31.07.2012 THE ACTIVITY BASED WORKPLACE

THE BEST POSSIBLE CORRELATION BETWEEN HUMAN RESOURCES AND THE PHYSICAL SPACE  

In knowledge based organisations, the most important resource is the employees. It is therefore very important for an organisation to establish attractive and creative working environments which can retain knowledge intensive employees as well as recruit new employees. This is also to be seen in the light of the fact that we change jobs as never before. It is essential for an organisation to retain knowledge within each project group despite successively leaving and incoming employees.

The society is generally in a situation where the access to new information is doubled at shorter and shorter intervals. It is essential that employees work together on the solution of common projects – that knowledge is shared. It is impossible for each individual employee to know everything about a single topic. Interdisciplinary environments as well as knowledge sharing processes will be established both horizontally and vertically in the organisation. A number of search criteria will be made to make each employee capable of accessing the latest information whenever he or she needs it.

It will become an issue to decide what information is essential and should be saved in order to be used again at a later stage.

The employee of the future might be the employee who “is able to forget” and will not let old routines and information block for new ways of acting – and will furthermore always have access to the newest information when he or she needs it.

NEW ORGANISATIONAL STRUCTURES – NEW WAYS OF COLLABORATING 

The increasing focus on jobs in HR or jobs dealing with optimisation of employee resources and new ways of working means that many organisations rethink their organisational structure. The traditional “pyramid structure” is now replaced by “the learning organisation” – value-based management. This results in new demands regarding the shape of the physical space as it has to support the collaboration the organisation wants to foster.

The increased speed of change we see at the moment – in society in general and in particular in certain industries – requires willingness to adapt. In many organisations, the organisational changes are already happening as a long, successive process which means that the physical space must be flexible so that it can to support new structures and ways of collaborating according to the markets and tasks that the organisation is facing.

In the traditional office environment with cubicles, we often see how the physical space falls behind the current organisational structure because the organisation first needs to save up for the expensive rebuilding – and thereby the forms of collaboration, the organisational structure, and the physical surroundings are never in balance.

TIME SPENT BY THE DESK < TIME SPENT ON INTERACTION

In knowledge based organisations, the employee will often experience that the time spent by the actual desk during working hours is significantly reduced compared to earlier. The workday is based on creative and innovative work, interactive and interdisciplinary collaborations, and with quite a lot of meetings either out of office or in the office, but not by the actual desk.

This means that many of the cubicles will be left empty during the day and at the same time the necessary functionalities needed to support working processes and enhance interaction are not present in the organisation. This concerns a number of ad hoc facilities which facilitate informal meetings at all levels in the organisation.

THE USE OF IT HAS CHANGED

In order to enhance creativity in team based environments and at the same time support flexibility and mobility, it is important that the available tools are equally flexible and mobile.

As opposed to traditional office environments where IT is often set up at fixed workstations, the focus in flexible working environments is on technology being used to support creative and interdisciplinary work – both individually and in teams. ”Work Where You Want”.

However, this requires installation flexibility, knowledge sharing and search profiles as well as mobile and flexible IT solutions. Furthermore, we need to challenge the perception of work as something which can only be done properly sitting by one’s desk in the office.

In the knowledge society work is not a place, it is an activity.

THE NEED FOR SPACE AND SPACE DESIGN CHANGE

In flexible and activity based working environments, the workstation must be mobile and flexible. The actual office space should match the way it is used on a daily basis. Different areas are designed differently so they each match a way of working, for instance project based and interdisciplinary work, work that requires peace and quiet, and more traditional workstations supplemented with interactive areas, informal meeting facilities, and so on.

In traditional office environments, the individually “owned” cubicles tend to dominate the interactive meeting facilities. On a daily basis, the office capacity is far from performing optimally as employees are everywhere else to be found: meetings out of office, informal meetings in-house, project work in-house and so on.

Experiences show that typically 30% of the cubicles are left empty during an average work day. A registration of how much each room is used within each department might very well reveal unused space. If unused space is found, it can either be used for flexible workstations or for other functionalities that supports the organisation’s current and future needs.

In the traditional office environments, the organisational hierarchy is often reflected in the size of both office and furniture, whereas activity based working environments generally match functional division, space design, and furniture with the demands of the specific work processes.

What you do is more important than who you are, and influence is achieved through participation.

Some space designs enhance teamwork, some collaboration and some communication – and the differences between the space designs are quite big. It is important to set up the physical space in a way that makes knowledge sharing a natural part of the workday and processes – almost without noticing it – for example by integrating informal meeting places. And the interior design should of course be based on the working processes that the organisation wishes to enhance.

Corridors and division areas should be integrated in the work areas and made active in order to ensure contact and communication.

THE ACTIVITY BASED WORKPLACE

The activity based working environment is a multifunctional and innovative workplace with a number of different offers according to the employee’s space needs for individual work, undisturbed work, interdisciplinary teamwork, hot desking prior to a meeting, or other kinds of work.

It is a flexible working environment based on mobility. The space is designed according to the needs and demands of the users.

The activity based working environment is a shared environment. Each employee uses the most suitable workstation for each work situation. Different activity zones allow the employee to work where he or she is most efficient during the day. Each employee decides his or her own mobility during the workday.

Informal meeting areas are integrated in the working areas to enhance the interaction. These areas are used for more informal communication between employees than the traditional meeting room. It is important that the daily interaction is supported as much as possible.

In order to enhance mobility and flexibility in activity based working environments, it is important that each employee reduces his or her personal archives for the benefit of shared archives placed in the working areas, for instance as social gathering points. Archives can for instance be shared between colleagues within the same field of expertise.

Furthermore, it is important to consider which archives the employees need access to on a daily basis, a few times a week, once a month or a couple of times a year. Based on those considerations, the archives should be placed where it makes most sense. A part of them can probably be moved to a place where they will not take up space that could be used for interaction and collaboration.

INNOVATION – BASED ON THE HUMAN BEING

The activity based working environment has its focus on job satisfaction and well-being as well as on establishing a working environment with an optimal indoor environment whereas the open-plan offices used to focus exclusively on optimisation of square meter. (In this context it is important to distinguish between two types of environments as many unfortunate things are established in “the name of the open-plan office” without relating to the real well-being of the employees).

People are diverse and different and therefore it is important to establish different working environments. Even if the environments become shared and allow each employee to pick his or her preferred working or meeting place, it is also important to secure a personal working sphere; a safe place of belonging.

The employees in an organisation are all individuals and as such different from one another, and therefore their workstations should be equally individual. There must be room for diversity and for different needs. We believe that activity based working environments require great focus on establishing different types of workstations according to the described needs of different employee groups. Also when it comes to the furniture, the organisation should be ready to meet the different needs, however without compromising on the mobility and flexibility in different furniture modules that can be put together in many different ways while still leaving a visually aesthetic impression.

We find it important to establish bases / competency groups where each employee has a sense of belonging. The group may very well be time limited, but it is still important that we don´t just move around in the office for the sake of moving around, but only do it when it makes sense according to new needs and changed projects or tasks.

The base should function as the employee´s safe space which he or she can influence personally and together with the competency group. The base is supplemented by ad hoc facilities nearby that the employee can make use of, but the base is always there as a place he or she can return to.

A working environment where innovation and collaboration are the key words requires a social culture where the employees help one another and are not afraid of sharing knowledge or admitting a mistake.

A social culture and rules of conduct are important elements in avoiding stress, fear of failure, unwillingness to share knowledge with others, or feeling insecure. We believe that well-being is a keyword here. And it is important to include the employees actively during the change process in establishing simple rules of conduct in an activity based working environment. Furthermore, it is important to focus on the culture and the values that the organisation wants the rules of conduct to be based on.

It is for instance not enough just to decide to share knowledge if there is no focus on the difficulties that employees might have doing that. There must be a focus on the barriers as well. When you share knowledge, do you then also share when you make mistakes? That can be rather intimidating for employees who have been used to sitting in their own cubicle their entire working life. And some employees might find it challenging to come out and collaborate with colleagues if there is no social and safe environment – a space that enhances the knowledge sharing and the fundamental understanding and acceptance of different working processes.

It is also important to focus on the fact that mistakes, incompetence, and ignorance often occur when people develop in one dimension, meaning that we improve what we are already good at…

Organisations can easily turn into behavioural prisons dominated by a narrow outlook and where everybody thinks the same. Efficient use of key competencies therefore requires a focus on diversity – also when it comes to the physical working space.

ADVANTAGES OF ACTIVITY BASED WORKING ENVIRONMENTS – NEW WAYS OF WORKING

Activity based working environments are based on the current working processes within each staff group in the organisation. The workstation is tailored to each employee and focuses on increased interaction, collaboration, and knowledge sharing, but also on autonomy to ensure that the employees can pick their own workstations and meeting places during the day.

Focus is furthermore on knowledge sharing and on cultural change to optimise the psychical working space.

The physical space, the working methods, and the organisational culture must match one another as it has a strong influence on the organisational image.

As immaterial values play a bigger and bigger role, it is essential to make the personality of the organisation visible externally, but in particular also internally. New employees must integrate quickly into the teams and the entire organisation must be connected in a value based community where everybody has the same focus when it comes to solving tasks.

Activity based working environments are flexible and mobile working environments where change processes are implemented quickly without cost-intensive rebuilding projects. The free space and division areas are much better used as they are integrated into the working space.

THE PROCESS FROM THE TRADITIONAL OFFICE ENVIRONMENT TO THE ACTIVITY BASED WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT.

Establishing an innovative working environment has a lot of political and strategic decisions to it. It is therefore important that the management:

  • Has a clear definition of the organisational values and criteria for success and participates actively in the change process
  • Forms a quorum
  • Clarifies its own will at an early stage and informs all members of the organisation about this and the overall rules

To make sure that the change process really does take new ways of working as its starting point, it is important to identify the needs in the organisation before concrete solutions are brought to the table.

That is why the establishment of activity based working environments takes the strategic programming process as its starting point with focus on identification of needs related to different working processes in the organisation.

This is done through interviews with the management and the employees focussing on future scenarios which could be:

  • An assessment of logistics related to the requested forms of collaboration, knowledge sharing, and  organisational structure
  • An overall assessment of the work that each employee carries out now and in the future as well as the related demands on the physical space
  • An assessment of the tools an employee needs in order to be able to work properly
  • An assessment of jobs or tasks where employees might not need a fixed workstation
  • An assessment of the need in common areas and facilities, formal as well as informal, and an identification of the interaction areas which must be implemented in the physical space.

SIGNAL has developed a set of tools to gather and analyse the relevant information that, by the end of the process, forms the basis of design for the physical space. Furthermore, SIGNAL plays an active role in the internal process and positional adaptation within the organisation.

THE FUTURE?

In an activity based working environment, the work is no longer a place, but rather an activity – maybe we will see the office based workstation replaced by a meeting place for knowledge exchange?

“The feeling of being at home” will be transferred to the office?

Maybe the communicating human being will play an even bigger part in the future – with the computer moving into the background? Maybe buildings become co-operative and the entire building is interface for communication between people? The computer is integrated in everyday things – “pervasive computing”.

Will we see the complete separation from working methods and environments bound to a physical location?

No matter what the answer is, it will all require a new way of designing space.

However, it is still the correlation between human resources and physical space that is worth optimising.

Af Gitte Andersen.