You may have seen the term ‘Activity Based Working’ circling the internet, but you might not be familiar with what it entails. Essentially, it’s an office design with various spaces that serve different purposes. This means that employees can choose the work setting that is best suited to their task or personality.
Although it sounds like a new concept, its roots go back to 1983. American architect, Robert Luchetti co-invented the idea of ‘activity settings’ in an office, separating areas for activities such as typing or conducting meetings. It didn’t take off in America at the time, but many Nordic countries adopted it. Later in 1990, the term ‘activity based working’ was coined by Erik Veldhoen, in his books The Art of Working and The Demise of the Office. Veldhoen + Company, partnered with Interpolis, one of the biggest insurance companies in the Netherlands to implement an activity-based design throughout their offices – the first of its kind.
Today, especially in the wake of COVID-19, businesses are looking to adopt more human-centric workspaces. Activity Based Working (ABW) has the power to provide companies with the necessary flexibility and to support employee wellbeing whilst boosting productivity.
ABW acknowledges that people need a variety of settings to effectively perform different tasks throughout the day. For example, an employee might prefer to work on a time-critical project in a silent space rather than a social space with distractions.
One of the main benefits of ABW is flexibility. Traditionally, employees were assigned to a single desk but with ABW, employees are free to decide where to work. Thanks to technology and accelerated by COVID-19, the office has changed drastically over the last few decades. Today, many offices have lounges, meeting rooms and collaborative spaces. Flexibility is built into the very walls of an ABW office, and it’s designed to meet the needs of its inhabitants.
For example, if you need a space to concentrate - head to the silent zone. If a team of employees want to work collaboratively on a project - head to a huddle room with an interactive display. If you want to work on developing a skill - head to the learning zone. If you want to catch up with a colleague over coffee - head to the social zone. Having relevant work or social zones is beneficial because the environment you work in has the power to impact productivity, wellbeing and innovation.
The idea behind ABW is that employees will be more productive when they’re in a suitable work environment. It’s not just about building dedicated spaces; every space must be carefully designed to foster the required emotions.
It is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ABW. Different zones should truly reflect individual employees and their specific needs. Businesses should consider everything from the zone to the office furniture to the technology.
To reap the benefits of ABW, employees must use the space correctly and the design can effectively communicate how. When an employee enters a designated zone, it must be easy to gauge what the space is intended for. This can be achieved through sensory cues such as smelling fresh coffee and hearing the radio, signalling that the space is open and social. In comparison, silent spaces may have digital signage with instructions or sound masking headsets on the desk.
Carefully designing your office also leads to better space management and fewer costs. By utilising their space, Interpolis downsized to one building rather than two – reducing costs and blank space. Any space can be carefully transformed, for example, a business could transform their cafeteria into a social zone for casual working.
Additionally, this concept allows design elements to be considered such as artwork or plants. This creates an inspiring and comfortable atmosphere throughout the office. It can lead to improvement in workplace satisfaction and productivity, as corroborated by research. Veldhoen and Company found a 17% increase in workplace satisfaction when Interpolis transitioned to ABW.
A social space typically takes cues from a coffee shop or cafeteria, and it is designed to feel energetic and welcoming. If you are a worker who enjoys background noise and working alongside others, the social zone would be beneficial. It is also a space to catch up over coffee, take a 10-minute break or enjoy casual impromptu meetings.
This space is likely to have monitors and connectivity accessories for individual working and large format displays for digital signage. Plus, comfortable seating, drinks stations and sanitation and hygiene measures.
A collaboration zone is similar to a social zone, but it focuses on teamwork and facilitating discussion. For example, these zones may have comfortable seating areas or huddle rooms with interactive displays and video conferencing equipment. This means that teams can sit close together for a long period of time collaborating and creating new ideas.
A learning zone is specifically designed to inspire and encourage employees to learn new skills. Large-format displays will be present for training videos and presentations. Learning resources such as books and documents are often available with printers and scanners on hand to help study. This zone looks inviting and inspiring, designed to help employees elevate their skills and uphold brand values.
A silent zone is intended for employees that like to work without distractions or noise. Perhaps an employee needs to work to a tight deadline or simply prefers to work on their own. This area has a comfortable layout with ergonomic monitors and sound masking headsets. Digital signage will be key to signal behavioural cues and communicating with employees without distracting them.
Some studies have noted that employees felt open areas were distracting with noise and people filing in and out. Employees also wanted private spaces for confidential calls. But the great thing about ABW is that you can design it to your specific needs. Huddle rooms or booths can be incorporated for private spaces whilst sound masking can be used to minimise noise.
Behaviour plays a key role: there should be an induction to show employees how to use ABW and fully utilise the zones. Digital signage and cues will also help maintain the zones. For example, there will be signs to say that mobile phones cannot be answered in silent areas. Technology will also play a pivotal role in ABW as it will allow employees to truly utilise a space.
Employees have also noted that some zones are busier which means there is not always enough space and less popular zones are rarely used. If employees feel like they will use a collaborative and silent zone more, you can make those spaces bigger. Additionally, room booking systems are useful so employees can see what spaces are free before they come into the office.
Furthermore, some employees may enjoy having an individual desk to mark as their own. Whilst many offices have already adopted hot-desking and shared desks, incorporating lockers for personal belongings or shared team storage can be useful. Designing your office to be comfortable and welcoming should also attract employees to enjoy the whole space, rather than their desk.
These challenges signify the importance of research and collecting employee feedback. When business leaders are committed to analysing feedback and implementing their findings, ABW can empower companies and their workers.
There are many benefits to ABW, but the key is connection, culture and trust. ABW encourages employees to be flexible, allowing them to work based on their individual needs and not be restricted to a single desk. Rather, they can choose the space that empowers them to produce their best work. This also gives employees a sense of ownership and responsibility which, ultimately, fosters loyalty to the business.
Typically, team members sit together in an office, but ABW gives employees the chance to interact with more people outside of their department. Research by the Dutch Centre for Buildings and People found that offices that adopted ABW experienced greater communication and knowledge exchange. This is due to spontaneous meetings and more interactions between different departments. It also tends to increase productivity as employees can have an impromptu meeting without an email chain or needing to book.
Since Erik Veldhoen introduced the term, Activity Based Working has been shaped to fit the new working world. As new technologies have emerged and COVID-19 has accelerated the shift into agile working, ABW is the ideal solution for employees and businesses willing to implement flexibility and strive for long-term success.
Keep your eyes peeled for more exciting leadership into Activity Based Working from Midwich!