As companies around the world open their minds to new ways of working in response to the global pandemic, ‘activity-based’ workplace design has become quite the buzzword. As an early adopter of “activity-based” workplace design, with over 30 years experience in this field, Senior Associate at AWA Clark Elliott shares the secret to taking this more versatile approach.

I’m a workplace strategist and I have been designing the ‘office of the future’ since 1984.

What fascinates me about the workplace in particular, is that it is all about people. Starting with ‘people’ is the key to taking a more holistic approach to workplace design. 

I have tailored my whole career around getting people to talk about what they do and how they might do it better.  It all comes down to two main points: who are the users, and what do they do?

Want to design for the future? Start by putting people at the centre of design thinking.

It is very difficult to get people to talk about an ideal future state that doesn’t exist yet. Through a series of questions, I lead decision makers through a mental journey and get them to come up with their vision for their future. 

After discussing a series of affirmations about what the wonder of what the company actually does, I hit them right between the eyes with the question: what keeps you up at night? And that’s where I interpret how to change things; how to make things better and where to optimise. 

But it is always co-created. It is never about imposing a formula from trends. It isn’t just about furniture or colour - they are all ingredients but they have to be aligned with the concept that is co-created through an interactive discussion with CEOs or HR Directors.

The early beginnings of activity-based workplace design

My exploration of “activity-based” working (although this term didn’t exist yet then!) began when I was working as Space Planning Manager at the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) from 1984-1998.  

In that role, I was effectively spending each day designing the office of the future for the world’s second largest IT company. My job involved working with the teams across Europe to develop some of the very first activity-based workplace projects. We asked one question: how could we work better, or smarter?

By combining an academic approach with focus on putting people at the core of our decision-making, we developed a holistic approach to creating efficient work environments. And that’s really the concept of activity-based workplaces. So, in the end, I invented a profession that didn’t previously exist: workplace strategist.

Waking up to a holistic approach to workplace design

What’s happening now, in the aftermath of the global pandemic outbreak, is that people are finally getting it. 

I carried out the first activity-based work environment for DEC in Zurich back in 1996. But only now, 24 years and a global pandemic later, are people really acknowledging that a mix of work from home, work from the office and activity-based working with spaces - designed for different activities - seem like a good idea! Well, yes! We proved it in 1996 - and people loved it.

A tried and tested approach

One of the best things about creating activity-based workplaces is the success stories that come out of them on a human level. One of the earliest examples of this was that very first project I worked on back in 1996 for DEC. 

We started the process by asking questions. What we discovered through staff interviews and focus groups was that a significant amount of the sales force said 99% of their time was spent in the city selling. 

So, we thought why should they have allocated desk spaces of 9sqm each that are empty 99% of the time? Why not glue that together into something else? And we did. Inspired by some of the earlier work by DEC in the Nordics we created a very interesting activity-based floor - we called it the ‘Business Centre’. 

The Business Centre featured a mix of territorial and non-territorial solutions - meaning the back office had assigned places, the front office had shared spaces designed for sales consultants. 

We carried out a nine-month change management process to develop this concept: interviewing people to understand their needs and concerns. This enabled us to build a rich picture and pushed us to create a rich menu of spaces. This ‘menu’ became the key to selling it internally. 

We took the top floor and, for 150 salespeople and consultants, we provided 50 work spaces in very dynamic settings that were scattered around the floor: close to the back office, close to the telephone booths, close to the spontaneous meeting areas. 

We put the coffee corner right in the centre - because that is “checkpoint Charlie” or “the crossroads”. If you look at the Egyptian hieroglyphics, a “city” is represented by just an ‘X’ - so a crossroads is  what an urban experience is all about. 

Fear of Change

But, the weekend before the change, everyone panicked. The nine months of preparation weren’t enough to calm their emotions. The Project Manager asked “What will we do when everyone comes in at the same time when it rains?” I said, there are 150 nomadic workers, there are 348 seats on the top floor - there is no problem. They might not be desks. Cafeteria tables offer sufficient space for four people to have lunch, so we used that size table on wheels next to docking stations in the Business Centre, so two or three people could use them to work together, flexibly.

We went ahead with the project and after one week, the only thing on the ‘issues’ flip chart was: bigger trash cans by the printers please. So, I was blown away. It worked. 

The birth of the “bureau buffet”

A while after the project, a salesperson who had previously been allocated a nine sqm cubicle desk said “thank you for taking away my desk.” He said in the last three months he had dinner with his family more often than the last three years. He didn’t sit at his desk on a Monday and wait for the phone to ring. He clustered his meetings and scheduled his time and was much more proactive. 

So, that’s where I coined the term “bureau buffet”: You don’t have a cubicle anymore, the whole top floor is your “bureau buffet”. And this holistic approach to activity-based workplace design has just been growing since then.

We dared to inspire people. We created a wonderfully designed versatile environment. And it all worked. Now, over 20 years later we have all the ingredients perfected along with the technology to accommodate distributed working, activity-based working and remote-working.

In the wake of Covid-19, with many governments across the world encouraging a mix of home and office working - this activity-based approach is more relevant than ever. 

Clark Elliott Senior Consultant, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) Full bio and articles

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