A lot’s changed since strategy consultant Erik Veldhoen redesigned the offices of Dutch insurance company Interpolis in 1996. A leading proponent of Activity Based Working (ABW), when Veldhoen adapted the company’s workspace to focus on increased flexibility and choice, modern technology was in its infancy.
The core principles of ABW were there - the removal of assigned desks, increased fluidity, and a maxing out of square footage to promote greater wellbeing and productivity. But there was none of the digitisation that now forms the heart and soul of most businesses.
So, what does ABW look like now? We take a tour of three ABW-inspired workspaces that have “ditched the desk” in search of New Ways of Working.
A provider of physical and virtual coworking spaces, WeWork’s office design is built on versatility. A range of clients rent a share of its square footage, so its challenge has always been to meet the needs of different business types, as well as different work activities. With this in mind, it incorporates different “environmental elements'' into each of its offices. And uses design and sensory cues to communicate an unspoken behavioural code for each one.
With so many different types of users, WeWork’s offices are big on small, silent zones. To encourage concentration, productivity and focus, their offices offer a mix of the following:
Designed for client calls or focused work, these small spaces use bright colours and comfy seats to create a warm and cosy environment. Clear glass doors keep occupants connected to the space outside and stop them from feeling confined.
Soft seating areas
These table-free and tech-free, homely seating zones encourage employees to take time out and step away from a stressful situation or challenging project. Or to simply sit and think.
Whether it’s to prepare for a pitch, read up on a project, or do some research, these quiet study zones give employees the mental space and calm setting required to do either (or all) of the above.
As well as providing “space”, WeWork’s value proposition is also based on networking. From start-ups to solo entrepreneurs, SMEs to enterprise organisations, its diverse mix of clients can make new connections while also cultivating existing ones. To achieve this, it provides a series of well-designed social zones, including:
Café-style spaces with hot desks
Within these large, light, open-plan spaces, zoned seating areas cater for different types of activities. Long tables with work desks give larger teams the chance to collaborate, or individual workers the chance to catch up on emails or admin. Booths, sofas and coffee table areas provide smaller groups with the right setting to chat informally.
And in some offices, like the Yeouido Stations WeWork in Seoul, there’s even a stage area for presentations or performances. Add to this layout, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the sound of music playing over the speakers, and the low-level buzz of people chatting, and the result is an upbeat sensory experience that marks this out as high energy space.
Designed for quick catch-ups or simply to give employees a change of scene, booths separated by glass partitions create a private but informal vibe.
Fresh air, sunlight, a wider view, and greenery all help employee wellbeing. So, wherever possible, WeWork provides outdoor spaces such as terraces, balconies and roof gardens where employees can have lunch, take a call or socialise.
Completing the ABW circle, WeWork also caters for collaboration, learning, and inclusivity regardless of location. It does this through different styles of meeting rooms, including:
Informal conference rooms
Soft furnishings, comfortable seating, and gentle natural lighting give WeWork’s informal conference spaces a business-like but more relaxed tone. This makes them ideal for creative sessions, interviews or meet and greet sessions.
Formal conference rooms
With a traditionally minimalist design, the formal conference rooms in WeWork offices keep high-level meetings and updates focused on the matter at hand. AV technology supports presentations and brings participants together wherever they are.
The link between its ABW approach and business outcomes hasn’t been directly measured. But since spending $20 million renovating its offices in 2020, and despite the unexpected impact of Covid-19, WeWork’s occupancy levels have bounced back to over 50%, with revenue continuing to grow.
One of the biggest chains of its kind, Costa Coffee’s global operation has two separate divisions. On one side are its “office” workers. On the other side, are the employees that work for its roasting plant. The challenge, when redesigning the chain’s Essex HQ, was to bring the two sides together.
Compared to other enterprise organisations, the site in question was small (just under 17,000 square feet). But interior design and workplace specialists, Morgan Lovell, had to ensure it met a big list of requirements. As well as uniting its disparate groups of workers, it had to enhance productivity and “highlight the coffee experience”.
It soon became clear that the environment needed to provide a range of zones to deliver this. And an activity-based concept became the inspiration. Instead of designing around the two different sides of the business, it was guided by the principle, from “my desk” to “our space”.
Collaboration and collision zones were created to encourage the two previously siloed groups to come together. Breakout areas, a tea point, booth seating, meeting rooms, solo study zones, relaxation areas (including a games room) and boardroom suites guided employees to unite around activities rather than roles or business models.
The result? Since making the changes, Costa Coffee employees reported “an increased sense of belonging and connectedness in their new office”.
In 2014, Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG) moved its 300 employees and global consultancy firm into a new office in New York City. Occupying 65,000 square feet spread over two floors, the new venue quickly made history by becoming the site of the US’s first major ABW-inspired workplace.
Moving away from designated desks, small cubicles and closed doors, One Grand Central Place applied a different philosophy. Writing for ‘Fast Company’, GLG’s CEO at the time, Alexander Saint-Amand, described it as being based: “…around a new paradigm - neither open nor full of private offices”.
The big change was a collection of neighbourhoods, which employees from different parts of the business could access easily to collaborate on shared projects. Once in a neighbourhood, colleagues could choose from a collection of “cheerful and comfortable workspaces” depending on their activity or mood.
For quiet, focused work there were enclosed glass meeting pods, single person booths, small concentration zones and adjustable standing desks. Large tables with multiple workstations and conference rooms with integrated AV technology supported social and collaborative sessions.
Technology played a big part in the transformation. To allow employees to move around, desktops and landline phones were replaced by docking stations for laptops, and software phones that ran on laptops with headsets.
“We didn’t get all the technology right at first,” said Saint-Amand. “Our employee survey showed meeting room technology needed to be seamless and wasn’t. Armed with that feedback, we fashioned solutions to improve the user experience dramatically. Our growing pains underscore both the importance and the challenge of integrating good technology in the modern office from the beginning.”
Despite the technical hiccups and some initial resistance from employees, the shift soon caught on.
“Yes, we give up our personal desks,” said Alexander Saint-Amand, “but we gain the whole office.”
And his colleagues agreed.
Six months after the transition, two-thirds of employees had already started using the different neighbourhoods and zones. Survey data also showed that general perceptions of ABW were positive too. 80% felt better about their job since the change, 91% felt excited about the flexibility it offered, and 92% described it as “fun”.
GLG, Costa and WeWork aren’t alone in their approach to workplace design. More businesses are moving towards ABW, if they haven’t made the transition already. Reducing operational costs, as well as raising employee engagement, productivity, and retention, there’s a lot to like about flexible working.
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