In recent years’ there’s been a lot of talk and movement towards activity based working (ABW).

What has caused ABW to become the next bandwagon?

We have become a knowledge-based workforce, where the type of work we do rapidly changes. Technology does a wide range of routine or mundane tasks, freeing up workers for value-add, idea generation, and problem-solving type activities.

Technology developments are enabling quantum change in very short periods of time. Much of ABW has been facilitated due to the proliferation of cool cloud tools and start-up disruption tools like Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, Slack and Trello to name but a few. Disruptors are forcing more stable, larger businesses to get with the program of innovation and become more Agile.

A great deal of roles these days operate from a knowledge based worker perspective. Back in 2000, I completed a thesis on the advent of the coming knowledge  economy and what we’d need to do to create great workplaces for knowledge workers and what we can do to create true knowledge management. Now, 17 years later, it is exciting to be in the midst of have the amazing cloud tools to great working environments.  We still have some way to go on leading knowledge workers and tacit knowledge sharing but we are well on our way.  ABW done well and integrated into a broader HR/OD agenda can facilitate this process.

The other major factor is the expectations of the digital natives now entering the workforce. Throughout their time at school and university, the type of space they use has always been determined by the task or activity being undertaken. They have used to computers for much of their schoolwork.

What is ABW?

Activity based working is fundamentally about how to structure work, jobs, teams and offices to create optimal efficiency, productivity, innovation and performance. In our opinion it also includes Organisational Design, Culture, Performance Systems & Process Improvement. Many ABW consultants purport a one size fits all models based on environment and paperless office concepts.

For us, we take a Strategic Organisational Development approach. What are the business objectives and outcomes required? What are the strategic pillars, strategic intent and strategic imperatives? What workplace culture is required? What are the functions required in the business and the outcomes required by them? What are the value drivers of the business and the whole of business workflow?  What are the activities of the business? What collaboration and innovation is required? What organisational design fits best with that agenda? Then comparing that to the current “As IS’ state we can develop a strategic ABW approach that delivers real results.

Most people talk about ABW as an office design concept where there are no fixed work spaces you can call your own. Employees ae empowered to determine where they will hang out for the day based on the activities they need to achieve for the day.  Each worker has a locker.  Some workers may have access to locked confidential files if required for legal reasons.  Most however, operate on a paperless office concept.

Done well, ABW is a significant opportunity for a quantum shift in how the business operates.  It facilitates better leadership, more empowerment, more flexibility, more sustainability.  A typical ABW space has a variety of zones, that are all supporting different activities.  In an average ABW office, that would be a mix of team desks, open desks (hot desk type concept) quiet concentration areas, concentration rooms, telephone booths and meeting rooms. More advanced ABW offices may also offer stand up meeting tables, Stand up work tables, team huddle areas, brainstorming areas, various multi-media rooms, innovation hubs, lounge area and chill out zones.

Is ABW for everyone?

We say yes!  If you take our broad strategic approach to ABW and adapt the concept or elements of the concept to your business needs. As mentioned above, it is all about what outcomes are required. Some businesses that still have highly directed activities like admin shared services or call centres and might chose an adaptation to ABW and in fact we’ve been implementing varying types of ABW with those type of environments for the last 10 years.

Be warned, ABW is not a simple process! ABW can require dramatic change in working and should NOT be under-estimated in terms of change facilitation. The shift to activity-based working is definitely not for the faint hearted! It is generally one of the biggest changes to the way people work since the Industrial Revolution! We’ve moved from drab offices in the 70’s to large screened workstations in the 80’s, to open plan environments in 1990’s and collaboration zones in 2000 etc. Some organisations have been using simpler versions of ABW for 15 years or so (e..g. hot desking).

ABW can be difficult for employers and leaders alike!  ABW shake up one of people’s fundamental basic needs – security and comfort. A fixed desk provides people with a strong sense of identity, stability, connection and comfort. We all like having something we can pitch up to – our homes, our beds, our family, our team, our desk, our pieces of paper! I’ve been ABW for about 10 years.  I personally found paperless the hardest concept with all the legal requirements to adapt to. But now with all the great cloud technology, like Docusign and Dropbox, it’s a breeze!

Going ABW is likely to be one of the biggest cultural changes you will manage.  This type of project, cuts across behaviour, cultural norms, processes, systems, innovation and performance. It also can shake people’s core basic needs, it decouples the relationship between individuals and an assigned space and team. It also decouples them from the ways of working that they are used to. In addition to that, Leaders need to step up their leadership, team engagement and performance management.  It is likely that behavioural change will be required by almost everyone!

Here are our top 7 considerations when assessing if ABW is right for your business:

1. Can ABW align to your Business, Strategy, Culture & Operational needs

ABW can encourage better collaboration across your business, improve innovation, improve performance outcomes, improve sustainability and Corporate responsibility goals (going green), improve flexibility, employee engagement and employee experience.

Culture is critical!  If you currently have a deeply passive aggressive culture, lacking accountability, all ABW will deliver you is a nice office design. Whilst ABW may facilitate better collaboration, if you do not address your serious culture issues, no amount of ABW is going to make things better at a real level. Superficiality can only last so long.

Similarly, is you have designed your business on a command and control model, it is unlikely to fit well with ABW nor will the leaders transition easily.

2. Is your HR strategy aligned?

A wide variety of HR processes need considering for ABW.  Including virtual, flexible and remote working policies, performance management approach, recognition, organisational processes, organisational design, values and culture.  Depending on your current performance management approach, updating your performance approach  in itself, can be a huge change piece for ABW.

3. How prepared is your  C-Suite & Leaders for ABW?

One of the biggest challenges for ABW is that leaders need to fundamentally change how they work and lead. Many are used to offices and having their teams within eye/ear shot. Leading teams in an ABW environment requires exceptional management skills, performance facilitation skills, leadership skills and above all coaching and collaboration skills. Getting the leaders up-skilled and ready to embark on the journey is a critical milestone.

For most executives ABW is a significant change, even if they currently operate an open-door policy. Many executives find 100%  access difficult to adapt to. Suddenly the  CEO’s spends much of their day hearing and talking about things that whilst super interesting and important, distract them. CEO’s and Executives need to ensure they do not under-mine managers by becoming too involved in situations that managers should be managing. Similarly, Executives in particular will need a clear work/life strategy that fits with ABW!

Therefore, careful consideration needs to go into how executives will operate in the environment. We’ve heard of organisations where the Executives inevitably commandeer meeting rooms most of the time or just create their own offices again. This inevitably creates an even stronger them and us culture.

4. Design with four key elements in mind

If you move to ABW, ensure there is equal focus on the people, technology, culture and spatial elements of the change. Most consultants focus on Technology and Office Design.  There’s no point providing people with a suite of great collaboration and concentration spaces if they don’t have mobility enabling technology to go and use them, and their leader still equates ‘work’ with sitting at a desk.  How will you ensure flexibility, considering virtual and flexible working as part of the mix. If you are going to ABW, then maximum flexibility for people is the name of the game for success.  Work life balance is a critical consideration for ABW as well.

5. Ensure a commitment to high quality people focused change facilitation as part of the business case

ABW should be a HR strategic project and should form a key part of your HR strategy. You can have the latest and greatest technology and the most beautifully designed workspace, but if you have the wrong organisational design, ill prepared leaders, command and control environment, an inappropriate culture or deep seated old style working habits then ABW change is more than likely be a failure.

An effective change program facilitates the change from a Strategic OD/HR perspective through to post-implementation. An experience ABW change manager with a HR background ensures a broad perspective on the project.  ABW may require significant training not only for leaders, but staff.  You may need to do a great deal on behavioural and cultural change prior to the move. And above all you need a strong engagement and communications plan.

6. Expect that the majority of people will struggle with a move to ABW at some level and some point in the process

Given the change can be significant an ease-in approach is the best change methodology.  An ease-in approach is staged, ideally 12-18 months ahead of the move. E.g. first implement some mobile technologies, then some collaboration tools (e.g. slack, yammer, Facebook at work), then  digitalisation, maybe implement innovation hubs and so on….

But if you are going full hog, then it’s inevitable that many people will become stressed. A great change facilitator knows the difference between folks that are stressed and their needs are being shaken to the core and those who are outright hard core resisters. Great change facilitation is all about the people experience and achieving success through people! Listening, engaging, communicating, adapting and facilitating people through the change curve is critical.

7. Commit to high touch engagement and training

We find this is the most under-done part of a move to ABW. Successful change is about getting in and working through people’s emotions, fears, frustrations and assisting them see what’s in it for them and getting them to a place of stability.

Do not scrimp on training and workshops and ensure time is committed for this to happen at all levels. We see ABW as a fantastic opportunity for leaders to develop their skills and styles and we always include our Inspirational Leadership Change program. Furthermore, we strongly recommend resilience workshops for all employees as an added bonus way of helping people deal with this change but also change in general.

Written by Vanessa Giannos


The HR Experts International are one of Australia’s leading HR, Coaching & Training Consultancies. We specialise in assisting businesses with Human Resource Strategy, Organisational Change and Organisational Development. We can offer a full end to end change service or support your HR team is moving to ABW, in a pragmatic and straightforward way.

This article is intended to provide commentary and general information. It should not be relied upon as comprehensive or legal advice. Formal legal advice may be necessary in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this article. The HR Experts International is not responsible for the results of any actions taken on the basis of information in this article, nor for any error or omission in this article.