Misconceptions of the activity-based working model, from Veldhoen + Company
A couple of months ago, I spoke with Martijn Joosten, managing partner of activity-based working founders Veldhoen + Company. He explained that an activity-based working environment doesn’t look the same for any two companies, and there are certain misconceptions about the philosophy that folks need to let go of in order to be successful.
In this follow-up interview, Luc Kamperman, managing partner in New York City and colleague of Martijn’s, tells us a bit more about the philosophy Veldhoen + Company brings to the core of every project and ways to differentiate the vast terminology within the industry, specifically around the open office plan and agile working.
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Danielle: What is your main focus when helping companies implement an activity-based working environment?
Luc: For the past 30 years, our main goal has been helping and guiding our clients on an activity-based working journey, a philosophy about empowering people in organizations by giving them choice in time- and place independent working. About ten years ago, I moved to Australia to build out an office there and we have since followed up on an international strategy. We have developed much of our services around the change management aspect of activity-based working: what is needed to help people looking to change their working routines in order to promote wellness and be more effective. To achieve this goal we have attracted colleagues with backgrounds in business management, OD and industrial psychology.
We like to distinguish ourselves as the business, change and transition management-focused consulting firm who guide leaders and people in organizations on their own activity-based working transition.
D: What do your projects entail?
L: Our engagement with our clients typically range from one to two years. The involvement is more intense at the beginning when we sit and work directly with our clients in order to fully understand what they need to make this journey a success and execute on the transition within their organization.
For a smaller client, it might be the case that we do more of the change management delivery ourselves. For example, we’re working with a financial company in Manhattan with about 600 employees. HR doesn’t have the capabilities and resources to run an activity-based working transformation internally so that’s where we come in. We run trainings for managers on how to lead more mobile teams which cover ways people work remotely, how to deal with people working from home, as well as working with a more mobile team in the office. We see change as an ecosystem of change initiatives. For example we support in-person trainings with a range of e-learning modules that managers send out to their teams and follow up with team discussions.
When possible we prefer to build up internal capabilities and ownership. So for larger companies, the process is often different. Over the past two years we’ve been working with a large bank in Toronto. They have two campuses, one downtown campus with 12,000 employees and one in the suburbs with about 4,000. We don’t send in half a dozen consultants to run to the entire project for them. So instead, we work with the learning & development and HR teams to support an internal implementation in which they facilitate the change management process. A so-called train-the-trainer model.
A third type of project we’re involved with more often in recent years is helping clients build a global strategy, so bringing in a holistic vision of how activity-based work can be applied to the business across all offices. We work with a wide range of industries including pharmaceuticals, finance, hospitals, healthcare, manufacturers and more. It’s a wide variety and their needs are all different, so a lot of our projects are tailored to the specific goals of each company.
D: You didn’t mention the tech industry. Oftentimes people assume it’s the only industry implementing an activity-based work environment. What’s your take on that misconception?
L: It’s interesting, I hear that as well. I think it’s the assumption that because these companies use the latest technology, they’ve adopted a more flexible workplace strategy like activity-based working. We actually haven’t worked with many tech companies. An exception was when we worked with Microsoft in the Netherlands in 2007-2009 to locally apply an activity-based working model which then became their global model. With our team now in the U.S., I’d love to work with a big tech company like LinkedIn, Google or Amazon.
Another big misconception we see often is people using activity-based work to mean open plan or vice versa. The activity-based working model is definitely not the same as open plan. It has a very strong philosophy behind it around freedom of choice and using the right spaces and tools to execute any activity. Open plan in combination with flexible use, what some refer to as hot desking, is also very different from activity-based working because in a solely hot desking environment, you don’t have much variety and choice. In an activity-based work environment, you’re given lots of choice. There’s focus space, different types of collaboration spaces, traditional desks, huddle spaces etc. They key is that it is activity-based. This means that if a company’s activity pattern shows more individual concentration work as well as small team work then the environment should support this. And that definitely does not have to be fully open plan. It’s the contrary.
D: In this space, there’s a host of different terminology used, including “agile work”. How do you differentiate?
L: In the past decade, we have seen the rise of both activity-based working and the agile methodology. Agile is a different concept in the whole scheme of things. Agile generally refers to the agile methodology, a way to run and manage projects. It started off primarily in the IT and software industries to help develop software in a better faster and more iterative way.
Agile comes up a lot with our clients and we always work to understand what they mean by it and what they’re actually try to achieve. The thinking behind the agile methodology overlaps with our activity-based working principles: it’s about flexibility, empowering and bringing people together to quickly learn and collaborate. So, at its core, there’s not much difference there. How agile methodology has been implemented in organizations, primarily in the financial and tech industries, is a quite rigid approach. We always ask, “What is agile for you?” In an agile methodology environment, the activities of quick get-togethers and 15-minute stand-ups still need to be supported by activity-based working spaces.
People often think they can only have one or the other but we have found that in fact, activity-based thinking is a catalyst for agile. Activity-based working benefits include a focus on the different activities taking place. If an agile methodology tells people in an organization how to run their projects, like incorporating daily scrum meetings, for example, then those are the types of activities that need to be supported in the new physical setup. For us, it’s not activity-based work vs. agile vs. open plan. It’s more about how they all work together to support the business purpose and strategy.
D: Speaking of open plan, what is your response to the constant negative press about the open office layout?
L: A colleague and I recently did a presentation on the open office takedown and the way we approached it was we didn’t say the research was wrong, we just called out what the research looked at and what it didn’t. In other words, we shed light on what was in- and excluded.
The conclusions media outlets call out from the research is questionable. There are shortcomings and context missing, but of course, popular media grabs onto the clickbait information saying now we have the proof that the open office is dead. Even the researchers themselves concluded in the end that it’s not that easy to compare open plan vs. other concepts.
So, we decided to use our own research next to our partners over at Leesman, looking at more than 1250 office buildings. What we found was that there are as many negative examples of open plan concepts as positive which begs the question, what is making for negative experiences in some open plans? It can be the result of unsuccessful or no change management. It can be the result of poor design with a lack of variety in space reducing the choice for people. The list goes on. In some cases, companies in an open plan office implement a fully assigned environment so the only option of where to get work done is a desk or a meeting room.
D: If a fully assigned environment in an open office poses a problem, what about unassigned?
I strongly prefer to say shared spaces instead of unassigned. Unassigned assumes assigned was the default solution from the start and therefore sounds like you’ve taken something away. It has a negative connotation. A well-designed, activity-based work model is meant to provide more choice, not less.
Think of an activity-based working environment like your home. You have the kitchen for cooking, the living room for watching TV or socializing with the family and your bedroom for sleeping. How do you assign which room is for who and what activity? When you talk about a shared environment, it sounds much more appealing because you’re framing it in a way where everyone has access to a variety of spaces depending on the activity at hand.