Mobile trial aims to find best spot to do your work

The public service is leading the way on office flexibility, writes Trevor Clarke.

The public service is leading the way on office flexibility, writes Trevor Clarke.

Who says the public service is stuffy and old-fashioned? The Department of Human Services has joined the throng of companies adopting the trendy, activity-based working (ABW) principles in an effort to provide a more flexible work environment.

Instead of allocated seating and desktop computers, employees in ABW organisations predominantly use mobile devices and are seated according to the activity or project they are working on.

The department will trial ABW in its Louisa Lawson building in Canberra.

The trial, which involves 110 staff, is the first of its kind among federal government agencies and puts the department in the same work-style league as Microsoft, Bankwest, KPMG, PwC, Macquarie Bank and Commonwealth Bank.

A DHS spokesman said the variety of work environments now available enabled staff to choose the most appropriate work space from day to day.

Whereas the traditional work environment offered only two work space options - desk or meeting room - staff could now opt for individual desks, focus desks, team areas, collaboration areas and quiet areas.

"The aim of the trial is to encourage cross-collaboration, team interaction, and to give staff the opportunity to learn from others by exposure to different business groups," the DHS spokesman said.

"It will investigate new and alternative ways of working within the corporate office environment with the aim of fostering creativity and innovation."

The work style appeared in the Netherlands 15 years ago but business consultants only recently began suggesting it as a strategy.

Few public service organisations around the world have adopted ABW. The UK is one of those pursuing a similar approach in its civil-service reform plan.

While not a pure ABW approach, the aim in Britain is to allow public servants to move freely between government offices (

The most recent report on the British reform plan notes that this strategy has the "greatest potential to improve civil servants' day-to-day working lives", but little progress has been made.

The British government's chief technology officer, Liam Maxwell, told IT Pro the flexible working strategy would be underpinned by mobile and collaboration technologies, with cloud services critical to its success.

In Australia, human services staff will be given personal and movable storage "caddies" and laptops that connect to a wireless network so they can work from any location in the building.

Other technologies include follow-me printing and voice-over internet protocol (VoIP).

The DHS trial is not hot-desking, the practice in which staff share the same desk or just an open-plan office.

Instead, there will be more work points than staff across a range of settings.

Although activity-based working has been shown to provide benefits in employee engagement and the utilisation of real estate, it is not without its challenges - most notably change management and ensuring that employees support the required cultural and behavioural change.

Without this, there is a risk of employees viewing the adoption of the work style as merely a cynical attempt to save money on real estate.

The University of California San Francisco discovered this attitude the hard way when it faced a backlash from employees (

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