Activity-based working: how to transform offices

Matt Meakins

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Activity-based workplaces are becoming crucial for fostering the productivity and creativity that gives today’s businesses a competitive edge.

As many leaders know, workers thrive in environments where they can interact and communicate with colleagues, generating and sharing ideas. One company which understands this better than most is Microsoft, which implemented a company-wide activity-based working transformation.

For years, one of Microsoft’s biggest goals has been to help its customers communicate and collaborate in better ways. But it wasn’t yet ‘walking the talk’ itself, as Steven Miller, Microsoft Office Division Business Group Director, explains.

“We were a very traditional workplace environment – people worked at set desks, they stayed in the same areas all the time. People weren’t interacting much with those from other business groups and we wanted to increase collaboration.”

Microsoft’s aim was a radical transformation of its workplace. It wanted to become a living example of the kinds of progressive, productive workplaces that it offered solutions for.

“It’s about acknowledging that people work in different ways with different devices. We wanted to free our people up to work flexibly in an environment that also helps them work better. Activity-based working helps us achieve this outcome, breaking down the silos that big organisations tend to have,” Miller says.

Microsoft integrated its shift to activity-based working into the wider ‘One Microsoft’ cultural rethink it implemented across the company. This was about thinking more flexibly about what the company stood for

What do you want to achieve?

Microsoft’s shift to an activity-based workplace was radical: from the bottom to the top. Even managers – including the managing director – no longer have dedicated desks. Instead, people have lockers for their personal effects and can then work anywhere in the office that suits them.

Steven doesn’t even know where his own team is at any given time, but this makes no difference to productivity or results.

“We’ve got the technology. We’ve got the tools to enable people to work effectively any way, any time. Our fundamental belief is that work is a thing that you do, not a place that you go to,” he says.

Confidential spaces are still needed: such as plenty of meeting rooms as well as drop-in desks for private conversations. Based on staff feedback, quiet zones were also introduced for people who needed to focus.

The benefits of Microsoft’s new ABW culture have been visible and measurable. Every year the company carries out a work health index survey and since the introduction of ABW its results have improved significantly.

“If you asked people what they love, it’s the flexible environment,” Miller says. “People are accountable for their jobs, it’s up to them how and where and when they do that. The key difference is that we’re empowering people and making them more creative.”

A benefit to everyone

The shift to ABW has also benefitted customers. Microsoft can now solve customer problems more easily, with staff being able to work directly alongside customers rather than in a remote office.

Microsoft is now planning to expand its activity-based workspace beyond its own walls. It already has a ‘Summer Day Out’, where people work from anywhere on a given day. It’s also looking at smart hubs in city locations where people can work in creative environments with lots of different people, and benefit from interaction with those from different industries and backgrounds.

Steven believes there are four key aspects that need to work in harmony if ABW is going to succeed. The first is trust. The second is having a great culture – you need motivated staff who want to work. Thirdly, you need great design. Finally, and perhaps the most critical of all, you need the right technology.

To discover more about the mobility strategies shaping businesses today, download the first instalment in our free ebook – Office 2020: What 21st-century organisations need to know.


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