The name is clumsy and the concept invites inevitable comparisons with the well-worn "hot-desking" model, but its growing list of devotees suggests activity-based working has become the new must-have among corporate Australia.
Activity-based working works on the idea that employers will get better satisfaction and engagement from their staff by removing hierarchical structures from the workplace.
And from a standing start three years ago, its creators say the model has become almost "mainstream" in Australia, thanks to its adoption by several forward-looking firms in Sydney's CBD.
Veldhoen & Co, the consultancy credited with devising the concept that was first used by Netherlands firms 15 years ago, has now established a permanent office in Australia to manage local inquiries after the successful rollout of Macquarie Bank's Sydney office in 2008.
"We're already seeing others jumping on to the bandwagon . . . it's almost become mainstream," Luc Kamperman, Veldhoen's Australian managing partner, says.
"It's about choice. We're trying to break down barriers within companies - if we can break down those barriers and give people the freedom of how to work, where to work and when to work, it will absolutely empower them to deliver the utmost that they can."
There are no assigned desks in the world of activity-based working and, in most cases, no private offices for executives. Sections of each floor are tailored to different activities: "hubs" for smaller groups and individuals; "clubhouses" feature more collaborative areas to cater for meetings and brainstorming activities.
Proponents of the concept in the UK estimate it will reduce floor space by up to 30 per cent, noting more than 55 per cent of desks in an average office are empty at one point in time.
Another key attraction is its promise of the "paperless office"; Macquarie has reportedly reduced paper use by 50 per cent in the two years since rolling out activity-based working.
Jon Sutton, who will become the first head of a WA organisation to adopt ABW when Bankwest relocates to new offices at Raine Square next year, hopes the benefits will be much broader.
"I'm really interested in what the productivity uplift will be," he says, adding he is also aiming for a reduction in staff turnover, particularly in areas where the bank is battling increased competition for workers.
"They key to success in an ultra-competitive banking environment is to be the first to market, or at least to get to market really quickly.
"The best way to do that is by collaboration."
He was won over by the working example at parent Commonwealth Bank, which followed Macquarie Bank's lead and decked out its new headquarters according to the activity-based working model last year.
Bankwest staff have been road-testing the concept on a pilot floor since April and, although it is in its infancy and on too small a scale to produce tangible results, Sutton says staff feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive".
"I'm not going to say it's for everybody, that everybody is going to be absolutely happy with it - there will be people of my vintage who will probably feel a little bit anxious about it - but by and large the experience people have had has been positive," he says.
Veldhoen & Co's Kamperman acknowledges there remains a level of scepticism from those unfamiliar with the concept.
"The comparison (with hot-desking) is probably one of the first things we have to overcome," he says. "But hot-desking is still the same desk, you just have to share it - so there is an efficiency gain for the organisation, but for the individuals there's nothing to win."
He also acknowledges activity-based working will not produce results unless its implementation is accompanied by education and training programs.
A successful roll-out requires most managers to change their leadership style, he says, which means letting go of the need to see bums on seats and adopting a coaching style of management. Another challenge experienced by employers who adopt ABW is maintaining social cohesion between departments in the long-term.
But he says the teething problems can be overcome with a bit of coaching. For example, concerns that the model could destroy employees' sense of ownership over their workspace are addressed by initiatives such as allowing workers to personalise their laptop sleeves and lockers and scrawl on walls, many covered in floor-to-roof whiteboards.
Kamperman says following the completion of two of Veldhoen's biggest projects, at Microsoft's European offices and Macquarie's Sydney building, both employers reported a material, sustainable improvement in both collaboration and employee engagement. "There's always the question: did it last (beyond) the honeymoon period, and the answer is yes."
In WA, the concept has attracted interest from other organisations, with PricewaterhouseCoopers considering adopting the model in its new offices on St Georges Terrace.PwC's national director of corporate real estate, Jay Lomax, says: "The important thing about activity-based working from my perspective is not the fit-out, it's more about a way of working. We're trying to provide a space for staff that enables them to collaborate far more effectively, and be more flexible in what they do and how they work," he says.
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