Hybrid working has fundamentally changed what it means to be activity-based working. In my previous blogs on this series, I have explored how collaboration is now happening much more through a screen, and how those in the office more often have ascribed themselves special privileges to decide the rules of the space. Whilst each of these things alone change different elements of activity-based working, the combination means that the rules of the game have been fundamentally changed.
Most activity-based workspaces were designed for a level of occupation that we rarely see post-Covid. Offices are much more thinly populated than was originally intended. The consequence is that switching between settings is no longer required – gone is the concern that settling in one location might deprive others of what they need. The impetus to move is significantly reduced by the lack of other people who might need to use the same settings as you.
In addition, for many of us, our activity complexity has reduced, and thus our need for different settings that support different activities has also reduced. More of our activities now happen in front of a screen, whether individual work, or collaboration, and therefore we rely more than ever before on having a screen that allows us to multitask. In a hybrid world where people collaborate with geographically dispersed teams through their screens, there is perhaps a greater need for enclosed spaces which provide privacy, albeit ironically, from those also in the office to collaborate with people located elsewhere. Instead of being seen as antagonistic to transparency, these spaces should be seen as facilitating vigour and absorption, both fundamental to employee engagement, by providing space for this new form of collaboration and minimising distractions for others. This has given rise to a huge reliance on individual settings with large monitors where we can share content with others via our virtual collaboration tools. This reduces the number of settings that we deem suitable for these activities.
This in turn has changed what behaviours we consider appropriate in an activity-based workspace. Not switching is something that would previously have been seen as rule-breaking. People I spoke to in my doctoral research told me that the spaces they created were intended for mobility and switching behaviour. This was seen as aiding transparency and collaboration. The intentions of the space are not being borne out in reality – people are sticking to the same settings, and what is even more interesting, is that everyone recognises this and continues regardless. Practices that were once seen as transgressions are becoming more commonplace, and while people recognise that these behaviours are misaligned with the intentions of the space, they continue regardless, with users safe in the knowledge that they are not depriving others of what they need.
Activity-based working environments should continue to provide a mix of settings, but the constituent parts may need to be updated to reflect the reality of hybrid working. Our expectations about switching may also need to change. If workplaces continue to be designed on the same assumptions as they were pre-Covid, the low occupancy negates the need for switching – nobody is being deprived of the space they need or want by people appropriating settings. Events that would once have been considered inappropriate in the context of the place are now being redefined. We should expect behaviours that may on the surface look contrary to collaboration but are simply done through the screen.
What is perhaps most important about the mix of settings in an activity-based working environment is that they are aligned to both the strategic narrative of the organisation and to the activities that people are doing. This alignment requires a mix of spaces that do not constitute a carbon copy. What is required are offices that are designed specifically for the organisation and those who work in them.