Event Recap
The Rise or Fall of Activity Based Working? Full Data Debrief

01 Mar 2017
Event Organizer: Leesman
Event Link
Tagged as: Attending New York , NY

By Teresa Whitney - 24th March, 2017

Last year, Leesman presented data from its investigations into one of today’s most talked-about workplace strategies: activity based working (ABW). This year, the Boston Consulting Group hosted Leesman in their new ABW office at 10 Hudson Yards, and workplace experience professionals and enthusiasts gathered to hear about the latest Leesman findings on activity based working. Tim Oldman, the company’s Founder and CEO, presented the follow-up to last year’s research, which stress-tested the implementation of ABW across industries.

Though there is no singular definition of ABW, the general idea is that no employee "owns" any single workstation; rather, the larger workspace provides a variety of activity areas suited to different tasks and work types, which employees can rotate between at will (booths for phone calls, conference rooms for meetings, quiet desks for independent work, etc). The design of each ABW space varies (from offering zero assigned workstations to a mix of assigned and unassigned, for example), but the typology’s hallmarks are significant spatial variation, and organizational culture that emphasizes individual choice and control over where one does one's work.

Oldman’s presentation included some expected as well as surprising findings. Leesman collected 70,675 survey responses from employees—only 11,366 of whom work in ABW offices. Just over half (55 percent) of all respondents reported that their workplace enables them to work productively. The productivity rates of those working with unassigned desks (“hot desking”) within open floor plans was even lower: 45 percent.

It’s important to note here that making discrete design changes such as instituting hot desking or switching to an open floor plan does not automatically certify your workspace as ABW. Foundational to true, effective ABW environments is an organization’s thorough understanding of its employees’ activities and needs, the creation of activity areas that fully support them, and a design mindset that affirms a company’s culture and values—whether that means offering workers more chances to interact, more privacy, high-tech amenities, the opportunity for physical activity throughout the day, etc.

Leesman’s disappointing findings about worker productivity vis-a-vis workplace design align with PLASTARC’s emphasis on the need to move beyond "desk bias"—associating one’s work with one’s desk. Technology has enabled people to “unchain” themselves from desks and work from almost anywhere they like: a cafe, a hotel lobby, a living room couch. To capitalize on the myriad benefits of jettisoning desk bias in the workplace, organizations cannot simply take away workers’ desks and leave them stranded in the middle of open offices; they must commit to embracing comprehensive ABW, in all its forms.Interestingly, the Leesman study found that the majority of employees who work in ABW spaces have relatively low mobility rates, suggesting that desk bias is maintaining a hold:

  • 30% are "campers/squatters" (truly anchored to one workstation)

  • 41% are "timid travelers" (work largely in the same place, but sometimes move locations)

  • 19% are "intrepid explorers" (an even mix of both)

  • 10% are "true transients" (rarely base themselves in a single location)

Leesman concludes that ABW adoption is a behavioral issue, and one that is not significantly affected by demographic factors like age (Millennials, whom one might expect to be the largest adopters, in fact had the lowest mobility rates). The only factor Leesman analyzed that influenced user adoption was activity complexity: the more complex your job, the more mobile you are likely to be at work.Oldman’s presentation ended with a discussion of the four supporting elements of ABW, as defined by Leesman:

  1. The design of the workplace needs to encourage employees to "choose work settings/locations that best support the different tasks [they] undertake"

  2. Employees have "the technology tools and infrastructure that enable [them] to work across different locations within the office"

  3. The organizational culture "is supportive to working in a mobile/flexible way"

  4. Employees have "access to training/support that helps [them] work in a mobile/flexible way"

The study found that of the ABW workers sampled, only 46 percent agreed that all these elements exist in their current workplace. Of the most mobile workers, 56 percent said that all these elements are present, while only 32 percent of the most sedentary workers agreed. These findings led Leesman to suggest that "a failure in even just one of these [elements] can lead to some employees not adopting a more mobile way of working."

Leesman argues that the key to "nailing ABW" is to have a variety of both physical and virtual collaborative spaces. PLASTARC would add to this the need to pay attention to how and why employees are utilizing their space. People “vote with their feet,” so being aware of their movements clearly indicates which spaces work and which do not. An approach that blends both large-scale survey data (like their 70K sample) with small-scale interview data (of individual employers and employees) would lend more insight to Leesman’s surprising findings.

The event concluded with a tour of The Boston Consulting Group’s new ABW office space, which incorporates stunning city views with a wide variety of collaborative spaces.

For a peek inside the event, search for #abwlmi on Twitter.

PLASTARC is dedicated to putting the user at the center of workplace research and advocating for the use of social data to optimize workplace design and performance.To read more of our thoughts on activity based working, read our article on the wellness implications of ABW on Serraview’s Space Planning blog.