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The sense (and nonsense) of Activity Based Working

  • Future Workplace
  • Workplace Strategy

Justin Timmer is our In-House Researcher. Contact him via

A brief history of Activity Based Working

We all know the traditional workplace model: employees working from the same office and desk, day in, day out. For generations, people have worked in this system. But in the past decade or so, there has been a dramatic shift away from that ancient model. Activity-based working (ABW) puts a new spin on the office dynamic. Employees are not confined to a particular office or desk. Instead, they are free to work from any available workstation in the workplace. That means employees can work in changing teams, across different locations and in different offices. This provides employees with a setting that best supports each activity they perform.

Different spaces are designed to provide employees with the best possibility to be the most productive in their work. Imagine having the ability to use a whiteboard in a meeting room full of light when brainstorming with your team, or a private, noise-cancelling room when calling a big lead. Although the concept of activity-based working has been around for approximately 30 years, the concept has become more popular for several reasons, the main ones being increased employee productivity and reduced office costs.

The rise of Activity-based working is undeniable. Offices around the globe are introducing this new way of working. While organisations even go so far as to implement it as the new global standard. But what is it? And does it work? In this blog, we will explore these questions and more.

Activity-Based Working ≠ open-plan office

Keep in mind the difference between office distribution plans. The often seen ‘open-plan’ space strategy, where employees no longer have their own office but instead are seated together in one big open space. It is not the same as Activity Based Working. The core of Activity Based Working roots in connecting activities to an environment that supports or even enhances the task performed. That is not a prerequisite with open-plan spaces, which aim most regularly at achieving higher efficiency of expensive real estate. Globalisation and digitalisation mean that we can perform activities in different physical locations or even time zones. That’s a fundamental change and needs guidance from management and support from the whole organisation.

An example of distribution workplace modelAccording to the latest data in our Benchmark Report, a whopping 46% of surveyed organisations use open space strategies. With only 17% opting for a traditional setup and 37% combining the two in a hybrid model. However, this does not say anything about the actual working patterns or the way in which people work.

Requirements of a successful ABW

First and foremost, provide a range of dedicated facilities for specific tasks. From enthusiastic collaboration to quiet, focused work and everything in between. Additionally, providing a virtual environment that gives you instant access to relevant information is essential to stay on, quite literally, the same page. Tools to collaborate with colleagues who are not in your (physical) environment are the last essential tangible requirements.

Far more important than any of the tangible aspects, however, is the trust and empowerment given by committed management. We often speak about commitment from the top as an essential aspect to implement a change in workplace management (see our whitepaper on building a business case for workplace insights). But when implementing ABW, it is essential to have accurate workplace insights. Employees need to feel confident that they can move around in the office. Or change spaces without backlash from their manager, for example.

Feedback is part of the success

Not required, but very valuable is getting feedback from different teams and employees early on. What kind of spaces do they need to work more effectively? Do they enjoy being around each other in a big meeting room to brainstorm? Do they prefer to have a focus room to develop and formulate their ideas? Is your sales team motivated when they are physically close to their colleagues? Or do they prefer to have their own sound-proof office? Getting the answers to such questions helps to get it right the first time around. Instead of waiting for the inevitable negative responses, if the facility department does not consult employees before making changes. Another advantage is that you create support for Activity Based Working early on throughout the whole organisation. Teams will feel compelled to use the facilities they requested, and in turn, will be more satisfied with their environment.

Is Activity Based Working suited for my organisation?

The efficacy of activity-based working is often debated. Some analysts believe it’s a workplace management game-changer. Others argue the disadvantages of activity-based working outweigh its potential benefits. As every person is different, every organisation is different too. While one organisation is filled with people who need to concentrate heavily on their work, other organisations have a more social structure where regular meetings and short discussions are forming the largest part of their work.

For example, employees using our workplace preference app Habital reported high-concentration work 68% of the time in one firm. While in another organisation employees only reported 18% high concentration work. Not surprisingly, face-to-face communication was higher in the organisation that had a lower percentage of high-concentration work. With different work activities, some work environments might fit better than others for an organisation. While traditional closed environments are more suitable for individual high concentration work, open environments are more suitable for frequently communicating with project teams.

The role of ABW

Some, if not many, jobs consist of a mix of high concentration and face-to-face communication work. Would you place people in these jobs in a traditional or open work environment? Here is where Activity Based Working comes in. With ABW, employees could pick a workspace fitting their activity. Where high concentration tasks should be performed in focus booths and meetings in meeting rooms. The concept of ABW sounds ideal and logical, performing activities at a place that supports that particular activity optimally. However, a recent systematic review showed that ABW has positive merits in areas of interaction, communication, control of time and space, and satisfaction with the workspace; however, it is unfavourable for concentration and privacy. As such, high concentration work suffers. Should we push everyone back into individual rooms for their brain-braking work? Doing high-concentration work comfortably at home with your own coffee might be the answer.

Initially, the intention of ABW was to move to a hybrid work environment where the traditional office becomes redundant, at least according to Philip Ross, CEO of Cordless group. In the original concept of ABW, workers use spaces on a ‘needs basis’. For example, employees could do their high-concentration work at home. While performing low concentration work at a local café. Or holding their meetings online or at a coworking initiative. Employees would have the power to really pick any space that fits their activity, not just a specific space in the office.

Switching to Activity Based Working

Phillip Ross had good reasons for such a dramatic shift in work. He believes that sustainability will be the main driver for ABW. Since office buildings and commuting account for the majority of carbon emissions. Secondly, real estate is one of the largest overheads for a business and transport networks become overloaded leading to time waste, money waste, an annoyed unproductive employee stuck in traffic. ABW thus has the premise to be good for the planet, people, and profit.

A switch to true ABW requires a huge managerial change. With a less direct overview of the workplace, and thus more trust in the employees. The workflow should be pushed to online platforms which support smooth online communication. So, it facilitates giving insightful overviews of progress for managers and employees. When it comes to collaboration, it is probable that more concepts of collaboration and creative spaces will emerge supporting ABW-employees. A clear example is the coworking spaces approach popularised by WeWork.

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