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Introducing 'activity-based' working

From de-cluttering to redesigning meeting areas, we explore how companies are maximising space AND productivity

Atlas Copco

The challenge: To introduce a new concept in working – ‘activity-based working’.

The method: Until 2013 Atlas Copco – whose Hemel Hempstead office services and sells vacuum pumps, portable compressors, generators, construction and mining equipment, and pneumatic and electric power tools – had a typical 1970s office lay-out: open plan in the middle with management around the edge. It was old-fashioned, with staff shoehorned into spare space as it became available, and so was not well-suited to the different styles of work taking place.

“HR could see straight away that better safety, collaboration and engagement could be garnered by re-grouping people more sensibly around distinct ‘activities’,” says central workshop manager Dick Shipman. To create so-called ‘activity-based working’ a novel approach was taken: “An employee, an HR and a facilities user group were set up to all take a lead: employees were tasked with reflecting on how and what they did, while HR and facilities would look at all the background work needed to facilitate change,” says Shipman.

Daily observations were made over the course of five weeks in May 2013 and the occupancy levels of the office were assessed. All staff members were surveyed about their locations, activities and work setting. “It was vital to do this as much to get everyone involved with the prospect of change as anything else,” adds Shipman.

The groups found only 80% of the floor space was being used at any one time, so employees were tasked with creating different ‘home zones’ for certain activities, and designing how work should be grouped. It was decided that each ‘home zone’ would have an anchor point where staff could come together for company updates, small meetings or refreshment breaks. Facilities offered people a choice of meeting rooms with web cameras and wireless projection facilities, as well as quiet zones and soft seating for more confidential discussions.

Shipman says: “From the beginning, the facilities team wanted to use this opportunity to minimise our environmental impact too, so we invested in a modern air conditioning system and energy efficient lighting. These came complete with movement sensors and timers.”

One of the biggest challenges was managers losing their offices, but the facilities team and HR department joined forces to provide training on external and home working, and using the new cloud infrastructure. To further ease this a central ‘home zone’ was also created to act as a coffee and remote working area, but also as an overspill area.

The result: Every business area now has its own ‘home zone’, which offers a variety of work settings depending on the tasks being done. There are ‘cockpits’ for individual concentrated work, larger cabins to work with two or three others on a subject, and an open space area with multiple desks.

Activity-based working has organically led to a more digital workplace. A Cisco phone system has followed the initial change, so calls can be conducted via computers rather than desk phones. “The model we’ve used is now the model we’ve chosen to take to our office in Scotland too. We’ve created a workspace that can be re-configured as staff needs change, and we know we’ve got more connected, more engaged employees,” says Shipman. “People’s working conditions have changed, but virtually everyone has said it’s been for the better.”