Are traditional working practices fit for the demands of 21st century business? The rapid evolution of digital communication, the requirement for innovative thinking in competitive markets and the fluctuating demands of global economies are conspiring against the rigid structures of the past. As a result, businesses of all sizes are reassessing the nine-to-five routine and considering new ways of working that are more adaptive to the environment in which we find ourselves. This fundamental shift in thinking, once the preserve only of trendy technology start-ups, has spread its roots throughout the business world, and companies that operate in the industrial and engineering space are no exception. In the UK, Atlas Copco, a leading provider of highly efficient compressors, generators, tools and equipment to the industrial, construction and mining sectors, has transformed its Hemel Hempstead headquarters in line with the principles of activity-based working (ABW). The aim was to encourage greater efficiency, collaboration and creativity and since the completion of the project in 2014, the results so far have been encouragingly positive.
“The whole office has been through a big change and taken on a new life. If any business is planning to upgrade its office and wants to change the spirit and dynamics of the workforce, or simply improve communication, collaboration and understanding between people, I recommend considering an activity-based working environment. This is the workplace of the future.”
Mr Villé explained that improvements in productivity, efficiency and wellbeing were already becoming apparent, with staff members reporting better relationships with colleagues and greater access to different teams. The three-storey building not only has a brighter and more modern appearance, from striking furniture to bold wall coverings, but functions very differently from before. Most desks have been re-assigned as hot desks to reflect flexible working practices, promote greater familiarity between departments, and encourage staff to work alongside the most suitable colleagues for the particular task being undertaken at a given time. Atlas Copco has a total of 461 employees in the UK, including 140 who are normally based at the Hemel Hempstead office. After some initial apprehension about the new open office layout and method of working the response from staff has been overwhelmingly positive, as Jane Marshall, a PA and Marketing Assistant, points out: “The concept of ABW sounded quite exciting, but I was unsure about what impact it would have on my day-to-day working. However, the flexibility it offers is fantastic and encourages you to think in a completely different way and plan your work accordingly. The working environment has never been more positive than now. Everyone seems to interact and move around more, which is brilliant.”
Kellie O’Donnell, a Service Planner based at Atlas Copco’s Northern Service branch in Uddingston, Scotland, which has also recently adopted ABW within its office, agreed with this sentiment: “I feel it has provided for a better vibe and more relaxed and productive working conditions. You get to interact with other members of staff due to having no fixed seating arrangements, which helps people communicate more. You also find out more about other people within the company and their duties, which maybe you would never have known.”
Improved interaction and the flexibility to choose your own work space was also cited by Ricardo Timperi, a Product Specialist within Atlas Copco’s Compressor Technique Service division: “Previously, if I wanted someone’s input, I’d ask those around me – who would be the same people I always asked in the past. Now, as I try to sit in a different place at least twice a week, I have a new audience to ask for opinions. It has definitely allowed me to get to know my peers better and helped improve our internal communications. What’s also great though, is that if I do need to get my head down and limit the disruptions around me, I can sit in one of our quiet zones or small offices.” The experience of Atlas Copco highlights 5 key considerations that engineering companies should bear in mind when contemplating the adoption of activity-based working.
The first step towards implementation at Atlas Copco was to assess the ways in which the office was being used. Daily observations were made over the course of five weeks in May 2013 and the occupancy levels of the office were assessed. Additionally, all employees were surveyed about their locations, activities and work setting.
The findings demonstrated that, as a result of increasingly flexible working practices and fewer members of staff adhering to a conventional 9am to 5pm week in the office, there was unused space that could be better utilised. Based on the results, the company developed an activity-based working solution built around three central considerations – physical, behavioural and virtual.
The intention was to fulfill a number of criteria that help organisations and people to thrive, including trust, teamwork, collaboration and empowerment. It was decided that the new layout should enable improved cooperation and communication, thereby enhancing synergies across departments and business units.
At a functional level, the remodeled building was envisioned as being state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly and adaptable to future changes. More broadly, the focus was on operational and customer service excellence, allied to efficiency gains.
The layout and feel of the building is integral to the way people operate within it. Upon entering Atlas Copco’s building, staff and visitors are greeted by The Plaza, a stylish and open-plan space with reception desk, free hot and cold drinks and fruit, and several informal meeting areas. It has proven to be a popular location for brief meetings and is therefore key to the activity based working concept.
Through the Plaza is the first of several home zones. Every business area has its own home zone, which offers a variety of work settings depending on the type of work to be done. There are cockpits for individual concentrated work, larger cabins to work with two or three others on a subject, and an open space area with multiple desks.
Embracing a more flexible approach to working undoubtedly introduces technical challenges and these should be thoroughly considered.
Implementing a suitable IT system was a major challenge for Atlas Copco, with an emphasis on finding efficient, user-friendly, secure and reliable solutions. Cloud storage is a feature of the digital workplace, moving away from personal storage of documents towards more shared information.
This meant developing unified communications and cloud storage facilities, which enable people to work from smartphones, laptops, tablets, softphones and digital projectors wherever they are.
Each home zone also has an anchor point where people can come together for a company update, a small meeting or a refreshment break. Additionally, a central printing and service area can be found in each home zone, as well as lockers for employees to store personal possessions which might previously have been stored in a desk.
There is also a choice of meeting rooms, with web cameras and wireless projection facilities, as well as some quiet zones and soft seating for more confidential discussions.
A Cisco phone system was selected in order for calls to be conducted via a computer rather than a desk phone, with noise cancelling headsets to counter any disturbance from an open plan office whilst on a call. Jabber, a unified communications system, was chosen for phone and video calls, chat and advanced directory search.
Despite the greater reliance on technology, the adoption of new working practices can bring added benefits in terms of energy efficiency. For Atlas Copco, making the building ‘smarter’ went hand-in-hand with the principles of ‘smarter working’.
From an environmental perspective, the investment in a modern air conditioning system and energy efficient lighting with movement sensors and timers is paying off in energy savings and reduction of associated carbon emissions.
Any major overhaul of the working environment will require staff support in order to succeed. Atlas Copco spent time explaining the objectives of ABW and how it would enhance people’s experience of the company. “We knew that not having our own personal desk would be a big change management challenge,” said Mr Villlé. “But the biggest challenge for us all was to embrace the change positively, and I can confirm that everyone has grasped this opportunity in the right spirit, and we can now see the benefits in practice for ourselves and our customers.” This sentiment was echoed by Ricardo Timperi who added: “I’ve always enjoyed working at Atlas Copco, and the change towards the ABW has only strengthened that point of view as the company has proven they are forward thinking, employee centric and are moving with the times.”