NOMADS AT WORK“Activity Based Working” is being introduced into the workplace as an alternative to working in a traditional assigned individual workspace—the familiar kind of personal workspace that each employee can or must call his or her own.

Instead of having a partitioned monk’s cubicle, a sprawling private office with a name-plated door, a desk with a photo of the kids and at least one drawer for pulling out the photo of the wife when she visits or any other workspace that’s permanently and officially yours, you get the opportunity to nomadically roam the workplace and plant yourself (but not your plant) in whatever space seems to best facilitate the task at hand.

This may mean merely the most physically comfortable and otherwise appealing space (even perhaps wherever the cutest assistant in the office is working at the moment), as opposed to the space that has the lathe you need to work the part you’ve been handed.

The brainchild of Dutch Veldhoen + Company, Activity Based Working (ABD) workspace design has been adopted by corporate innovators, such as Gerson Lehrman Group, and on a grand scale, as specially-designed workplaces that feature free unassigned work, meeting, work break and other spaces.

In an August 16, 2014, Business Insider article titled, What It’s Like to Work in an Office Where Nobody Has an Assigned Seat, it is reported that, “Instead of a desk, workers were given a locker, a laptop, and a license to roam across a variety of office landscapes ranging from conference rooms, to couches, to the company’s own in-house coffee bar.”

Preference-Based vs. Task-Assigned Spaces

A comparison and contrast of workspaces designed to accommodate personal preferences with spaces allocated to essential task activities is important and illuminating: There is a huge difference between space allocated for free use and space allocated to essential, distinct “activities”.

The former clearly amounts to licensing a free-for-all scramble for whatever space is preferred for whatever reason; the latter involves the permanent or prioritized allocation of space for specific tasks, e.g., the photocopying space, a staff conference space, a private conversation or client meeting space, a quiet writing space, a rest space, to name but a few of the myriad possibilities.

Does “Free for All” Mean a “Free-for-All” Space Scramble?

The ideal ABW-based way of preventing daily “gold rushes” for space is for the organization to be big and profitable enough afford to have considerable surplus space (in defiance of the extra real estate costs that requires)—a luxury that only a cash-flush company can afford.

What seems to be inherent vagueness in the concept of ABW can be a source of misunderstanding and problems. In some respects, an ABW workspace can be formatted as, resemble or be treated as a workshop, a Starbucks cafe or a public library—and not necessarily in the same way by all staff working in that space.

Unless the management intentions and authorizations are crystal-clear, the potential for confusion and conflict will be substantial—especially in workplaces that do not have the luxury of sufficiently ample and redundant workspaces to prevent a seating free-for-all and competition in the form of scheduling conflicts, prioritization of access and territorial squabbling over them.

Workshop, Starbucks and Library ABW Models

If the ABW model is the machinist workshop, i.e., with spaces permanently assigned for specific activities (e.g., grinding here, polishing there, assembling elsewhere) and for the associated tools, territorial conflicts can be prevented—but at the cost of potential inefficiencies, such as having workers waste time moving from one station to another, or physically getting in each others’ way while in transition or in arriving at the same work station at the same time to perform the same task on the only available machine.

Such division of tasks as activities can cause personal personnel divisions and frustrations about access to the spaces and tools required to perform them.

A library model for ABW blends the workshop and Starbucks features: permanently allocated spaces for specific task activities (such as microfiche access or periodicals) plus free spaces for user-defined activities. This model combines the potential for bottlenecks with competition for the “best” spaces, e.g., the most comfortable sofas or best illuminated cubicles, when not all spaces are created equal, except for equal access to them.

One potential source of workplace friction in an ABW workplace is conflicting staff (or management) perceptions of how the workspace has been allocated and defined: One staffer interprets the format as allowing a free choice of space based on a first-come basis and Starbucks model, e.g., the activity of writing a report in a comfortable and quiet space; another interprets it as free access to a space he’s been using for discussions with clients, with overtones of “squatter’s rights”.

Of course, this clash of priorities can immediately be cleared up by management or by staff negotiations with each other; but that will require agreement or a decision to assign a fixed activity to the free space, rather than the reverse—assigning a fixed space to whatever activity staff freely prefers to perform in it; or it will require some other unambiguous policy to prevent further squabbles, e.g., one based on employee rank or task priority.

Other ABW Problems

Other potential problems with an ABW format are easily imagined and include all of the following:

  • Easier for employees to hide when they don’t want to be found
  • Requires a toolbox (if a computer or smartphone is not the only tool required)
  • Complicates oversight of employee task-to-time ratios
  • More difficult to locate staff in an emergency
  • May compromise private conversations
  • Can blur chain of command
  • Can create infra-structure and other resource logjams and bottlenecks
  • May induce competitive resentment against and frustration with squatting and scrambling
  • Can mask or facilitate stalking or harassment

Personally, I can be comfortable with any of the following, but with certain conditions:

1. workspaces permanently assigned tasks

2. workspaces permanently assigned staff

3. pure free workspaces: neither permanently assigned staff nor tasks

4. any of the above, with assignments on a temporary, prioritized basis

The preconditions for my being OK with each of the above, respectively, are

1. Bottlenecks and logjams are rare.

2. My space is not worse than it should be.

3. The infrastructure (such as wall plugs for computers,comfortable seating, good lighting) is sufficient to keep everybody happy and I’m not being stalked by anyone other than the office fox.

4. The “temporary” period is long enough to not create chaos.

(To this I add the precondition that I don’t have to sit in an uncomfortable chair or at a desk, since I usually work from a reclining position, but not in a hammock).

To avoid confusion, chaos and frustration, the design, implementation and enforcement of an ABW format should make it very clear who and what defines the “activity” to be conducted in the space, the resources to which performance of that activity is entitled and how workspace constraints—including workspace scheduling and claims conflicts—are to be prevented and addressed.

Of course, that leaves unanswered the question of in what (kind of) workspace all of those space allocations will be sorted out.

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