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What Is Activity-Based Working?

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Activity-based working (ABW) is transforming modern offices and workspaces. Implementing ABW can optimize your office layout to boost employee engagement, collaboration, and productivity. But what exactly is ABW?

In this comprehensive guide, we'll define activity-based working. We'll unpack its origins and benefits, discuss implementation challenges, and overview the spatial features your office needs to make ABW work. With the right strategy, you can create an activity-based workspace where your teams thrive.

Activity-Based Working (ABW) Defined

ABW is a workplace strategy that moves away from traditional static dedicated spaces and desks. Instead, it creates work zones supporting different tasks, working styles, and employee needs. These include quiet rooms for focused, heads-down work, open team areas for collaboration, informal lounges for refreshment breaks, and more. Office workers can select their workspaces dynamically to match their activities.

For example, you may opt for a standing desk in a quiet zone when you have calls or need to focus. You'll utilize one of the collaboration hubs or meeting rooms for team projects in your hybrid offices. The work guides your choice of space, not a preassigned seat.

This work model increases workplace choice, flexibility, and accessibility for all employees. It breaks down the traditional divide between employee spaces and management offices. It gives people more autonomy over where and how they work based on the task at hand, introducing diverse work settings that cater to the modern workforce.

Origins of Activity-Based Work

American architect Robert Luchetti first articulated the concept of ABW in 1983. He introduced the idea of the office as a collection of "activity settings" tailored to different types of work, such as typing or conducting meetings.

The term "activity-based working" was later coined by Dutch consultant Erik Veldhoen in the 1990s. Veldhoen, through his company Veldhoen + Company, partnered with Interpolis, a major insurance firm in the Netherlands, to implement ABW across their offices. This partnership marked a significant milestone in the adoption of ABW. It demonstrated the practical application of the activity-based office concept and its benefits.

This dynamic approach to office layouts soon gained global traction. Tech leaders like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft adopted activity-based work environments.

Now, the pandemic has further accelerated ABW adoption. Along with the rise of remote and hybrid work, ABW makes post-pandemic office spaces work for hybrid teams.

Benefits of Implementing ABW

An ABW strategy can yield numerous advantages, including:

  • Increased employee satisfaction: Employees can choose settings to match activities. This boosts comfort, autonomy, and productivity. Quiet spaces reduce distraction for focused work, while open areas aid collaboration.

  • Enhanced collaboration: With more shared collaboration zones for meetings and teamwork versus individual desks, ABW breaks down departmental silos. It supports cross-functional bonding between diverse teams and roles.

  • Improved productivity: Matching spaces to tasks cuts distractions. This boosts individual and team productivity. For example, project teams can camp at standing desks for intense brainstorming sessions. The variety of spaces also caters to diverse thinking styles and working patterns.

  • Greater connectivity: Increased visibility from open, collaborative spaces and shared amenities fosters chance encounters and networking between colleagues who may not interact otherwise. It builds connectivity and knowledge sharing.
  • Adaptability: With ABW, you standardize spaces to groups of desks, chairs, and screens. These modular components are relatively inexpensive and easy to rearrange. This inherent flexibility allows companies to quickly modify floor plans in response to changes in headcount, team structures, and work patterns.

  • Utilization: Sharing desks and spaces in an ABW model means substantially reducing the overall office footprint without compromising comfort. Utilization metrics also highlight which spaces employees use. It allows data-backed planning for optimal space allocation and experiences.

Challenges of Implementing ABW

However, effectively transitioning to and managing an ABW environment also poses some challenges:

  • It requires a cultural shift and mindset change from the traditional work environment.
  • For some, it can initially decrease the sense of personal ownership over office workspaces.
  • ABW needs extensive spatial planning for a variety of zones supporting different activities.
  • Managing noise across open shared spaces may require updated policies.
  • Ongoing optimization is essential for ensuring spaces align with evolving needs.

While the move to ABW does require effort, careful change management and staged rollouts ease the transition. Most crucially, leadership must role model the spirit of ABW for others to follow. The rewards of increased agility, connectivity, and performance make the journey worthwhile.

4 Key Elements of ABW Workspaces You Should Know

Successfully embracing ABW depends on four vital pillars working in tandem:

1. Workplace Design

Think beyond desks and chairs when envisioning your ABW workplace. Consider how your physical environment holistically impacts experience. Key elements include:

  • Zoning: Map out zones for quiet focus work, collaborative group sessions, rejuvenation spots, and everything in between based on working patterns. To define these zones, use ceilings, lighting designs, greenery, and color schemes.

  • Desks and Spaces: Provide desks for touch-down work, stand-up zones for quick meetings, informal seating arrangements, project rooms equipped with technology, and more.

  • Ambiance: Include natural elements like daylight, plants, and views outside. Use warm, welcoming color schemes and textures.

  • Amenities: Incorporate wellness spaces, cafes, gaming nooks, and other amenities that support work-life balance and foster community building during work.

  • Technology and Tools: Provide large screens, portable devices, interactive boards, and remote room booking systems to enable seamless collaboration across rooms and floors.

2. Change of Mindset and Awareness

More than infrastructure, ABW requires a cultural shift toward workplace mobility and flexibility. Critical strategies include:

  • Educate employees extensively about ABW concepts, etiquette around sharing desks, using different spaces, cleanliness norms, etc.

  • Run awareness campaigns about the “why” behind the ABW model to secure buy-in across levels.

  • Involve teams actively in ABW floor plans so they customize spaces to user needs versus top-down execution.

  • Train managers on goal-based management since they can no longer track presence at desks.

Essentially, the fixed mindset of “my desk, my office” needs to evolve to “our space, our culture.”

3. Sensory Employee Experience

A typical day at an ABW workspace involves employees choosing from several locations based on their tasks and mindset. So, consider these aspects for optimized sensory experiences:

  • Audio: Reduce noisy distractions in quiet zones. Provide headphones, install soundproof rooms for calls, and padding for furniture.

  • Visual: Use warm accent lighting, plants, and artifacts to stimulate creativity, especially in high-focus rooms.

  • Olfactory: Research shows citrus aromas boost energy, while lavender alleviates stress. So, use subtle, calming scents around relaxation lounges.

  • Wellness: Create recreational spaces for yoga, meditation, or quick naps to recharge.

When sensory experiences intersect seamlessly with functional spaces, employee comfort, and performance reach new peaks. You can get this combination right with some user testing and tweaks.

4. Learning and Development

The versatility demanded by an activity-based environment warrants training employees in new ways of working:

  • Coach team managers in tracking progress through smart collaboration goals versus visible desk time. Provide tools to coordinate hybrid, dispersed teams.

  • Train employees to book spaces, leverage interactive screens for wireless presentations, adjust specific chairs/desktops, and use all amenities seamlessly.

  • Run workshops on mindfulness, prioritization frameworks, time management, conflict resolution, etiquette around desk sharing, and noise levels when working flexibly across floors.

  • Share case studies of teams who pilot the model successfully to inspire behavior change across the board.

  • Continually seek user feedback through pulse surveys, focus groups, and team meetings. Use insights to address concerns, showcase role models, and make space/policy changes that facilitate the ABW experience.

With learning interventions woven closely into the workplace transformation journey, employee confidence, capability, and satisfaction reach greater heights.

What Spatial Features Should ABW Offices Have?

Your activity-based office layout must blend collaboration, concentration, and community spaces seamlessly. Key features include:

  • Small meeting spaces of 4-6 people with interactive screens, whiteboards, and video conferencing facilities. These enable quick team sync-ups.

  • Large multipurpose halls with movable furniture for town halls, workshops, and social events.

  • Quiet rooms with soundproofing, noise cancellation features, soothing interiors, and writing surfaces for focused tasks.

  • Open collaboration desks for fast-paced teamwork. Include large monitors, standing desks, and erase boards.

  • Breakout areas for informal discussions over coffee, free snacks, and games like foosball.

  • Easily reconfigurable furniture made of modular components like wall dividers, writing boards, and storage units without heavy installation needs.

  • Ergonomic chairs, desks, monitor arms customized to diverse employee heights, accurate lighting, and ventilation suited for different zones.

  • Accessible charging points across all furniture types so employees can work from anywhere.

  • Spacious pantries, wellness rooms, nursing spaces, and gender-neutral restrooms that accommodate all employee needs.

Ensure space allotment follows the latest occupancy data so resource availability keeps pace with ever-evolving usage.

Boost Productivity With an Activity-Based Workplace Strategy

ABW promotes the autonomy, movement, and choice modern professionals expect. Rethinking your ABW design around supporting diverse work activities can pay dividends through the following:

  • More satisfied, empowered employees
  • Employee productivity boost
  • Stronger connectivity and collaboration
  • Spaces evolving with business needs
  • A more sensory, inspiring work environment

The result is a hybrid workplace ecosystem optimized for team and individual productivity, enabling people to deliver results.

By understanding the core ethos of ABW, you can begin your journey implementing this model's advantages. However, always focus on stakeholder readiness, thoughtful space planning, and sustaining adoption through learning. In time, your workspace and workforce will transform.

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