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We’ll soon be publishing a WorkSpace Connect whitepaper on Activity-Based Workplaces (ABW), one of the major concepts in flexible workspaces. ABW anticipates that workers will use different types of spaces throughout the day: Desks for heads-down type of work; more comfortable settings for ideation and small-group collaboration; rooms for meetings that require privacy or noise control. ABW implementations generally employ hotdesking, the concept in which employees aren’t given permanent desk assignments, but can use any available desk.

To learn more about these topics, I recently spoke with Peggie Rothe, development director at Leesman, a U.K.-based research firm studying employee experience and workplace effectiveness. Leesman found that overall, ABW environments are just slightly more effective than traditional environments, though the results depend heavily on who the worker is and what exactly they do all day. Perhaps not surprisingly, the effectiveness of ABW varies with the degree of intra-office mobility a worker has in the course of a day, Rothe said.

Rothe acknowledged that much employee resistance to ABW centers around the idea of losing your desk. She noted that not only does this come across as displacement and loss of a personal space, but also can have more concrete negative effects. Employees may believe they’ll have to get into the office extra early to get a “good” spot, or that they’ll have to store their belongings in a locker, which may be perceived as an added burden.

“Change is scary, especially when you don’t understand what you’re changing to,” she said.

Enterprises should respond to these concerns by emphasizing the benefits of shifting to ABW, Rothe. said One point she makes is that although people naturally want a space to call their own, they may not really need it and so may not miss it as much as they anticipate they will. “The first question to ask is: Should they be sitting at their desk all day?” Rothe said. “What is it we want them to be doing?”

To that point, Rothe cited Leesman studies in which they ask workers which of 21 daily activities are important to them in doing their jobs, and allow respondents to select as many as they want. The average is just under 10, about which she commented, “You probably can’t do 9.9 different activities successfully at one workstation.”

I’ll admit that a part of me is always skeptical when I hear about the purported benefits of workspace philosophies that also just so happen to save the employer a bunch of money. I’m as territorial as the next person, and I also know it makes me a happier worker to be sitting at a desk surrounded by pictures of my family.

But to me this raises the larger question: What do I really need at my workstation? I need my laptop, which I carry in and out every day. I need my coffee mug from the videoconferencing event we produced 24 years ago (really). And I need pictures of my wife and daughter. That’s really it.

What if any workstation in the office could provide me the things I actually need? Assuming I could just keep my coffee mug in the kitchen, the only thing missing would be those photos, which I’d have to schlep around with me and set out new every day. But that’s where emerging technology comes in. How hard could it be to build a hotdesking app that holds your personal photos, which could be brought up automatically via Bluetooth on digital picture frames deployed at every workstation?

You don’t tell people: Hey you’ve got a screen saver or a mobile phone lock-screen for your personal photos, quit yer whining. People want their pictures in front of them all the time. That shouldn’t be a hard thing to give them, no matter where they’re sitting.

As we move toward refining the open office, using strategies like ABW, we’ve taken for granted that employees will have to rethink their relationship to the spaces where they work. That can be healthy as well as scary. But the enterprise also needs to be flexible, and really listen when employees describe what’s truly important to them. Then we need to find a way—whether through technology, flexible policies, or creative use of spaces—to make those priorities a part of the final workspace.

Eric Krapf
GM & Program Co-Chair WorkSpace Connect &  Enterprise Connect
Publisher, No Jitter

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