When does activity-based working actually work?
Tina Perinotto | 31 August 2017
We’re hearing a lot about the backlash to activity-based or hot-desk working arrangements, the office design trend that’s been sweeping the nation, where people need to leave a clean desk and pack up their wares in a locker at the end of the day.
The complaints range from regret to not being able to leave photos of loved ones on the desk to create a “nest” and soften the harshness of some working environments to issues around the denial of genetically programmed desire to bond in social groups.
In fact two public service unions, the Public Sector Union and the Australian Services union, have now both opposed plans by the Australian Taxation Office to move staff to hot desking. Their claimed issues include the need to set up workstations for occupational health to avoid repetitive strain injury and the ability to boost morale with personal items.
But what about ABW does work? What do we know about superior productivity and the value of synergistic creative breakthroughs that can happen by mixing it up with people outside your comfort zone or habitual circle?
According to University of Sydney’s Dr Christhina Candido who runs the Building Occupant Survey System (BOSSA) in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, and whose work featured in our recent Healthy Offices ebook,
there is not yet any reliable metrics about when ABW works well and for what kind of companies.
But it’s worth finding out. Imagine the savings in effort of avoiding implementation of ABW in locations where it’s unlikely to work, she says, because this radical new way of working is not an easy thing to implement.
Dr Candido is working with Southern Cross University and interior design firm Cachet Group on a pilot study, a first of its kind in Australia, to examine how activity-based office designs affect worker productivity and wellbeing.
Among the issues that will be looked at are wearable technology and new analytical software developed by Southern Cross University and the University of Sydney to capture and analyse the cognitive responses of workers in a variety of work spaces.
Professor Dian Tjondronegoro from Southern Cross University said that monitoring cognitive performance would help “capture the emotional and physical responses of people working in different office locations and layouts”.
“The advantages of activity-based working have already been widely reported in the property sector but it is time to provide evidence around this growing office trend in Australia,” Dr Candido said.
“Typically, it may see workers migrating to team desks, quiet concentration rooms, a variety of meeting rooms, brainstorming areas, multi-media rooms and lounges.”
She told The Fifth Estate issues in ABW tended to arise when it was adopted merely as the latest fad in office design.
Clearly it doesn’t work for some companies, she said.
“This will be the first study to provide some statistics.”
The university had conducted “multiple studies” in post occupancy evaluation but the difference with this study will be around the methodology and how you quantify change.
“We’re trying to add more evidence-based information beyond what we already do in post-occupancy evaluation.
“With any new way of working it’s not one-size-fits-all. It can’t just be a trend that a company hops into.”
But who does it best suit?
Dr Candido says that’s a tough question, and she doesn’t have an answer, but it seems that finance, construction and consulting companies have so far found the biggest success.
“Based on my impression it goes back to the implementation … It’s not just about giving people a new way of working but the ongoing engagement.
“It works if it is aligned with the business culture. That’s the key.”
If it’s taken seriously and the company engages in customisation, “that is where they’re getting right.
“And where the design team, the occupants and management – the key players – come together from the get go.”
So far there’s been no correlation found between the size of the organisation and success.
But one thing that’s worked best in Australia is the concept of “neighbourhoods”, where you can have hot desks, but within a familiar cluster.
This is more of a “soft approach” and about 90 per cent of the success stories have a strong neighbourhood arrangement, Dr Candido says.
“They still have the clean desk policies, but they still have their colleagues around.”