Before their relocation in 2013, Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) had close to 6500 employees in Sydney spread across 13 buildings in the city. Hardly a fact that supported the bank’s need to be more collaborative across all lines of business. CBA’s relocation in 2013 to a custom-built campus-style workplace in Darling Quarter was Australia’s largest-ever corporate office relocation. But CBA weren’t just changing where they worked. Implementing Activity Based Working (ABW), CBA were changing how they worked as well.
CBA recognised the need to challenge traditional assumptions of how workspace is used and how work is done. ABW as a concept has this mentality baked in.
ABW begins from the observation that traditional business fit-out usually provides a single workspace for all types of tasks, despite tasks having wildly varying requirements of personal concentration, collaboration, and technology. ABW promotes something different, however.
As Anna Sparks of Commonwealth Bank said speaking to HC Online: "Activity based means that you select your environment based on the type of work that you are planning on doing for the day."
Despite being coined in the mid-1990s by Erik Veldhoen in The Art of Working, ABW has only recently seen wide adoption throughout businesses around the world. This is primarily because we finally have the technology to do it right.
In 1994, visionary architect Gaetano Pesce was presented with a problem by CEO of New York ad firm Chiat-Day. “He wanted an office without paper,” Pesce recalls speaking with Planet Money. It turned out that Pesce had his own way of solving this problem. “I start to think you don’t need the office.”
Pesce’s work for Chiat-Day is considered one of the first open offices and a prototype of ABW. Gone were the uniform, efficient cubicles and neutral colours of the typical workplace and in their place were (then futuristic) laptops and mobile phones. But it wasn’t all rosy.
Laptop computers were one thing, but it would be half a decade before wireless internet really started to take off. Additionally, as much as the mobile phones of the era were straight out of science fiction, battery life still kept them from being a suitable option for most businesses. And getting work done out of the office wasn’t really viable: laptops and phones were borrowed and returned to reception morning and evening.
ABW has hit its stride with the technological advances of the last decade, most notably in smartphones and wireless networking. This has allowed the promises of the ABW approach to be fully realised by those businesses courageous enough to innovate.
Those promises begin at empowering employees through trust. When it is understood that an employee is best able to choose where and when to work based on the task they need to do, employees become more invested and, as the data suggests, more productive.
In certain ABW implementations, that “office” could be anywhere. As the same technology that has facilitated the rise of ABW also allows employees to be productive anywhere and at anytime, trust in employees to work anywhere they deem fit is heavily promoted. As the new adage goes: work is something you do, not a place you go.
Empowering employees also has an effect on their wellbeing. Increased trust and freedom can lower anxiety as well as giving your employees the flexibility to manage their own wellbeing when necessary.
For even the tech-savviest remote-working warrior, ABW will of course offer some disruption. It’s a big change after all. As well as requiring corporate adaptation, ABW will also present its own challenges.
Chief among these challenges is the possible splintering of a team that can occur when everyone is trusted to work independently. As such, one of the key components of an ABW implementation is fostering collaboration and in-person interaction.
As Fast Company reports, the way agile, flexible working can be prevented from fracturing team unity - with everyone in their own world - is by rethinking the office as an incentive, as a luxury or a reward. Catered team lunches are a good place to start in luring even the most independent remote worker into the office.
Above all, though, ABW is just one conception of what many believe the future of work to look like. In the face of technological advances, the way we used to work has long stopped making sense. Thankfully the office of the future is already here.