Workplace Experience

Is Your Office Fit for Activity-based Working?

Is Your Office Fit for Activity-based Working?

Activity-based Working (ABW) is a concept that recognizes that staff have different personal workstyle preferences or variable workflows for which a standard workstation may not always offer them the most effective work setting. ABW offers staff a variety of workpoints to choose from, and so enables them to be find the spot in which they can be as productive as possible.

An ABW environment may or may not encompass Non-territorial Working (NTW), though they often co-exist. Non-territorial Working, also known as “hot-desking”, free-addressing, etc., is where some, or perhaps no staff are assigned a workstation of their own. This offers a firm greater flexibility in reorganizing, growing, and managing real estate costs.

ABW is gaining traction in many gateway cities in Asia. The rising occupancy costs in some markets and increasing workplace populations have led companies to adapt to this new work environment to maximize space and get the most out of their investments.

In a recent Cushman & Wakefield report, ABW will reportedly continue to resonate in the high-pressure and busy environments characteristic of many Asian cities.

Assessing an Office for NTW

In assessing how ready an office is for Non-Territorial Working (NTW), we often weigh up the cost and benefits of the following options:

  1. Partial desk sharing, where desk sharing is implemented based on job function or position within the firm (We strongly advise against implementing desk sharing based on rank. However, some clients may decide on this option for one reason or another).
  2. 100% desk sharing, where no one (not even the CEO or MD) gets an assigned desk.
  3. No desk sharing at all, where everyone gets an assigned desk or office.

While it is difficult to decide between these three possibilities, whether to practice Activity Based Working (ABW) is a much easier decision. ABW design simply means office design has to support the way your corporation works at present, and looking ahead for the duration of the lease. In simpler terms, if you want more collaboration in your office, build more collaboration space so the lack of it is not inhibiting your enterprise performance.

The Evolution of the Workplace

ABW has developed because the way we work has evolved significantly over the past 15 years, both culturally and technologically. Work today is about the next big idea you can generate (often through a brainstorming session with your jeans-wearing colleagues), discussion with colleagues, or answering e-mails from a portable laptop or smartphone or meeting your clients at Starbucks. Office design has evolved to fit this culture.

ABW in Hong Kong

Companies in mainland China have rolled out ABW and often in combination with NTW. However, this new type of office has not caught on in some markets like Hong Kong. Having done projects across Greater China and the Asia Pacific region, we attribute this to the following factors:

  • A majority of large tenants in Hong Kong are financial institutions. Based on utilization rate, the potential desk sharing ratio for financial institutions are a lot lower compared to other industries (Approximately 1.08, as compared to an average sharing ratio of 1.3 for pharmaceutical companies and 1.6 for technology companies). This represents limited scope for space saving via introduction of desk-sharing.
  • Activity Based Working offices where no desk-sharing is implemented often demand larger real estate foot print, because more space is needed for collaboration space, smaller meeting rooms and a whole suite of other spaces that support an organization’s operation. In land-scarce Hong Kong, this is a real and significant cost for companies, whereas the benefits can be harder to quantify at the start of the project.
  • In land-scarce Hong Kong, average employees often stay in cramped housing and the space allocated to them in their workplace is treated as a second home, with strong attachment and territorial sentiment towards their space in the office. For higher rank employees, the size of their office is a perceived to be a direct symbol of their position within the firm. Hence, a reduction in office size can be perceived as a “loss of face” both by the employee and their subordinate.

That said, the ratio of expatriates versus local employees within a firm makes a significant difference in this attitude. A more international firm with higher ratio of foreigners certainly brings with it a more egalitarian culture where the difference between the space allocated to the highest rank employee and the lowest rank employee may not be viewed favorably. Our experience rolling out a 100% NTW workplace in Beijing has confirmed our hypothesis. Hong Kong-based companies with high ratio of expats may be ripe for an ABW office design, and may set the benchmark for other companies in Hong Kong.


Note: The above is written by Cushman & Wakefield’s Vivien Chong, Head of Workplace Strategy and Change Management (Greater China & Southeast Asia).

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