Boosting productivity in an Activity Based Workplace (ABW)

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 23rd January 2015

My phone is ringing more and more with requests to help organisations that have moved, or are moving to an Activity Based Workplace or ABW. This exciting style of workplace goes beyond open-plan and hot-desking, to create a workplace where workers can book the appropriate space for the type of work they are doing that day or week, from single desks to project tables and collaboration spaces. Originally pioneered in the Netherlands, ABW’s are catching on with some of Australia’s top companies. They are cost effective for the organisation, boost productivity and collaboration, and are extremely flexible for the workers.

But do they really improve productivity? That is my focus, and my biggest concern. After working in a number of ABW’s, I believe the answer is yes. But only if implemented well, and some key productivity principles are kept in mind.

The common concerns
I must admit, that most people that I have talked to about their experience working in an ABW overwhelmingly love it. But there are those that don’t like it, and usually share the concerns below:

  • A loss of control for managers, who no longer have the team in their line of sight.
  • Keeping everybody focused and motivated when the team is fragmented.
  • The logistical drama of having to book the workspace you need every day or week.
  • An increase in the volume of email as the main form of communication. 300 email per day can be standard in an ABW.
  • For senior managers, the loss of the traditional corner office can be a massive challenge, both from a status point of view, and from a concentration standpoint.
  • The need to reduce baggage – paper piles, folders and the stuff that used to be kept on our desk no longer has a place in an ABW.

Strategies for boosting productivity in an ABW
If you are working in an ABW, or will be moving to one in the coming year, keep the following productivity strategies in mind.

At the team level:

  • Develop email guidelines to reduce the volume of email and ensure productive communications.
  • Agree on meeting protocols to ensure that meetings are timely, focused and effective.
  • Discuss the issue of interruptions with the team, and work out strategies to foster collaboration without constantly distracting people from important work.
  • Develop strategies to communicate your location to others in the team. Using tools like Microsoft Lync can help with this.

At the individual level:

  • Centralise all of your work electronically so you are highly mobile and have access to your schedules, action lists and emails in any location.
  • Reduce your reliance on paper tools to stay organised, as you just cannot carry or store everything in this sort of workplace.
  • Synchronise your mobile tools such as smartphones and tablets with your laptop. You should be able to enter it once and see it on any device.
  • Stay on top of your inbox, and use email productively. The positive impact of an ABW is quickly lost when workers are drowning in 300 emails per day!  

I am all for this exciting change to the modern workplace, and believe that this way of working is appropriate for the type of work that the modern knowledge worker does. But it is a change, and it needs new tools and strategies to make it work.

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