the driver for this is primarily commercial although the environmental/sustainability benefits are welcome. At Arup we both design and have occupied ABW space and from my point of view the benefits come more from the increased connectivity and collaboration between staff that a well designed space can engender. From a commercial point of view the benefits of getting this right are much greater than the savings achieved in the real estate budget by having a smaller footprint.