Research Suggests Activity Based Working is Not Living Up to the Hype


Leaders from the PCG team discuss some of the key considerations and insights driving their work.

Activity Based Working (ABW) - More Sizzle than Substance

In late March of 2017, findings of two unrelated pieces of research into workplace trends were published in the media providing some interesting insights into the workplace aspirations of corporate Australia and the “woefully low adoption of activity based behaviours in ABW spaces”.

The first survey was conducted by commercial real estate agents CBRE and involved 400 multinational companies operating throughout the Asia Pacific region.  The findings of their survey can be summarised as follows:

1. Two thirds (66%) of the number of organisations surveyed plan to adopt a desk sharing strategy by 2020.

2. Half of the number of organisations surveyed plan to adopt ABW principle

3. Approximately 60% of the number of organisations surveyed are looking to achieve space occupancies below 9.3m2/employee.

CBRE have summarised these findings by the following; “it’s a case of squeezing more people into less space in Australia”.

 The second piece of research conducted by an organisation by the name of Leesman, an independent workplace performance research business and involved a survey of 615 organisations (included 40 ABW environments) and more than individual 70,000 employees (11,366 ABW employees). This survey was specifically designed to measure the performance of ABW, and determine whether it really does create a more effective workplace and is it contributing to individual productivity?

 A summary of the survey findings follows:

1. ABW can deliver significant operational benefits for those employees who use the environments provided for them.

2. The more an employee uses multiple work locations within the workplace, the more they report that the space enables them to work more effectively.

3. The more complex an employee’s daily work profile, the more beneficial it is for them to work in a mobile way that utilises multiple settings.

4. Poor adoption of appropriate behaviour in ABW workplaces is a significant problem that limits widespread organisational benefits.  

Activity Based Working in Progress

We agree with the Leesman organisation in that there are many conclusions which can be drawn from the data, though the headline facts remain: "adoption of ABW behaviours in ABW spaces is woefully low and greater internal mobility does deliver benefits for all, especially those with a more complex work profile".

So, what this research tells us is that whilst there is a very strong attraction towards agile workplaces, most organisations are only benefitting from the reduced property and energy costs whilst foregoing potential organisational benefits, either because they opt out of the change management to realise the behavioural shifts or they are simply unaware of the need to do so. This is a very poor reality and infers either poor advice or a significant short sightedness on behalf of business owners and or senior leadership teams.

This dynamic is depicted in the following diagram illustrating the three alternate outcomes of new workplace projects:

Workspace vs Workstyle Graphical Representation

The three alternate outcomes include two suboptimal (indicated by the cross mark.png   denotation) and one optimal outcome (indicated by the  tick mark.png denotation). The axis measure ‘workstyle’ and ‘workspace’ and the change dynamic is from old to new.

“Feels different but looks the same”: describes a circumstance whereby the organisation has undertaken a significant change management process to positively alter behaviours however not provided a workplace to accommodate new ways of working.

 “Looks different but feels the same”: describes a circumstance whereby the organisation has designed and built a new workplace to accommodate new ways of working however not implemented to necessary change management process to alter behaviours.

 “A positively transformed organisation”: describes the optimal scenarios whereby the organisation has concurrently implemented a broad change management process with their new workplace design and delivery project.

ABW brain graphic_1200x627.jpg


  • ABW is not for every employee (A strategic workplace briefing process is required to determine which employees within your organisation are suitable candidates for ABW and the principles of agile working)

  • In PCG’s opinion, less than 0.05% of Australian workplace solutions are truly ABW, regardless of the claims made by some organisations

  • ABW should be viewed as a transformational business strategy rather than a workplace strategy

  • Workplace solutions vary between the two extremes of what are commonly referred to as ‘static’ (traditional or allocated) through to ‘ABW”, with what is commonly referred to as hybrid solutions falling in-between these two extremes. Today the clear majority of workplaces throughout Australia and in fact around the world are hybrid solutions, a dynamic which we believe will continue well into the future.

Leesman propose that “one of the critical challenges to understanding the business benefits ABW offers, is that prominent ABW workplaces are so visually appealing and therefore most of the publicity tends to come from specialist design media rather than business media”.  This we agree with, and the researcher should not be surprised, given their findings assert that there is little to ‘write home about’ from a business media aspect, as very few organisations are realising these business benefits.

The facts are that a professionally conducted ABW project calls for a significantly different approach to the technology and change management inputs to realise the following potential benefits derived through the adoption of ABW principles:

  • Healthier, more engaged, and motivated employees
  • Greater employee empowerment and self determination
  • Better collaboration, knowledge transfer and learning
  • Faster and more efficient decision making
  • Flexible physical infrastructure that can better adapt to business change

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PCG wishes to acknowledge the referenced research and surveys conducted by CBRE and Leesman organisation in 2017.

AuthorSimon Gunnis

Simon founded PCG in 1988. His career has focused on assisting organisations to manage and implement major workplace change projects through the integration of Property, Design and Project Management disciplines. Simon is committed to delivering faster, more creative property and project solutions to PCG’s clients with certainty of time, cost and quality.

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