How to innovate and prosper through abw

Stephen Minnett & Angela Ferguson


An Activity Based Work (ABW) environment is all about choice. The planning and design of ABW includes a menu of spaces to support different workplace activities rather than forcing people to do everything at the one desk. ABW can increase desk utilisation by not assigning desks to individuals. People can physically locate themselves wherever it is most appropriate for them to undertake their work. If quiet concentrative work is necessary then a ‘focus’ room or semi enclosed area can be utilised; if an informal discussion is required people can use a range of unbookable rooms; if an ad hoc presentation is required there can be small rooms equipped with screens and audio visual equipment; meeting rooms of all sizes can house the latest technologies; and typically there are central hubs on each floor accessible to all. This is all over and above traditional desk and meeting room set ups – the possibilities and opportunities for ABW are limitless. The menu of spaces typically range from open to closed, individual to collaborative, quiet to vibrant, bright to subdued. And usually there is a fairly even balance of space dedicated to communication and meetings as there is dedicated to workstations themselves.

An Activity Based Work environment is about much more than desk sharing or hot desking or hotelling  – it is about providing a greater choice of how people can work. It does not take away things (like people’s desks!). In fact ABW provides more (more facilities, more variety, more amenity) to enable people to more effectively undertake their work. It does not mean people have to sit in a different desk every day (although they may not have a designated desk). It does not mean that people who work together in teams will be physically separated, rather that they will have better access to a whole host of collaborative spaces. It does not mean that there will not be enough desks, however, it does provide a workplace where the maximum capacity can be flexible and the building itself is working both harder and smarter. ABW does not dictate how you work – rather it allows you and your team to choose the most productive way of working.

Many leading organisations (e.g. Macquarie Bank, Microsoft, Russell Investments, Commonwealth Bank, GPT, Accenture, Jones Lang LaSalle, Fortescue Metals Group) have adopted ABW in various forms because it delivers provision of a greater variety of spaces to better support what people do during their working day. ABW can deliver greater real estate efficiency with higher utilisation of space, improved flexibility to move teams and people quickly with little or no need for churn and vastly improved support for teamwork and collaboration. An ABW workplace generally has greater energy and activity which in itself can be a positive cultural shift. There are sustainability benefits via a reduced environmental impact through a reduced workplace footprint per person. Overall an ABW is a workplace that better supports high performing teams and individuals on a number of levels and both recognises and embraces the opportunities that today’s technology offers. 

Whilst there have been well publicised examples of buildings that have been purpose built for ABW this is not necessarily the major or only contributing success factor. ABW can occur in existing building stock with the key ingredients for success being appropriate technology, human resources and property strategies. However the implementation of activity based work must be supported by an IT platform that allows people to work anywhere and at anytime. Typically all people would be provided with laptop computers, a fully mobile telephone system (eg. VOIP), utilise ‘follow me’ printing and have access to a full wireless network throughout the office as well as fixed cabling. In conjunction with an IT strategy it is essential that a parallel Human Resources and/or Change Management program is in place that educates and involves staff in the development, behaviours and protocols of ABW. The use of a prototype area (or pilot study) can be advantageous to discover how far the organisation is willing to push towards an ABW strategy. It is safe to say that all organisations that have successfully implemented an ABW workplace have done so as part of an integrated IT, HR and Real Estate strategy.

Activity Based Work remains a breakthrough concept in the development of the workplace of the future. As with any new approach these ideas can be contentious and involve a strong aversion to change. However the benefits to both individuals and organisations offer immediate and long term recompense. Team members have the choice of where and how they work in order to be as effective as possible; individuals have greater control over technology and how it is used and an increased ability to collaborate. Business leaders and colleagues can be more accessible (or not) and there is generally greater personal satisfaction through wider choice and autonomy. In an ABW environment employees can feel more trusted and the culture is transformed into one that values a person’s output rather than their physical presence. 

In turn, there are competitive advantages for businesses via the ABW environments. These include faster processes, increased collaboration and a more productive team. There is the opportunity to attract and retain the best and brightest talent via a progressive culture. There is lower expenditure as the organisation becomes agile and is able to absorb change and accommodate growth within an unchanged footprint, and the physical space becomes less restrictive and more malleable. There are lower accommodation costs per person and a lessened environmental impact. 

A ‘traditional’ workplace consisting of offices and allocated desks is an anomaly if you consider how humans have inhabited knowledge settings up to the point of employment – from daycare to kindergarten to school and university – all of these environments embrace the idea of flexibility and freedom and reject the idea that a single static desk can accommodate differing learning styles, functions, roles and personality types. It is not until we are first employed that individuals become homogenised and are forced to regulate their workstyles. Activity Based Work places are a prevailing solution to organisations under pressure to innovate and prosper. ABW has huge implications collectively for the future of how we work, particularly as technology continues to advance beyond anything we could have imagined as little as ten or even five years ago. 

View our case studies to see how leading organisations have implemented their own ABW strategies