Global Activity Based Working Consultancy Firm Veldhoen + Company Managing Partner Iolanda Meehan says when looking at embracing new ways of working, organisations must allow enough time to assess each situation holistically for successful business transformation.
By Joanne Leila Smith
The concept of Activity Based Working (ABW) was founded thirty years ago in 1989 by Erik Veldhoen, founder of Veldhoen + Company. The ABW approach recognises that people perform different activities in their day-to-day work, and therefore require a variety of work settings supported by the right technology and culture to carry out these activities effectively. By creating a work environment based on this principle, ABW creates a space that is specifically designed to meet the physical and virtual needs of individuals and teams.
According to Managing Partner Ms Iolanda Meehan ABW provides profound opportunities for organisations to rethink how the way they work contributes to the realization of organisationals goals. Veldhen says in recent years, more companies in Asia appreciate the value of human capital, and are looking to adopt new ways of working to increase productivity, collaboration and overall employee happiness. This is becoming a critical point of consideration with the shifting expectations around work from younger generations.
“It is a common misconception that only spatial changes such as creating a trendy office space or adding hot desk options are the future of work. One of our goals is to create awareness around the fact that better world of work requires leadership, mindset, behaviour changes above everything else as well as support from physical and virtual environments to totally empower people to do their best work. We engage with senior leadership to challenge the traditional thinking that leadership equals power and control and drive transformation across the entire business, including cultivating a culture of trust and empowerment in the company. We also take a Design Thinking Approach that empowers staff to rethink how, when and where we work to maximise the organisation’s potential. At the end of the day, sustainable transformation is only possible by focusing on people, their activities and objectives and cultural or organisational values,” says Meehan.
According to Meehan, ABW’s heavy emphasis on the creation of a culture of connection, inspiration, accountability, and trust empowers individuals to perform to their potential in a productive and enjoyable way that best suits what they need to do, and who they need to do it with.
“By creating optimal circumstances for each activity, whether it is individual focus work, developing ideas independently or in teams, collaborating on content or sharing knowledge, ABW gives each person the freedom of choice to decide how they work to achieve the best outcome,” says Meehan.
According to Meehan, for many decades, the belief was that only serious work happened behind a desk. Given the latest research that open plan spaces are bad for knowledge workers, Meehan says in Asia, companies are shifting away from traditional expectations around employee visibility and performance.
“The idea that you’re only considered to be working when the manager sees you for ten hours doesn’t apply anymore. I think in Asia, companies are starting to look at new ways of working, because the activities that people do now have totally changed. People’s activities are more complex and they need to be supported. There is no predefined solution. Activity based working is just the right mix of physical space and behavior for the task at hand. It’s hugely different company by company. I think the philosophy makes sense because it fits into how people naturally interact. It’s all about choice so people can work from anywhere when it makes sense to them at that moment in time. For leaders, it’s their role to make sure they are managing by results, not by presence,” says Meehan.
For some North American companies that started the work-from-home culture shift a couple of decades ago, the motivation was largely centered on cost reduction in terms of real estate with many adopting the mandate for only 60% physical space availability. This restriction forced people to work from home. While the flexibility of work from home improved choices around managing family and working life, employees tended to be on call more, which resulted in higher output overall. However, because the shift was tied so strongly to performance, it created an aggressive culture, with some larger organizations adopting up to a ten percent headcount reduction every quarter – woe to those who made the bottom 10 percent. We asked Meehan on how leaders can navigate that tension between trying to keep reasonable pressure on workers from a distance.
“Organisations need to know what the desired outcome is upfront. Is it because you want to increase marketing presence, or you want to be more innovative or you want to drive more collaboration. With activity based working, the purpose is not to send people to work from home. Sometimes that occurs because of the drive to start trusting people they can work from everywhere, but it’s much more around how do you make sure that whatever you create is relevant for them to want to come to the office as opposed to having to come to the office. If you’re coming from Europe or Australia, you may have lots of space at home. In Asia, the home space may not be big enough so it’s not suitable for people to work from home all the time. It’s a case by case solution and you start from the desired outcome. ABW is truly understanding what function each person is meant to do and giving them the right tools to do it. If you really understand the philosophy, you’re never done because the activities and technology around us is constantly changing,” says Meehan.
One of the interesting outcomes of the digital revolution is it has enabled people from different regions to collaborate easier. We asked Meehan what leaders can do to overcome some of the challenges on motivating teams that are geographically dispersed.
“Activity based working also gives you more freedom because you don’t end up assigning people to defined locations. I think it boils down to knowing what you are trying to achieve together and building trust. Like continuously having ongoing communications, sometimes taking turns in taking calls in late time zones. Have sessions or catch up moments where people don’t only talk about work, where they get to share with each other about their personal lives, ambitions and hobbies and so on. While people who work remotely enjoy flexibility and trust, it’s also isolating and they’re missing out. If employees feel disconnected from their team members, as a leader you need to facilitate communication. For team cohesion, organize a quarterly fly in that alternates between the regions,” says Meehan.
According to some theories, knowledge workers will not need to go to an office in the near future. Meehan says while its possible, it’s not likely.
“It’s important to connect with each other regularly for feedback. Spit balling ideas doesn’t have the same magic remotely as when you’re face to face because you get so much non-verbal feedback too. Many years ago, we worked with a police station, trying to get more policemen on the streets. Policemen had to spend quite a lot of time in the office typing reports. We got in recorders so the police could be on the streets more and the next day somebody else could write the report for them. But this didn’t change the behavior. It turned out that the office time together was necessary to share the traumas with somebody else. A shared smile or opinion made them feel not alone in their journey,” says Meehan.
In terms of how aesthetics of space impact productivity and culture, Meehan says that changing the physical space doesn’t translate into greater productivity or workplace satisfaction until behaviors changes first.
“I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that once you change the physical space, everything is hunky dory. I’ve seen so many beautiful spaces being rarely used by anybody because managers don’t make employees feel trusted to sit on a lounge chair in a breakout space to have a chat. I think that’s the major shift we need to see in Asia. Physical space plays a role in shaping culture as long as people feel they have explicit permission to enjoy the spaces, which requires constant reinforcement from managers. This happens when leaders role model the changes they want to see from employees,” says Meehan.
We asked Meehan what about personalities who just want predictability every day; does Activity Based Working apply to them and, are open plan spaces really that counterproductive?
“Changing the behavior of people to continuously work from one particular corner takes time, but I think once people see the benefits to work from an environment that allows them to focus or take a call, then they end up doing it. Many times a lot of managers have dedicated offices, and then are asked to step out into the open plan and to be honest it doesn’t work so well because if you think about their core activities, they need to be able to have private calls or quiet time to focus. When you’re moving them out from a dedicated enclosed space into an open space where they have no access to any other choice, you’re taking away the environment that supports a lot of their activities which means you’re reducing their productivity. It’s interesting too because open plan means people just try to vie for the least exposed area so it doesn’t actually change behaviors, it just makes it more inconvenient for the worker to have a quiet conversation or meeting,” says Meehan.
One industry where Meehan says she would like to see Activity Based Working take off is education.
“Universities tend to be resistant to change! If professors would work differently with each other and with the students’ we would experience a totally different value proposition and way of looking at the world of learning. I’m such a big advocate for choice in life. I think we’re spending a huge amount of our lives at work and if we could make them more enjoyable and less stressful, that’s my goal. In a recent survey, we found ABW increases talent attraction and retention. When asked if colleagues wanted to go back to the old way of working basically 90% said no,” says Meehan.
(Ed. Featured image of Managing Partner Iolanda Meehan courtesy of Veldhoen + Company.)