How an engineering giant made the transition to activity-based working

Taking a people-first mentality and leading teams through change helped AECOM embrace a flexible new working style

Activity-based working (ABW) isn’t exactly new, but it’s a business strategy that is catching on as companies look for ways to be more agile and promote collaboration among teams.

The idea is simple: Instead of everyone having their own desk in an office, staffers share a workspace that features a variety of diverse space types—accessible by anyone, at any time. These space types can include common areas with comfortable seating, hot desking in a collaboration space, café-style tables for informal meetings, phone booths for private calls, and quiet areas for focusing.

In other words, instead of choosing to go all-in on a cubicle farm or only offering an open layout, ABW encourages a shared workspace that supports exactly what employees need, whether that’s group work, collaborating, brainstorming meetings, privacy, or downtime.

One such advocate of ABW is Luigi Sciabarrasi, senior vice president and global real estate lead at AECOM, a global firm that designs, builds, finances, and operates infrastructure assets for governments, businesses, and organizations. Sciabarrasi, who is based in California, recently shared how ABW office spaces can transform the way companies conduct business.

The activity-based working journey

Sciabarrasi joined AECOM in 2017, after being recruited by the company for his experience with innovative work styles. He was tasked with helping AECOM fulfill its mission to transform its portfolio into activity-based workspaces, allowing for increased real estate agility while at the same time reducing the company’s carbon footprint. “I spent my first six months going around the globe observing the ways in which our teams at AECOM worked within our space,” says Sciabarrasi. “I saw a lot of potential for new ways of working.” 

He saw that AECOM was duplicating a traditional workspace approach, no matter the location. “They were doing the same solution at different locations without thinking about the actual user experience and what people did for work,” he says.

Sciabarrasi explains that AECOM, like many companies, has different worker-profile types with specific needs based on both the individual’s work style, role at the company, and team they support:

  • The mobile occupant: Externally mobile workers travel from place to place without a fixed location and spend the bulk of their time outside the office.
  • Internally mobile workers on a campus or location: These collaborative local workers come and go, working in the office about 70 percent of the time, but also meet off-site with clients.
  • Focused resident office-based workers: This group performs business functions that typically have to be done in the office and require an assigned desk.

For all of these work styles, ABW can be an ideal solution: a working environment that supports everyone on your team while maximizing your real estate value.

To go activity-based, start with change management

Before embracing a new work style, as Sciabarrasi explains, it’s vital to have a change-management strategy in place. “Initially, we found out we weren’t educating the consumers of the space enough, or the business units, on how to use the space,” he says. “Change management actually was a big component of our agile journey”—which requires continual effort as the business transforms.

Soon, AECOM’s real estate footprint became much more efficient—going from 16 million square feet of properties around the globe to 11 million. “We dropped 5 million square feet by taking our portfolio, turning it around, and saying, ‘How do we really use our space?’” he says.

Behind the scenes, AECOM is redesigning the typical change-management playbook, and began training employees and managers with ABW in mind at each new project. “The biggest stumbling block we have is getting people out of the mind-set of the traditional work culture they’ve experienced in the past,” says Sciabarrasi. “You get these managers who say to themselves, ‘If I can’t see my people, how do I know they’re working?’ But with flexible workspace and ABW, they need to think differently.”

Ultimately, ABW must give employees choice to be successful, something that Sciabarrasi says really helps him personally. “As a mobile employee, I only come into the office when I have a face-to-face meeting. Otherwise, I’m on the road or I work from my home office and doing video conferences to stay connected.” If he wants to be with a team, he’ll head to an office to collaborate in person. Or for a confidential conversation, he’ll go to a private office, phone booth, or a quiet space. “I know I can use any space that’s open.”

Real estate agility goes hand in hand with putting your people first

Getting everyone on board with a new work style, or any flexible work environment, requires a combination of education, IT investment, and employee input. AECOM uses pre-project surveys to find out how employees work and which tools they need and don’t have in order to continually listen and improve their offering. In addition, Sciabarrasi explains that office locations at AECOM need an assigned site champion to be successful, and it’s their role when they bring people on board to educate them on how to maximize the use of their office.

“We actually go through that journey with the employees,” says Sciabarrasi. “Their voices have to be, and should be, heard.”

For companies interested in taking their own journey toward agile, activity-based work, WeWork offers the flexible workspace real estate solution to help you get started.

Dawn Papandrea is a freelance writer who covers work, personal finance, and higher education. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Family Circle and Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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