activity based workplace

Activity-based working might be the go-to workplace design solution for many new projects, but according to Graham Kirkwood, director and principal facility consultant for Resource Architects, who is presenting at Total Facilities 2018 this week in Melbourne, there are valuable people the workplace style just doesn’t suit.

Kirkwood’s practice recently conducted a live pilot project with Latrobe University Research of a new approach, team-based working. He will be presenting on the concept at Total Facilities this week, in the Agile Working – What’s Next session.

Speaking with The Fifth Estate ahead of the event, Kirkwood said the team-based approach sees small teams of between four and seven people working in agile ways.

Each team has its own semi-enclosed space as a “home base”, with space for personal and team artefacts. Individual members can also choose to work in a diversity of different spaces across the floorplate including concentration spaces, meeting spaces and “scrum” spaces.

The team spaces have connectivity to other teams through a “gallery” or other connecting space, enabling cross-team connectivity and collaboration.

In the Latrobe pilot, 10 square metres of space for each person was allocated. The head-to-head distance was also kept high, with people working at least about one metre away from each other.

This gives workers a sense of privacy.

The fitout also didn’t go for “the bling of modern workplaces”.

“You want it to feel like home. It had to have a domestic feel,” he says.

After eight months of functional occupation, the post-occupancy evaluation of Latrobe’s staff was very positive. The project was also a finalist in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s award for Design Strategy.

Small, self-organising teams that are the foundation of the approach function like a family unit. The teams satisfy the social aspect that is part of why people want to come to work in the first place, and small teams enable bonding.

They also allow people to “cover for each other”, and promote diversity.

“With activity-based working, people tend to gravitate towards their friends and social networks,” Kirkwood says.

That can also mean people tend to gravitate towards people of a similar generation, missing out on the benefits of the experience of older people, for example.

“There is a temptation to stick to people you relate to.”

To have genuine sustainability from a business point of view, Kirkwood says teams need to have diversity in terms of culture, gender and personality.

The diversity mix of a small team can also support neurodiversity, enabling those who are by nature introverted or those with autism to be productive in a collaborative team setting.

Kirkwood says some personalities, which he calls “anoraks”, are totally focused on their work. They thrive best where they have a space they can do so.

Introverts are another personality type that ABW may not cater for. They “don’t want 1000 workplaces”.

Different talents and approaches can be a recipe for enormous innovation.

Kirkwood gives the example of a group of diverse teams given a task to hypothetically build a bridge. One of the teams included a poet, who knew nothing about structural engineering but had very strong opinions about aesthetics.

The team’s outcome was not only structurally sound – it was also beautiful, Kirkwood says.

Changing facilities management

Another aspect of ABW that is not often discussed is how it changes facilities management.

In a standard office, cleaners generally come through once a day. In an ABW setting they can be coming through as often as every 30 minutes to wipe down desks and keyboards and sweep up crumbs and other litter.

Kirkwood says the hygiene of ABW workspaces is one of the “biggest complaints”. Some workplaces have even started keeping antiseptic wipes on the desks so people can wipe down the keyboard and desk before starting work.

IT support is another issue. While the trend has been for IT support to be outsourced, in an ABW setting where everyone has their own device, an IT desk may be needed so there is always someone available to ensure staff have the right software and log-ins to perform any required tasks.

These kinds of hiccups are things many organisations have to “discover by stealth”, Kirkwood says.

ABW might be the most effective solution in terms of real estate efficiency, but the most effective solution for reducing spatial needs per head is not necessarily the most agile, he says.

“We need teams to be more effective.”

That means striking a balance between connectivity and responsibility.

And in an economy where productivity is not based on widgets produced per person but on ideas or relationships produced, a new measure for performance is needed that is based on team productivity, not individual productivity. So Kirkwood’s company has has developed a series of resources to promote the concept, including a white paper, Is your workplace team ready?

The white paper suggests that a new playbook is needed for implementing team-based workplace approaches.

The basic principles of the “Team PlayBook” are:

  • Structuring staff into small self-organising teams of between four and seven people
  • Sharing of resources and information
  • Mobility and distribution of work
  • Empowered problem solving through clear and shared understanding of purpose
  • Frequent and structured collaboration
  • Face-to-face meetings

The Fifth Estate publisher and managing editor Tina Perinotto will facilitate a session at Total Facilities on Thursday entitled Workplace Wellness – the relationship between human and building.

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  1. Dear Michael, I just now came across this article and saw your query. Indeed the pilot was for research administration and industry engagement. Your point about academics working in a virtual team is valid. Sometimes academic staff can feel unsupported and have little connection to others. Sometimes their role involves mentoring others. I would be interested to apply your ideas to an academic pilot.

  2. Did the Latrobe pilot involve academic or general staff? I ask because academics more often than not work in international or interstate rather than local ‘teams’. The success of the Latrobe project thus may give an impression that there is one optimal structure for team-based research work. I’d rather have my own quiet office if I’m working on a research paper with colleagues in the UK and China.