Cover of Property Australia , from 30th April, 2013

by Cathal O’Byrne
Property Australia
30 Apr 2013
pp. 40-41

Spread from Property Australia , pp. 40-41

As a design concept and a business philosophy, activity-based working is fundamentally changing the way Australian organisations operate.

Arguably, activity-based working (ABW) has become the most exciting development to hit Australian workplaces for some time.

“Unlike other much-hyped workplace trends, such as open-plan offices and ‘hot desks’, ABW represents a complete change in organisational strategy and business thinking. It’s a philosophical shift that has significant ramifications for productivity, work-life balance and the future of the workforce,” says Cathal O’Byrne – Principal Interiors Hames Sharley.

What is it, exactly?

A concise explanation of ABW is the removal of defined, permanent desk and hierarchical office spaces in exchange for adaptive, more creative spaces designed for specific projects or activities.

The concept developed in tandem with the multiple uses of mobile devices and cloud computing into the workplace, has made connection to the office possible anywhere, anytime.

It is in effect, recognition that technology is driving changes in the way we all work and provides tremendous benefits for businesses and employees alike, creating a more transparent environment that values trust, efficiency and productivity over physical presence.

It also challenges traditional ideas and attitudes around workplace structures and managerial methods.

What are the benefits?

As its implementation is relatively new in Australia, there is very little data attesting to the benefits of ABW; however, anecdotal evidence suggests that workforces adopting it feel more in control, are more productive and are more responsive to management.

It seems that giving employees choice around what is the most efficient way to work breeds a happier, a more motivated workforce.

Other perceived benefits of ABW include increased staff collaboration; reduced consumption of power and paper; improved work environment; greater job satisfaction; and the rewards that come with being seen as a market leader and an employer of choice.

Despite the myriad of benefits, ABW is not a panacea for everyone. Smaller companies, for example may not find it cost-effective to make dramatic changes, and some workplaces may face resistance from certain employees who may not be willing to change unlike the younger, more tech-savvy generations.

In addition, some organisations are inherently unable to adopt ABW due to their very nature, which requires that certain people be in certain places at all times.

However, many companies that have traditionally been change-averse, such as law firms, are realising they can work effectively, retain confidentiality and operate in a more collaborative way by adopting ABW.


The key to successful implementation of ABW is effective change management and early engagement with key stakeholders.

Mr O’Byrne states that because the introduction of ABW affects everyone, it is critical to have buy-in from management, who must participate actively in the process. Without commitment from the top down, the introduction of ABW is likely to fail even before it starts.

Hames Sharley also highlight the crucial need for organisations to review their IT systems. ‘Without the IT structures in place to accommodate the proposed ABW implementation, the entire concept of being able to work anywhere and at anytime would be obsolete” Mr O’Byrne says.

Employees need access to work systems 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so questions such as, “Can the system cope with a higher percentage of personnel accessing work from outside the office?” and “Where will company information be stored?” must be answered.

Cost-effective change

Naturally, there are costs associated with creating an ABW-ready fit-out, particularly if existing premises need to be adapted. In many situations, Hames Sharley deal with organisations that are in situ and adaptation must be managed around them.

Once ABW is implemented, however, there is evidence to suggest that organisational costs fall.

Generally, ABW businesses are cheaper to run thanks to the use of more sustainable materials, lower usage of utilities within the office and lower consumption of paper.

In-house reviews conducted within the adapted premises of early adopters of ABW, including BHP, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Microsoft, indicate satisfaction rates as high as 90 per cent.

As ABW businesses provide a range of options to cater to the style and nature of each person’s role, employees can plan their working days and, as a consequence, manage their work/life balance more effectively. All this goes towards creating a measured and sustainable lifestyle for employees.

ABW is changing the way we work. It’s not for everyone, but it represents a continuing shift within workplaces that reflects advances in technology and an evolution towards a more stable, satisfied and increasingly productive workforce.

The benefits that come with that cannot be ignored.