The activity-based working (ABW) concept predates the pandemic, but it’s gained new relevance as employees return to the office and their employers try to make that office a place that fosters collaboration, within and beyond the physical space. The two key principles of ABW—trust and choice—could well be considered the foundation of the next generation of hybrid work writ large.
So what is ABW? The term was coined in 1995 by Erik Veldhoen, a Netherlands-based design consultant, and the eponymous firm he founded remains a leader in working with enterprises to implement ABW. Veldhoen + Company defines ABW
as recognizing that “people perform different activities in their day-to-day work, and therefore need a variety of work settings supported by the right technology and culture to carry out these activities effectively.” In the company’s formulation, ABW brings together the “bricks” (i.e., physical space), “bytes” (digital platforms), and “behaviors” (what employees do throughout their day).
Workspace Connect had a chance to speak with Jon Gausden
, workstyle consultant at Veldhoen + Company, about how Pre-pandemic, especially as the open office concept gained momentum, ABW was often discussed mostly in terms of the physical office space – creating different types of environments within the office appropriate to the different activities people engaged in throughout their day there. But Gausden said remote working always been an extension of activity-based working: “It always has just been an additional activity setting where you perform tasks.”
Gausden also argues that ABW has always been a holistic concept that extends beyond the office walls and that this is truer today than ever with the rise of remote work.
“I would argue that perhaps every interaction between colleagues involves those three environments [“bricks/bytes/behaviors”] blurring together in some way,” he said.
One of the clearest examples of the intersection of these three forces is the post-pandemic conference room. It starts with using technology to bring in the remote participants and optimize the experience for everyone, Gausden said. “You need to be able to present content, [and] you need to be able to ensure that content is discussable and visible by everyone, no matter their geographical location,” he said. “You need a smart microphone system, follow-me cameras, perhaps multiple screens to be able to view content and remote participants at the same time.”
But technology alone isn’t enough to bring remote participants truly on a par with those on-site, Gausden said. The enterprise must think about potential behaviors—"unconscious, excluding practices,” as Gausden called them—and plan to mitigate those that hamper collaboration and culture.
He gives the example of a hybrid meeting that might finish up, whereupon “it could be very possible for those who are physically present to actually ‘re-have’ the meeting again,” by carrying on discussion without the remote participants’ involvement.
This doesn’t have to come out of bad motives; it may just be human nature that “they're in the room together, it's fresh in their minds, and ultimately, what is it that can stop them? Who's going to stop them from doing that?”
The answer, to Gausden, is that the employees should learn to stop themselves from these behaviors by committing to rules of engagement. Such “team agreements” should “very clearly and consciously state” how people will work together. “Out of respect to one another, you live those agreements; obviously those agreements can evolve, but because they've been created by the people themselves, that makes them all the more powerful.”
This concept shouldn’t be too difficult for people to get their heads around. Gausden noted that we live by rules that say, for example, to wipe down equipment at the gym when you’re done with it or tell us where and how to queue in coffee shops. These generally aren’t burdensome; they just help people cooperate in a particular setting. What they do require is what Gausden called “purpose and consciousness.”
These agreements and situations bring us back to the idea of trust and choice at the heart of ABW: “The choice that you can work wherever you want. But the trust from others that your choice doesn't impact them negatively.”
Of course, the choice may not be unlimited, and whether by choice or enterprise leadership’s decision, many employees will return to the office. For now, Gausden hasn’t seen a massive change in the kinds of spaces that many clients need.
“You're considering what activities do we need to perform in this environment, and those activities haven't necessarily varied hugely,” he said. “So we haven't seen this massive pickup in collaboration spaces and the disregard of focus spaces. In fact, we're seeing a lot of clients wanting to make sure that they have the ability within their working environment to disconnect from other people, to be able to have that high focus.”
Ultimately, the sense of consciousness will also help enterprises and their employees navigate through a period that’s likely to feature a lot of trial and error in the execution of ABW. “It might not be perfect the first time,” Gausden said. “But by drawing attention to the activities themselves, you actually create a very explicit framework for people to discuss: OK, well, why? It might not work, but why is it not working?”