Will the workplace of the future be about “the work” or “the place”?

Experts speak about Activity-Based Workplaces and how it will shape the future of work
Experts from different segments of the IT industry gathered to speak about the future of workplace

Experts from different segments of the IT industry gathered to speak about the future of workplace

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about Activity-Based Workplaces (ABWs) and the opportunities that can develop from evolving the office from a place where people simply process and execute tasks, to a place where people meet to collaborate and create. However, as the ABW philosophy aims to develop behavioural, physical and virtual environments in the workplace, this naturally has the potential to create challenge. This is especially true when it comes to finding ways to leverage new technologies to enable people to work independently of time and place.

A hot desk

Before one lumps ABW together with hot-desking, Veldhoen + Company A/NZ managing partner, Luc Kamperman, says there is a big difference between the two. “In the past, traditional workplaces looked to replicate the function of factories, where individually assigned workspaces were defined by specific tasks and organisational hierarchy,” he said.

The practice of hot-desking was introduced approximately three decades ago by professional services firms, who were already quite mobile in their workforce. “Today, offices are less about people sitting at computers all day because a lot of processes have now become automated, allowing process-driven work to be sent offshore or outsourced to other companies,” Kamperman said.

What ABW tries to do differently is focus solely on what people are doing in the office while ignoring hierarchy. As such, an organisation must first step back and question whether they need an office at all in order to move towards an ABW environment. “ABW focuses on the work that employees conduct in the office, and the specific tasks that require an office environment,” Kamperman said. “Businesses must first ask why they need an office at all and consider if they can operate without an office space.”

That does not mean that existing offices are completely useless, with Kamperman admitting that they present numerous benefits to business. They include helping to brand an organisation, fostering working communities and team cohesion, and allowing employees to collaborate and learn from each other face-to-face. “However, with the more outsourcing of business processes and administration tasks, there is more ‘knowledge-work’ conducted within Australian companies, which requires a lot of collaboration and learning from each other,” he said.

Spaces for specific activities rather than people can be created once a business is able to recognise this shift. Kamperman says that assigning individual spaces for individual workers is not part of this shift, adding that culturally, businesses need to break away from traditional working routines. “In order to achieve this, managers need to change their leadership style,” he said. “For managers who like to work by line of sight with their teams, this can be a difficult transition because AWB breaks away from traditional team configurations.”

What Kamperman sees as “the biggest cultural shift for an organisation” is undertaking new activity-based routines of people working individually combined with changes to management practices. “This is a slow process that can’t be achieved overnight,” he said.

Company culture

The assumption that office design alone will change the culture of an office is an incorrect one, according to NetApp A/NZ human resources manager, Kim Nixon. She instead sees change being facilitated by company leadership. “The best way to achieve cultural change is to over-communicate within the company,” Nixon said. “It is also essential to encourage employees to participate and contribute to the cultural shift.” Once a leadership team embraces activity-based workplaces, businesses will experience a much easier cultural transition.

Kensington Australia marketing and business development manager, Sam Goldstein, expects that the evolution of devices will play a major role in ABW. This is because new mobile devices are capable of facilitating more flexibility in the workplace. “The Australian workplace is in a state of evolution,” he said. “The traditional, desk-per-employee office model is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.”

There is also value in empowering people to manage tasks in their own time. What Goldstein recommends businesses do is provide devices based on the individual roles within the organisation in consultation with individual employees. “It really comes down to a business’ ability to consult with their employees about the tools that they require and providing these on an individual basis,” he said.

While technology has the ability to enable change, Kamperman warns that it does not necessarily drive change. “Businesses need to focus on a shift in mindset and understanding its businesses purpose,” he said. “If a business doesn’t have clarity about its fundamental values, technology won’t make a difference.”

However, there is no doubt in Kamperman’s mind that tech is an enabler, especially when it comes to mobile devices facilitating ABW environments. For one thing, businesses can benefit by thinking about how to work with existing technology to achieve cultural shift. “They can then bring in new technology if they decide this will provide additional flexibility and productivity,” Kamperman said.

Fostering individualism

Technology has the ability to offer users a form of self-expression and personalisation in their private lives, and this has the ability to ring true in workplaces that do not offer individual workspaces. “In a sharing environment, the loss of personalisation is always one of the issues for employees to deal with,” Kamperman said. “Technology is now a great option to personalise and forge an identity for yourself.”

This is gravitation towards personalisation in the workplace has already been noted by Veldhoen + Company when they have been consulting with clients. “Some of our clients offer their employees ‘skins’ and accessories to personalise their laptops and tablets,” he said. “This replaces photos and desk accessories from traditional offices.”

For NetApp’s Nixon, it is important for companies and IT departments to be flexible. Multiple options should ideally be in place for people using technology on the network. “This could range from an open bring-your-own-device policy to a choose-your-own-device, which offers a selection of approved devices for employees to choose from,” Nixon said.

While having a progressive work approach is all well and good, Kensington Australia’ Goldstein warns that companies should be aware to the risks associated with multiple devices accessing the network from several locations. “Employers must ensure they are providing the tools to enable their employees to manage the security of their devices and protect their data,” he said.

Ultimately, NetApp’s Nixon says that the success of a modern work ethic rests upon the shoulders of those that drive the business. Namely, the employees. “The maturity of your workforce and a cultural cohesion amongst employees is the fundamental basis for a successful work environment,” Nixon said. “With a strong group of employees and a strong leadership team, the rest will just flow.”

How Microsoft decentralised

One company that has been quick to adopt an ABW approach is Microsoft Australia, which allows its employees to sit at any desk in the office and work in a more collaborative fashion. Microsoft A/NZ area portfolio manager, Marianne Rathje, attributes this transformation due to the company being “very focused on outcomes.” “Our philosophy is that work is a thing you do, not a place you go,” he said. “We believe that Microsoft employees should have the freedom and choice to work in the styles, locations and at the times that enable them to achieve outcomes.”

In addition to allowing employees to sit at any desk in the office, there is also a range of different spaces, such as our café style hubs or lounge room style meeting rooms. “We’re not focused on whether people are sitting at an assigned desk from nine to five,” Rathje said.

She adds that technology is a big part of enabling this transformation, and that Microsoft gives every one of its employees the tools that enable them to work from virtually anywhere and at any time. “We’re fortunate in that we are a technology company and have access to all the latest devices and services,” Rathje said. “But really, any organisation can do this and there are lots of examples of non-tech companies embracing this approach.”

Opportunities in the challenge

When implementing ABW, Rathje says it meant thinking “beyond the physical office” and about how to “enable and empower” its employees to work in the styles, locations and times that best suit them. “Our focus was not just on the physical work space but transforming our broader culture for tomorrow as well as today,” she said.

As such, both the challenge and the opportunity for Microsoft was to “think big and bold,” to set itself up for the future, and also ensure it had a strong change management process in place to help employees with the transformation journey. “Part of this process involved strong collaboration with a representative group of employees that we called ‘workplace champs,’” Rathje said. “They helped in forming the layout and the design of the office, as well as validating the space we planned, to ensure we would support their business and activities.”

There is a longstanding perception that employees like to personalise their work space with family photos and desk accessories, but Rathje says that the role of the office changes in an ABW environment. For one, it becomes less about ‘me’ and more about ‘we.’ “Rather than being ‘chained’ to an individual desk, the office becomes more about the social aspects of work, a place of community and collaboration, as well as celebration and coming together,” she said.

In a growing digital world, Rathje points out that people also have new and different ways of expressing themselves and their personalities. “For example, they can do that through digital art on their PC desktops or even skins and stickers on their devices,” she said. “Every employee also has their own internal SharePoint site that they can personalise.”

Positive outcome

Since adopting this new workplace layout, Rathje says that the company has seen employee satisfaction rise. “One of the key outcomes we’re seeing is higher levels of collaboration,” she said. “Because we’ve broken down some of the unnecessary boundaries in the organisation, we’re seeing people coming together in new and innovative ways.” The positive response has also come from non-employees as well, namely Microsoft’s customers and partners. “We’ve designed the office so it is a place not just for our employees, but to enable and inspire everyone who partners with us,” Rathje said.

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