Activity-based working: Welcome to the office of the future

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This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of CRN magazine.

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Activity-based working: Welcome to the office of the future

Few people look back fondly on NEC Australia’s dark and rambling former headquarters in the Melbourne suburb of Mulgrave. But when NEC Australia decided to move to up-to-date digs in Melbourne’s Docklands, it abandoned more than just bad memories – it left behind its entire model of working.

The solutions provider used the occasion to bring it into the era of activity-based working, transforming how its staff collaborate with customers and each other.

A walk into the new headquarters at 720 Bourke Street reveals a bright, airy open-plan environment with varied work settings. According to NEC Australia’s general manager for people and culture, Sue Roberts, the new fitout reflects the company’s evolved approach to doing business.

“There was a pressing need to migrate from a product-centric manufacturing business that needed production facilities and classic office fit-outs to the current services and solutions business that requires spaces to support a more collaborative approach,” Roberts says.

The NEC Australia headquarters is one of the most recent manifestations of activity-based working, where assigned offices and cubicles are forgone in favour of communal workspaces..

The core idea is that through the course of a day, workers need to complete different types of activity.While some require high levels of concentration and some high levels of collaboration, businesses usually provide a single workspace for all tasks.

At NEC’s Australian HQ, individual work stations cater for solo work; standing desks facilitate team collaboration; privacy pods allow for small group confidential work; and big and small group breakout spaces and formal meeting rooms handle everything else.

Roberts says the open-plan design supports cross-functional collaboration. “A post-move survey has shown a 10 per cent increase in cross-team collaboration and a similar improvement in productivity and pride across HQ staff,” she says.

Angela Ferguson has worked on many of Australia’s most high-profile implementations of activity-based working. As managing director of Sydney design agency Futurespace, she has been involved in award-winning implementations for Microsoft, REA Group and JLL.

Just as there is no single way of working, Ferguson says there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for activity-based working. “You need to understand how the business works and then develop a way of working that is going to suit the business. For instance, accounting staff may be in the office all day, every day, therefore requiring a desk ratio of one-to-one, but your sales and marketing team might be on the road 80 percent of the time. So you apply an intelligence to the workplace that is aligned with the business.”

Ferguson says activity-based working is also well-suited to organisations that have adopted the agile development methodology, especially if it has expanded beyond just the development teams. This has been the case at REA Group, where the company’s activity-based work fit-out was highly influenced by agile’s requirement for regular meetings of cross-functional teams.


Technology catches up

While activity-based working has become prominent lately, Ferguson says one of the earliest examples actually took place in the mid-1990s at the offices of US advertising agency Chiat/Day.

Founder Jay Chiat had a vision of turning his company’s offices into university campus-style accommodation by doing away with desks and cubicles and equipping staff with mobile computers and phones, and the ability to work from anywhere.

That vision proved ahead of its time and was roundly rejected by staff as they fought over access to meeting rooms and work tools. Most importantly, senior staff could not find the junior staff they relied on and the idea was soon abandoned.

A key failing of the Chiat/Day experiment was that it lacked the technology to support it, with short battery life for devices, few collaboration tools and the lack of office wi-fi. 

By contrast, NEC Australia has deployed a robust wireless network with laptops for all staff. Every desk hosts dual screens, while follow-me printing and digital signatures support a paper-independent work style. Meeting spaces allow for wireless presentation, smart whiteboards enable remote content sharing and videoconferencing can be conducted from anywhere.

Technology has also been a key factor in the success of activity-based working at Brennan IT. The Sydney-headquartered MSP began its migration in 2013 as part of an effort to improve productivity, encouraging sales teams to spend more time with clients and less time in the office.

According to head of sales Simon Barlow, the two key applications for his teams are shared online diaries and presence technology through Skype for Business.

“All of our diaries, right across the business, are transparent to each other,” Barlow says. “All I ask them to do is have their diary up-to-date so I can make contact with them.”

Assigned desks have been abolished and staff equipped with new Microsoft Surface tablets equipped with videoconferencing, presence, instant messaging and voice and other mobile collaboration software. The devices are also used for meeting notes (via Microsoft OneNote) that are fed directly to a SharePoint extranet.


Trust and wellbeing

Brennan IT NSW sales manager Steven MacKenzie witnessed first-hand the introduction of activity-based working to his company. He says more important than the technology has been the environment of trust fostered by management.

“We’re saying work is an activity and not a place,” Mackenzie says. “So if you can trust people to produce a work outcome regardless of where they are working from, then you have a sound basis for adopting this as a principle.

“We can be more productive, because we are not involved in travel – and the stress that comes with it has dramatically reduced across the team. Ultimately we see our clients getting the real benefit, because we can become an extension of their workforce.”

This benefit has been borne out in improved customer satisfaction stats and also staff satisfaction results for measures such as wellness, accountability and ambassadorship. 

“If we look after people’s health and wellbeing, it is going to be paid back to us in productivity,” MacKenzie says.

The shift has also allowed Brennan to use its office space more efficiently. Barlow says that without activity-based working, the company would have had to take out another floor in Sydney to accommodate everyone.

Showcasing technology

The strong reliance on technology to support activity-based working within Brennan IT has also delivered the opportunity to showcase these technologies and their resulting business benefits. While Barlow says Brennan IT has not created a specific activity-based practice, the company has hosted many delegations to see the concept in action.

While the benefits of activity-based working are real, the potential disruption should not be underestimated. Before the Commonwealth Bank made the switch, it began a change management program 12 months prior to employee relocation and continued with ‘settling in’ activities. The company now has more than 9,000 staff working in an activity-based workplace across a number of buildings. Each team is allocated to a home zone containing lockers, team storage and work settings to suit various work activities.

As with Brennan IT, the shift at the Commonwealth Bank was driven by a desire to increase collaboration, enable mobile connectivity, encourage flexible work practices and leverage new technologies.

“The change strategy enabled our people to work with who they need, whenever they need and wherever they need, to deliver results for our customers quickly,” says the bank’s head of property design and construction, Teri Esra. “We did this by breaking the unnecessary rules and norms of the workplace and empowering people with the trust and technology they need to deliver outstanding results.”

While activity-based working remains in the pioneering stage, Ferguson is certain it will become more common because of the demand from younger workers.

“New generations have come from universities that work this way,” Ferguson says.  “And people are becoming more autonomous and more demanding about what they want from the workplace.”  

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