I often think that following any form of statistical analysis, poets should complete the write-up. Other than preventing the statisticians from doing so, they’re able to interpret the data in the form of a story, and weave through the emotional content, identifying what the ticker-tape isn’t telling us. They might cushion the bludgeoning we’ll receive from data seeking a problem to explain.
So it is with the latest Leesman report The rise and rise of Activity Based Working. It’s a weighty hammer too. It’s very well written, and on the face of it rather convincing. The general conclusion is that Activity Based Working schemes (ABW) are good, but not everyone who works within them is on board and getting mobile with it. How this amounts to a ‘catastrophic failure’ though I’m not sure. If ever a claim were overstated, its right here. What it does highlight however, through its many pages of percentages, is the inherent danger in a statistical evaluation of the workplace.
The report asks: ‘The question still remains, why do some employees adopt a new way of working while others do not?’ Fundamentally, surveys of this nature will suggest you may have an issue and suggest its magnitude, but not tell you why. The question gnawing away while reading was, ‘Why are you so worried about it, and why are you making a scene?’
Essentially, the survey both ignores and is unable to deal with one thing – the journey. And this journey exists on two levels.
Workplace is itself a journey, a permanent beta trial. While there is a spike in investment and upheaval when a workplace is re-designed and created, in itself it is a moment in time. Thereafter it will unfold, mostly slowly but with occasional bursts of acceleration as the organisation, its people, its processes, its markets and technology change. The creation of the workplace is a lurch, from which the workplace then recovers its balance. Yet it is always moving, growing, changing. It should never be left alone as it meanders.
Sitting over the rolling stroll of the workplace are the myriad of personal journeys being undertaken by the occupants. Some such are smooth, some are stumbles. Within a new workplace, the influence of others – perhaps even the tummelers – holds their hands. The change journey is immersive and experiential. Personally, I decry the enforced training in etiquette and protocols that have become the unchallenged fashion in workplace, with the fearsome and innately arrogant target of adoption: they eat at the heart of what it means to be human and are responsible for the failure of many a scheme. We need to softly guide people on their journey of discovery, we can allow them to identify what works for them using their own plentiful resources. Our task is to help them mine those resources and bring them into play.
It doesn’t therefore matter whether in an ABW scheme people are ‘campers’ or ‘timid travellers’ or ‘intrepid explorers’ or ‘true transients’. What such a workplace should do is provide opportunities to change over time, offering a chance of this happening. Expectations of an instant return are entirely misplaced. The report at least acknowledges that people are different, their work differs, and that their use of the space will differ. And so, their journeys will differ. It entirely incorrectly concludes that this is a problem. The ‘camper’ may still appreciate the amenities, spirit, buzz, visibility, access, visual inspiration, humour, sense of belonging, and the feeling of being valued – even if they seek out a standard desk to undertake their process tasks, never get invited to a meeting and don’t feel the need to ‘huddle’. The environment can benefit everyone, not just the ‘true transients’.
There is nothing to fear from an activity-based workplace in which the personal journeys of its many occupants are unaligned. It’s not a failure, as might be perceived in this age of expectation of an instant return, or as ‘the data tells us’. On the contrary it reinforces the humanity of the space.
The report states that ‘the project will need ABW management specialists, technologists and behavioural change experts’. If that sounds like an awful lot of people in ill-fitting jackets running up a huge tab and over-complicating the whole thing (like identifying 27 work activities), it probably is. It remains an anomaly that we continually hear ourselves stating that the workplace is ‘all about people’ yet continue to treat people like a problem to be solved.
Repeating mantras won’t create a better workplace, we have to adapt our behaviour too. We still have a way to go.