We’re hearing a lot about the backlash to activity-based or hot-desk working arrangements, the office design trend that’s been sweeping the nation, where people need to leave a clean desk and pack up their wares in a locker at the end of the day.

The complaints range from regret to not being able to leave photos of loved ones on the desk to create a “nest” and soften the harshness of some working environments to issues around the denial of genetically programmed desire to bond in social groups.

In fact two public service unions, the Public Sector Union and the Australian Services union, have now both opposed plans by the Australian Taxation Office to move staff to hot desking. Their claimed issues include the need to set up workstations for occupational health to avoid repetitive strain injury and the ability to boost morale with personal items.

But what about ABW does work? What do we know about superior productivity and the value of synergistic creative breakthroughs that can happen by mixing it up with people outside your comfort zone or habitual circle?

According to University of Sydney’s Dr Christhina Candido who runs the Building Occupant Survey System (BOSSA) in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, and whose work featured in our recent Healthy Offices ebook,

there is not yet any reliable metrics about when ABW works well and for what kind of companies.

But it’s worth finding out. Imagine the savings in effort of avoiding implementation of ABW in locations where it’s unlikely to work, she says, because this radical new way of working is not an easy thing to implement.

Dr Candido is working with Southern Cross University and interior design firm Cachet Group on a pilot study, a first of its kind in Australia, to examine how activity-based office designs affect worker productivity and wellbeing.

Among the issues that will be looked at are wearable technology and new analytical software developed by Southern Cross University and the University of Sydney to capture and analyse the cognitive responses of workers in a variety of work spaces.

Professor Dian Tjondronegoro from Southern Cross University said that monitoring cognitive performance would help “capture the emotional and physical responses of people working in different office locations and layouts”.

“The advantages of activity-based working have already been widely reported in the property sector but it is time to provide evidence around this growing office trend in Australia,” Dr Candido said.

“Typically, it may see workers migrating to team desks, quiet concentration rooms, a variety of meeting rooms, brainstorming areas, multi-media rooms and lounges.”

She told The Fifth Estate issues in ABW tended to arise when it was adopted merely as the latest fad in office design.

Clearly it doesn’t work for some companies, she said.

“This will be the first study to provide some statistics.”

The university had conducted “multiple studies” in post occupancy evaluation but the difference with this study will be around the methodology and how you quantify change.

“We’re trying to add more evidence-based information beyond what we already do in  post-occupancy evaluation.

“With any new way of working it’s not one-size-fits-all. It can’t just be a trend that a company hops into.”

But who does it best suit?

Dr Candido says that’s a tough question, and she doesn’t have an answer, but it seems that finance, construction and consulting companies have so far found the biggest success.

“Based on my impression it goes back to the implementation … It’s not just about giving people a new way of working but the ongoing engagement.

“It works if it is aligned with the business culture. That’s the key.”

If it’s taken seriously and the company engages in customisation, “that is where they’re getting right.

“And where the design team, the occupants and management – the key players – come together from the get go.”

So far there’s been no correlation found between the size of the organisation and success.

But one thing that’s worked best in Australia is the concept of “neighbourhoods”, where you can have hot desks, but within a familiar cluster.

This is more of a “soft approach” and about 90 per cent of the success stories have a strong neighbourhood arrangement, Dr Candido says.

“They still have the clean desk policies, but they still have their colleagues around.”

2 replies on “When does activity-based working actually work?”

  1. My experience with ABW has been 70% positive, 30% regretful. We operate on a ‘Team Neighbourhood’ basis so my team of 50 always comes back to the same corner of the same floor, which is crucial. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to work at one of the offices where its a complete free-for-all over the whole building and all the issues of hierarchy having the best spaces that must bring.

    My positive experience is that because of the forced removal of personal space I no longer print anything because it becomes a millstone. This really has liberated me to work anywhere because now I know I can just as easily find it electronically in my filing as find the hard copy I tried to print 3 weeks ago. The second big revelation is now how much trust has had to be placed in colleagues to just get their work done because you can’t easily see (monitor) them. Now if I need something I call someone or book a catchup, rather than relying on bumping into them or checking they are working on my thing.

    Which brings me to my regret; I used to enjoy knowing that I could bump into someone and have a casual catchup without prior arrangement but the new office does feel a little more formal and unfriendly with more frequent “where is everyone?” or “have you seen John recently?”. But to the poster above’s point, with about 15% less desks overall, and still lots of empty ones most of the time, the approach must be saving rental costs for the company.

  2. The ABW is totally counterproductive in all workplaces where the teams form for a specific activity which last longer than a few days. I cannot believe that it works in construction where the same team works on a project for at least one year, frequently a lot longer. Not every workplace is a Google, where people work on multiple projects with different teams.
    Let us not kid ourselves – the AWB has been invented not to make the life better for the employees, but to reduce the rental costs for employers. One could have the same flexibility with 1800×1800 desks (with acoustic screens) and individual tambours on castors. Moving the teams together has not arisen with the AWB.

    It is a terrible system, that is yet to show all of its negative sides: lack of privacy, lack of acoustic attenuation, deprivation of personal space which makes employees feel less connected to the company. One feels like a cog in a huge machine, which i exactly what the employers want you to feel like.

    SWhover inveted the AWB should be jailed for life without parole,

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