A Really Cool Idea

Every so often someone invents something that initially sounds really cool.

Framed in clever words or attached to something else much cooler, it’s hard to argue.

Then as the idea develops, it changes and gets more complicated. By now, though, it has such momentum, that we’re all afraid to challenge the dumb elements that are creeping in.

Everyone knows the bits that are bordering on silly, but no one calls them out.
I feel most “activity based working” (sometimes called by its sister’s name “hot desking”) is now in this category.

Don’t get me wrong, it started cool.
I was lucky enough to be at ground zero, as the ideas came in.
There were genuine questions asked about whether each of us needed our ‘box’. Was there a requirement for ‘office square feet’ or ‘names on doors’ to define status and role.
The interim move to ‘cubicles’ solved the office acreage issue and concurrently gave rise to many (very funny) volumes of Dilbert cartoons. But Humans rejected the ‘cubed’ idea. Cleverer people (architects, psychologists) searched for a cooler workplace design.
And they found it.

How it started 

I was living and working in The Netherlands – one of the recognised birthplaces of ‘activity based working’ and ‘collaborative workspaces’, (both of which had yet to be given their nicknames of AWB and Co-Working) .
Heralding in the change from our separate offices, for a few months, we were sent to ‘design meetings’ and talked about colours and light, materials and timbers, and even more importantly, we talked about how we worked. Not just about how each of us worked, but about how we worked together. Who we worked with, who we’d like to work with, who we needed to work with, how loudly (or quietly) we worked, the type of work we did, whether we needed to be in meetings and if so, how many meetings, how often and with who.

After these months of growing our awareness of self and others, we moved into the new workspace. From our old offices one day, to the next in a cool activity based working collaborative spaces, there was the same capacity of workspace – ‘That’s code for everyone had a desk’. We worked for a month and then did a quiz on what was working and what wasn’t. Concurrently, remote work was encouraged. And then gradually, taking into account our feedback, the ‘spaces’ were reduced, very slowly, landing at 70% of the original number a year after we started.

I so fondly remember these workplaces.

Open warmly designed spaces, more like home, with natural timbers, interesting fabrics, and lots of natural light. Our team and close colleagues were close by for easy collaboration. Formal meetings were minimal, and the occasional informal one was designed against the framework we’d all discussed in the workshops – they had no more four items on the agenda, and none were longer than an hour or so.

It wasn’t surprising that as I subsequently moved around the world, every time activity based working came to town, I was the biggest ambassador.

“You’re going to love it” was my first catchcry, and “you learn so much about collaborating” was the second. I even added a third sometimes – “It’s great fun!”

Then, I did notice that progressively over the next two decades some crazy stuff crept in. I also noticed, (and I accept that there is the remote potential these are unrelated) that it moved from being a project run by creative architects, psychologists and workplace designers, to the “productivity and change” teams.

Here’s some of the bibs and bobs that I’ve noticed creeping in:-


As intended – some simple guidelines so even the newbies know how the workplace works 
At its worst – a multiple page intranet site, where you read and are then required to sign to say you understand your desk, phone, locker, chalk, meeting rooms, family photos, listening to music rules, and how ‘drinks on Friday’ work.

Time and Home

As intended – everyone has a home zone, and happily lets other people pop their stuff to the side and use their ‘space’ when they’re away in meetings. 
At its worst – Rules Police set very short time limits – 2 hours – which means if you attend a meeting for two hours or longer, you have to put all your stuff away in the locked locker. The more meetings you attend, the more time you spend wandering around to re-establish your office multiple times each day.

As intended – a feedback loop so everyone has an opportunity for continuous improvement, making sure the workplace works for the work being done
At its worst – a detailed weekly survey for the first three months of activity based working, where any criticism is converted into a statistical score and pinned on the leader until they hassle their team into submission to ‘correct’ any bad scores. The aggregate surveys are then used to support the success of the change program.

As intended – the was no chalk in early models. In fact, there were painted murals.
As its worst – without a space to call ‘home’ at work, people are given a small locker, which they can mark with chalk, the single most temporary writing implement ever. It almost feels like a reminder that everyone is borrowed or fragile or about to be rubbed out.

Odd Technology That Doesn’t Work</strong>
As intended – technology that supports the work you do and the ability to move around
As its worst – there are graveyards of tech that never worked, but I’ve landed on ‘softphones’ as the worst example for activity based working. We went to softphone classes, and walked around like Madonna in dance clip, but no could make or get a call, so you’d walk past a bin, and they would be full of ‘softphones’. Everyone used their personal mobile.

Café Seating (when a presenteeism culture meets working parents)
As intended – culture that supports collaborative, flexible and remote working
At its worst – Activity based working is brought in with a culture of presenteeism. Combined with not enough desks, (reduced to 70% from day 1) it means that people battle into the office anytime from 6.30am, to make sure they get a great seat, or a seat at all. People who want to drop kids off at school, are last to arrive. With insufficient seats, they head to the cafeteria. A powerful sub-group, complete with a log of claims, is built from the shared experience. Bizarrely, conditions for working parents improves and everyone except the Activity Based Working Productivity Team takes credit.

VERY BIG ‘Tribes’
As intended – work groups are designed in families (around 8) and then tribes (around 150). With a quick glance around your tribe you spot your ‘family’ and everyone has a feel of proximity. 
As its worst – Shared workspaces are built around tribes of 350. Find me a sociologist who thinks ‘tribes’ are 350 people and I’ll show you a person who skipped a few classes and may not have finished the undergrad course. People cannot find their tribe, let alone their family. Exec Assistants wander aimlessly trying to track down their lost executives.

I could list off many more, but these few are a good start, and you get the drift.

It’s a great idea, and done well, it’s awesome.

At its worst, this type of working feels like a battery hen. As a leader of other battery hens, trying to be supportive, it’s almost impossible to talk positively about activity based working, let alone work effectively when it’s done badly.

Don’t mistake my flippant attitude for ignorance. I’ve met and worked with great workplaces designers – architects, psychologists, builders, and cultural experts.

I’ve seen and worked in some really wonderful workplaces, but when I’ve landed in a workplace built for productivity before human beings, they’ve been the saddest workplaces of my life. Stuck in a few feet of space, with poor tech and no natural materials, I’ve felt somewhere between a battery hen and a homeless person. A feeling of extreme temporariness, fragility, never really unpacking and belonging, and constantly conscious of too many rules and not enough connection.

The motto – Workplace Matters. A lot!
Get someone who loves them – and the people who work in them – to help you build a great one.
Nothing overly fancy or ostentatious is required. Just somewhere where your team belongs, can unpack, work easily together, and form a little bit of home-away-from-home community.

A video to go with this article – Kitty Flanagan answers the valid question “What is hot desking?”