Six activity based working trends from Northern Europe

How the Northern European experience proves activity based working should be viewed as a change process rather than merely a design project

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By Kati Barklund

Edition 7 – April 2016 Pages 25-29

Tags: workplace design • activity based working • change management

Last October,I had the honor to present a session on workplace trends from Northern Europe at the IFMA World Workplace Conference in Denver,and in this article,I will try to summarize these trends.With Northern Europe,I primarily refer to the Nordic Countries (Sweden,Norway,Denmark and Finland),but I can partially see these trends in the UK,Holland and some other parts of Europe as well. The top 6 workplace trends from Northern Europe we might identify are:

Increased strategic C-level attention

Up until very recently,the workplace in itself has not been very high on the strategic C-level agenda – if it has been on the C-level agenda at all,but we are now really seeing increased strategic C-level attention for the workplace in Northern Europe.

To give you some background to this,we can state that our world is changing faster than ever and some of the key drivers for this change are:

    • Increased competition and globalization
    • Increased focus on sustainability
    • Rapid technological development, and
    • Increased war for talent and productivity.

All these changes lead to new challenges for the
organizations. Let us take a
simpli ed look at some of the
C-level roles and the challenges that these di erent roles face today.The HR Manager’s challenge is one of appeal,namely: “How can we attract and retain talent?” The CEO’s challenge is productivity – “How can we increase our productivity, our innovation capability, our sales and our pro tability?” The CFO’s challenge is e ciency, precisely the same challenge as the procurement, the CRE and the FM managers have– “How can we be more e cient with our nances and facilities?” The Brand Manager’s and the Sustainability Manager’s challenges are usually Sustainability – “How can we take our environmental, social and economic responsibility? And,how can we show and communicate this to the world,primarily to our customers and to the society as a whole?”

There is one common key solution area to all of these challenges,and that is “The Workplace”. If we start to use the workplace as a strategic tool,we can increase both its appeal, productivity,efficiency and sustainability.And in fact,even if we do not – the workplace will still affect these elements – but most probably instead in a negative way.

The improvement potential when it comes to the workplace is huge! Just a few examples:

  • “The bulk of employees worldwide – 63 percent – are “not engaged” meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes.And 24 percent are “actively disengaged”,indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers”.1
  • “55 percent of employees report that their workplace enables them to work productively”.2
  • “Appealing workplace facilities consistently DOUBLE the likelihood of a candidate choosing an employer regardless of the combination of other variables”.3
  • “People who are more satisfied with their work environment feel that they are more productive,with a 1 to 4 percent increase in perceived productivity for a 15 percent increase in satisfaction”.4
  • “49 percent of desks in use at any one time”. 5 (In our own utilization studies we nowadays often find utilization as low as 30-35 percent)

So,the C-level is facing challenges and has started to recognize the workplace as one key solution area to these challenges.The Workplace is becoming a strategic C-level tool. It is no longer only of interest to Facility Managers,CRE Managers and Sourcing/Procurement Managers. Now the workplace is becoming of interest to the whole management team including the core-business and they want to know how they can increase the company’s attractiveness and performance through the workplace,and they can see and be

inspired by many good examples of this from other companies in Northern Europe.

Twentieth century silo thinking is dead

We are also seeing an increased holistic workplace perspective.Traditionally we have had silo thinking in organizations and this also applies to the workplace.We have had a few traditional silo workplace functions,such as HR,IT,CRE and FM; which have more or less been working individually and independently,and sometimes it even feels that these departments have been run for their own sake; with the result that we have forgotten the real purpose of these functions.What we can see now is a better and increased coordination of these disciplines,with the common aim of course to make work,work better.We have kind of received a new discipline – the Workplace discipline – including HR,IT,

CRE and FM,but it does not always have to be within the same organizational unit.We also see new Workplace related titles in organizations like Head of Workplace and Chief of Work etc.

The majority of organizations in the Nordics now have a more holistic view of the workplace today – focusing at the same time on the people,the activities,the place,the services and the technology. People are heterogeneous and conduct many activities during the workday and not all of them are best conducted by the desk and next to the same person all the time.We also see that we need to design for flexibility. Not only because we know that things change all the time,but also because we need the variation and flexibility to fit different needs – different people,and different activities.We use services and technology both as enablers and enhancers of the workplace and build in sustainability in the workplace in every possible way,balancing both economic,environmental and social aspects. In workplace projects we now see that

we more or less have all these different workplace aspects in mind,both when putting together the project team and implementing the project.

The workplace is a process – not a project

A third workplace trend that we can see in the Nordics is that organizations start to understand that the workplace is a process – not a project,and that it needs to be treated as such.This is especially true if we want the workplace to stay attractive,productive,efficient and sustainable during the

whole lifecycle of the building and not just in the beginning. We need to monitor,adapt and develop the workplace continuously,but here we generally still see that there is a long way to go.

We have quite a few examples of workplace changes where the organization afterwards realized that they did not receive the results they wanted and expected,or that these results did not stay for that long. Maybe the project was more of a design project than a change process,and too little effort was put into change management or the change management work was ended after too short a period after the change.

The workplace is a continuous change journey and we cannot stop working with the change management nor the development of the workplace.We need to work with it continuously.What we also notice is that the organizations that actually do see the workplace as a process have difficulties in figuring out how to actually do the work continuously. How do we monitor continuously? How do we know how we use our workplace, what capacity we have, what has changed,what we need etc?

Most of the traditional ways of monitoring the workplace and its performance are not relevant enough and working anymore.The instruments that we traditionallyapplied for monitoring are far too blunt.It is not enough anymore to monitor once a year or even once a month.The changes are so much faster than that.We need to do it continuously and we need to monitor the right things. Utilization sensors and continuous measurement of perceived attractiveness and

productivity or engagement are two good and complementary ways of workplace measurement,but not many organizations are using these tools yet.When it comes to utilization sensors the price is usually perceived as too high.

Workplace as an experience

Another trend that we recognize in Northern Europe is that organizations start to focus more on the workplace experience. We talk about hospitality and focus on the needs and experiences of the workplace guests,and with workplace guests we mean everyone at the workplace – employees,customers, visitors,suppliers and partners.And everything is seen to impact the experience of the workplace guests.

Not just the design of the workplace; but also all the people at the workplace and their behavior; and the service and technology solutions of the workplace.The workplace is not just seen as the office either,but where ever you are.This could be at home or the café or maybe on the train commuting.What workplace experiences do we want to create for the workplace guests and how can this be expressed during the whole workday?

Common general experiences that we see organizations wanting to create is an appealing environment i.e. ‘attractivity’, productivity,efficiency,and sustainability,but also specifically promoting and supporting for example environmental sustainability or a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance. Maybe you as a company promote healthy living by for example making biking to work easy.

Then you will also need to have available and secure parking of bikes,offer the possibility to shower and change clothes, ways to dry shoes and clothes etc,but you also might want to take this further to offering visitors the chance to have their bicycles serviced/repaired while at work,to have breakfast/ refreshments at arrival etc. In this way we need to go through all the experiences that we want to create for the workplace guests and see how this can be expressed throughout the whole workday.

Live the brand

The workplace experience needs of course to be consistent with the organization’s brand, the organization’s mission, vision, goals and core activities. We cannot say and sell one thing and then ourselves do a completely di erent thing in our own workplace and in our own way of working. We need to practice what we preach!

Traditionally, the workplace and especially the way of working seems to have been, more or less, out of scope for brand management work. For example, all the o ces have looked about the same – when you have entered an o ce,you could not tell from the appearance what organization belongs to that o ce.When it comes to the way of working, we have pretty much continued to work the way we have
always done, even though
our needs have changed and
even though we in many
cases we are selling and
telling something di erent
to our clients. But, this is now
de nitely changing.We see
many organizations changing
their workplaces and way of
working to match their brand and their mission,vision and values, and workplace really is a golden opportunity for brand management.

It should be seen as the platform for Brand Management, and it is so important that we practice what we preach.
The mission, vision and values must be incorporated in the workplace and we need to use the solutions that we are selling to our clients ourselves, and work in the same way we advise them to work. It is all about trustworthiness. Why are we doing what we are doing? Why are we selling what we are selling?

Do we really believe in what we are selling or are we just selling? What is the value? The experience we want to create must be consistent in our own way of acting and working,
and the world has in many ways shrunk so much due to globalization, digitalization, social media etc. that every part of the organization, the workplace and way of working needs to be consistent with what we are telling and selling. We gather all the pieces of the brand puzzle – what we see, hear, experience from commercials, social media, friends, our own personal experience etc. We do it mostly consciously and put it together into a puzzle that becomes our image of the speci c brand.

Activity based workplaces

But, the hottest trend above all that we can see in Northern Europe today is activity based workplaces. Almost every organization in the Nordics is either talking about or implementing activity based workplaces, or have already implemented this.All types and sizes of organizations from different industries and from both private and public sector, and here are some examples: AFA Försäkring,Apoteket, Arcona, AstraZeneca,
Atlas Copco, Bisnode, Coor Service Management,
Deloitte, DNB, Ericsson, Folksam,Försäkringskassan, ICA, Klarna, KungälvsKommun, Martela, Microsoft, Nacka Kommun, NCC, Nordea, Ramböll, SAAB, SEB, Skanska, SvenskByggtjänst, Swedbank, Telenor, TeliaSonera,

Tra kverket,Vasakronan,VCC.
The basic idea of activity based workplaces is that we have different work activities that are best conducted 1) in different environments (settings, furniture, technology) and 2) with different people. So, the activity based workplace is created to support the employees and their specific activities. You have a choice of settings, furniture and technology -depending on the activities conducted at the specific workplace – and you choose the appropriate environment, furniture, technology and people depending on what needs to be done.The benefit with Activity Based Workplaces is that we get better support for our way of working and our work tasks, and better collaboration between individuals and units.

We see that the organizations implementing activity based workplaces have in general the same set of motives as the common challenges, that is’Attractivity’, Productivity, Efficiency and Sustainability, but they have different combinations of these. Some examples of the combinations of motives:

        • Company A – Increase productivity and create ONE company
        • Company B – Cut cost and create the best workplace in the market
        • Company C – Facilitate a culture change
        • Company D – Create ONE company and achieve space efficiency
        • Company E – Attract and retain talent

What we also see is that there is a di erence between 
activity based workplace design and activity based working. It is not certain that you have an activity based way of working and therefore get the benefits,just because you have an Activity Based designed workplace. There has been a tendency to see activity based workplaces more as a design projects, instead of as a change process,and a tendency to believe that the change happens itself if you just create the right workplace design. Maybe you have not worked enough with change management or maybe you have stopped working with change management too early.According to our experience,it takes often more than a year to change the way of working when implementing activity based working, and actually,you should never entirely stop working with the change management because the change process never ends.

So,what does the future workplace look like? I often get asked this question.I myself believe that the future workplace is a platform for organizational culture,brand management and innovation.The workplace becomes a meeting place,not only for the own organization,but also for those organizations outside our own that we collaborate with.Today,we simply need to work more openly and boundlessly,and we cannot create and manage the organizational culture just virtually,even though we of course will be able to work where ever we are.We will still need to gather at the workplace and we need to get everyone to want to come to the workplace to collaborate and innovate.This is something that I believe applies to all workplaces and organizations. No matter in or outside Northern Europe W&P

About the Author
Kati Barklund

Kati Barklund works as Group Innovation Manager at Coor Service Management Group, the leading provider of IFM and FM services in the Nordics. Kati is also global ambassador for We (Workplace evolutionaries) in the Nordics and Board Member of IFMA Sweden. Kati’s passion is creating smart workplaces.

e [email protected]




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…the workplace in itself has not been very high on the strategic C-level agenda – if it has been on the agenda at all, but we are now really seeing increased strategic attention for the workplace in Northern europe..

… The majority of organizations in the Nordics now have a more holistic view of the workplace today–focusing at the same time on the people, the activities, the place, the services and the technology…

…The workplace is a continuous change journey and we cannot stop working with the change management nor the development of the workplace. We need to work with it continuously…

…Almost every organization in the Nordics is either talking about or implementing activity based workplaces, or have already implemented them…

…it is not certain that you have an activity based way of working and therefore get the benefits, just because you have created an activity based designed workplace…



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