4 ABW (Activity-Based Working) Barriers and How to Overcome Them

by James McDonald on March 5, 2018

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

It may sound like something you’d read in a fortune cookie, but the quote (usually attributed to ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu) is unquestionably still applicable today – particularly when it comes to how organizations approach workplace design.

Companies are increasingly embracing ABW (activity-based working), a workplace model that gives employees the flexibility to choose the space best suited to the work they’re doing on any particular day. Rather than sitting at the same desk each day, employees can organize their schedule and use space in a way that makes the most sense for them. They might start their morning with a conference call in a meeting room, move into a less formal “huddle” room to brainstorm with other team members afterward and spend the afternoon compiling a report in a quiet, more private setting where it’s easier to concentrate. 

Some organizations have been slower to adapt to ABW for a variety of reasons. They may have the best of intentions, but find they are stifled by a resistant company culture, technology limitations or other challenges. Change is possible, however, if your organization’s leaders are willing to look beyond current limitations and commit to finding solutions. 

Here are the four most common barriers to adopting ABW and (more importantly) what you can do to overcome them.

ABW Barriers Include:

  • Pushback from Employees
  • Lack of Interdepartmental ABW Collaboration
  • Absence of Digital Workplace Technology
  • Workspace Challenges

Pushback from Employees

While some of your employees will embrace change with excitement, expect others to resist it at all costs.

Moving to a new model of working pushes employees out of the comfort of their cubicles. If this model is going to work, employees can’t become attached to a single physical space. They need to leave their workstations the way they found them at the end of the day, without leaving personal belongings or half-finished work behind. For change-averse employees, it may take some time to get used to this new way of working.The good news is there are a few things you can do to gain support from the more hesitant members of your workforce.

For example …

  • Be forthright and honest about the reasons for moving toward a model of ABW (activity-based working)
  • Show your enthusiasm and be specific about how you believe it will benefit the company and, more importantly, your employees
  • Share frequent updates about the progress of the implementation, including what is going well as well as any setbacks
  • Ask for feedback along the way, both in person and via employee surveys or anonymous suggestions

Lack of Interdepartmental Collaboration

Adopting activity-based working (ABW) requires the involvement of three departments in particular: facilities, IT and HR.

The facilities team is responsible for design logistics – for example, where new technology such as occupancy and temperature sensors will be installed, which rooms and workspaces will need updating and what new assets, equipment or furniture will be necessary. Members of the IT team are the experts on the new technology to be implemented and how it will integrate into the existing IT infrastructure. Finally, as the owners of the recruiting, onboarding and training processes, the HR department has crucial insight into what employees want and need in their workplace.

The management teams of each of these departments must ensure their employees are communicating regularly, have access to the same information and are aligned on the primary objective: adopting a workplace model that enhances the employee experience. The hard truth is that it’s just this side of impossible to do this if the facilities, IT and HR teams aren’t on the same page.

Absence of Digital Workplace Technology

To support ABW (activity-based working), companies need to make it easy for employees to find people, book rooms stay connected to important information throughout the day. In short, they need to make the move to a digital workplace if they haven’t already. A digital workplace is one that is mobile, connected and secure, allowing employees to work efficiently whether they are in the office or working remotely.

Achieving a digital workplace is a significant undertaking and an investment. It cannot be done by email or disparate software solutions – there are simply too many moving parts. And if you have an outdated system, you’ll likely run into issues that can delay implementation and, in turn, lead to the need to allocate additional resources.

Rather than realizing halfway through the transition that your software is woefully insufficient, you must have the right solution from the start – an integrated workplace management system (IWMS). The “integrated” aspect of an IWMS is what makes it a game-changer.

An IWMS allows workplace leaders to see how employees are actually using space and make adjustments according to need. For instance, managers can see how many people have reserved workstations and rooms and how many are working remotely from other locations on any given day. The maintenance department can see which rooms are actually being used and need attention, and they can receive service requests in real time.

Having the software to support ABW is just one part of the equation. You also need to make these tools accessible to employees. Today’s employees expect to be able to use technology in the workplace in the same way that they use it at home – via mobile apps. Workplace apps that allow them to find people and connect with them instantly, find and reserve meeting room space and make service requests will make it easier for them to adjust to activity-based working.

Workspace Challenges

ABW empowers your workforce with greater mobility and flexibility. But in order to provide these benefits, physical workspaces must be designed to offer mobility and flexibility as well. This means ditching cubicles and dedicated workstations in favor of an environment that encourages employees to move around the office throughout the day.

An activity-based workplace is agile, adaptive and inspiring. It supports a positive employee experience by ensuring the workforce has the kind of resources and environment it needs to be productive. If the same cannot be said for the physical workplace, attempting to adopt a digital workplace will be an exercise in futility.

Unfortunately, there’s simply no way to avoid every obstacle between you and a digital workplace. But you cannot allow the fear of failure to prevent you from undertaking a project that can have a great impact on your bottom line. To take Lao Tzo’s words about change a few steps further, consider this quote from Henry Ford: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Want to learn more about how companies like Sodexo, Genentech and Hershey updated their workplace strategy to meet the needs of a changing workforce? Check out our latest eBook, Building the Workplace of the Future.


James McDonald

James McDonald is a sports enthusiast, brother in Christ and once swam in a tank with the infamous TV sharks.

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