Activity-Based Working pilotBuildings 22 October 2012 | 10.00am
In Melbourne we have recently completed a six month Activity Based Working (ABW) pilot. We are interested in exploring this concept as a way to enhance communication and collaboration between our most valuable asset – our staff.
ABW “generally refers to environments where there are no fixed seats, employees choose where they will work from a rich blend of work places”. (As described in Geyer’s recent Fertiliser publication on Future Proofing – a Geyer/Arup collaboration).
In Australia, banking institutions like the Macquarie Bank and the National Australia Bank have already established ABW environments. More recently, property developers GPT and property advisors Jones Lang LaSalle has also introduced ABW to their employees.
Having a laptop allows individuals to quickly collaborate together with all information at hand.
For project-based design organisations, like Arup, the collaboration benefits of ABW offer an ideal opportunity to improve efficiencies in true interdisciplinary working, by bringing together teams in an environment that encourages knowledge sharing, which improves upon design output to clients.
Cameron McIntosh, an electrical engineer I work with, initially brought the ABW idea to our leadership team. This was his pitch – “The essential elements in working in a team are communication and collaboration. ABW nurtures this by creating an environment that empowers employees to choose where and how to work. Every day ABW volunteers decide where to work, which creates focus on where they believe they will perform at their best for that particular day. Ultimately this leads to better staff engagement, better project delivery, and better outcomes for our clients.”
So in November 2011, Cameron and I along with another thirty-two of us who work in our Spring Street office, volunteered to be part of the ABW pilot. We asked them to enter an environment where they no longer have an assigned desk, but instead have a laptop and opportunity to work in the area that suits the activity they are completing at the time.
The key goals for the pilot included, increase in the ability for staff to concentrate, demonstrate an increase in collaboration, and to implement a clean-desk policy.
It was highlighted, at initial user-group sessions, that the ability to concentrate was something lacking from the current workplace environment. We were told that staff plugged into headsets or worked outside of normal hours to avoid distractions. This led us to believe that establishment of concentration spaces could fulfil this need for time to be task-focused, free from the distractions of phone calls and questions.
Prior to the pilot we surveyed occupancy and found, not surprisingly, that on average 30% of desks were unoccupied on any one day. In a project-based organisation, people are often out on sites, with clients or travelling. Cameron and I continued to run surveys throughout the pilot with the ABW volunteers and the entire Melbourne Buildings Practice who occupy the office. The increase in ability to choose a space to concentrate was one the key results from the ABW pilot.
Additionally, we found seventy-five precent of our ABW volunteers felt that they increased their team collaboration, with the desks without partitions being the space with the greatest impact on this.
Throughout the firm there is a feeling that the ABW environment makes it easier to collaborate. As Richard Salter, an Associate, said at the end of the pilot “I felt like I collaborated a lot before the pilot, however ABW has made this easier to achieve”.
Feedback was also sought from Project Managers within the Buildings practice to establish what impact ABW had on their projects. There was a general consensus that it was easier to gather people together in project teams, collaboration and coordination improved, and the various design spaces around the office were more regularly utilised.
During the pilot the firm experienced challenges which included ensuring staff who agreed to participate in the pilot are technologically supported as well as implementing ways to find people in an unassigned seat environment. We are doing more research into space utilisation with our Mapping People in Space workshop at the Pause Festival in November.
At work in the concentration space.
The pilot identified that beyond storage space for individuals, there is a need for commual project storage. Documentation stored in an individual’s storage area, which could be locked can make access to this information difficult! Project storage solutions will be a requirement as the ABW implementation proceeds throughout the rest of our office. Meeting these challenges has allowed us to better shape the way ABW can be delivered in a project-based organisation such as Arup.
Following the success of the pilot, Cameron and I have been really pleased with the support to continue the rollout of ABW throughout the Melbourne office. The firm is currently expanding the programme and creating a policy for participation with new employees.