Some companies have traditional work environments. When you come into work, you have an assigned desk. You are physically located with your team, which is located within that teams larger team, and so on. The company feels like it physically revolves around you. You are physically partitioned and packed into a master seating plan, maintained and controlled by The Collective of Master Seating Plan Controllers.
There’s an obvious and defined order to it all. You know where you sit. You know your place, because its there, day after day. It doesn’t move, even though your work and the people who you work with does. You are the master of your own domain. It contains your stuff, your possessions. It has your personal touch. Outside battles and war rage, but inside your domain its peaceful. You have focus because of consistency.
Some companies have non traditional work environments. One style is ABW - Activity Based Working. When you come into work, you don’t have an assigned desk. You have a locker like you did in school that contains your work tools and minimal possessions. Your first task for the day is to find a desk. This is more complicated than it sounds. What time did you get in? What activity are you doing today?
Teams migrate in packs. One lone wolf can disrupt the established base of a team, and set them on a random migration path, which in turn has a ripple effect in the office ecosystem across a floor, and into other floors. Overt (mostly silent) psychological wars are fought over areas by teams posturing, and positioning of physical objects like whiteboards, agile card walls, posters, or pictures. Some teams are firmly entrenched, and won’t be moved, even by the occasional interloper.
Once you select a desk, if you don’t immediately clean it, you’re touching potentially multiple people’s germs all over the desk, keyboard, mouse and phone, and then yourself - your face, your food, and other people. This all takes time that’s not spent working, which can be frustrating. Sometimes you think “I sat here yesterday. Maybe I don’t need to clean everything today.” As you sit there in this foreign, sparse, sterile, non personal environment, the people around you may or may not be different from yesterday. It depends what the people who come in after you do. Where will they go when they come in? What complex logic (or not for that matter) will they follow to select their desk?
The environment is mostly not peaceful, or conducive to solitary productive thinking work. There’s more noise. People are more chatty. It’s harder to concentrate for lengthy periods at a time, even in so called designated quiet work styled areas. It’s exhausting.
To an outsider ABW may appear as chaos. But to an insider, strange things happen in ABW. You can sit next to people you are working with and collaborate with them more effectively. You can sit next to different people. You can move if you don’t want to sit next to someone. You can have random conversations that may, or may not prove immediately useful. The amazing thing is that you can do these things every day.
If you want to move to your activity there is no lengthy process through The Collective of Master Seating Plan Controllers. You just … move. You feel like you are part of something bigger than just your small team. You feel more empowered. You seem to physically revolve around the company with people, and the company and the people feel like the core purpose of why you are there.
You learn to live with the noise, the constant interruptions, and not owning a space. The space serves a purpose, not just you. You begin to see patterns of movement and highly productive collaboration. You start to participate and change your style of working. You begin to think that you can’t go back to a traditional work environment.