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  • Writer's pictureJudy Gavan

Driving Home for Christmas?

What do the M6 and Activity Based Working have in common?

As Chris Rea’s gravelly tones come on the radio I recall my own experiences of ‘Driving Home for Christmas’. Being a Warrington girl, for me the memories are about being in my early twenties, schlepping up the M6 in a clapped-out Nissan Micra, tinsel streaming from the aerial, on the last leg of the journey home from London. I remember the sense of excitement and anticipation at seeing my family again, only exacerbating the intense frustration as yet another unexplained traffic jam loomed ahead.

And that got me thinking about activity-based working (ABW). Bear with me…..

ABW is a great concept (at least when we’re not in the grip of a global pandemic). As well as enabling choice, promoting collaboration and ad-hoc interaction, supporting a wider range of tasks and creating a more dynamic and energised environment it facilitates efficient use of space. But just like the M6 an ABW office can get ‘blocked’ and just like a motorway the secret to making it work effectively is to influence peoples’ behaviour.

I remember the first time I saw one of those speeded up videos of traffic flow on a motorway that showed the knock-on impact of sudden braking from people driving too close to the car in front. As each car reacts the effect is magnified down the line until it all draws to a standstill. Suddenly the cause of those mystery traffic jams became clear. It’s not that there’s not enough space on the motorway, it’s that with everyone bunched together the space isn’t being used effectively. If everyone kept the recommended distance and maintained a steady speed then things would flow a lot more freely.

The equivalent in an ABW office is when people don’t adopt a fully agile way of working, moving from setting to setting for different tasks and taking their belongings with them. In an ABW office desk numbers are lower than potential users because the assumption is that at any time some people will be using other settings – enclosed meeting rooms, informal collaboration options, quiet rooms, ‘touchdown’ or breakout settings.

Provided people are only using one setting at a time then all is well and space use can be very efficient. The classic ‘spanner in the works’ is when some people retain a claim on a desk when not working at it (e.g. leaving their belongings on it while going off to a meeting) in effect taking up two settings. This may mean that when another person completes a meeting and needs a desk, they are frustrated to find that none appear to be vacant. They in turn will then be more likely to ‘desk hog’ next time they go to a meeting. So just like on the motorway the problem gets magnified.

So how can we promote the cultural changes that are needed for ABW offices to work effectively? As with all behaviour change it’s about gaining buy-in through building understanding, tapping into both the rational and emotional sides of the brain to help people develop new habits.

But maybe there are lessons to be learned from the M6? Some stretches of motorway have chevrons painted on the road surface to show the distance that cars should maintain. The beauty of this idea is its simplicity. At very low cost it raises awareness, jolting drivers out of autopilot so that they are more conscious of their behaviour, and it has proven to be successful in smoothing traffic flow.

So, is there an equivalent for the ABW office? Are there some simple cues that we can build into the office design that will prompt a more conscious and considered approach?

One to discuss over the turkey and sprouts maybe?

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