Adaptive Spaces

The Complete Guide to Activity Based Working

Learn the essentials behind activity-based working and how it will impact office design moving forward.

woman sitting in office

If the workday was once dominated by fixed workstations and desktop computers, today’s workdays are a little bit different — and a lot more mobile.

Case in point: Many office workers around the world have spent the better part of this year working remotely as they navigate COVID-19. But even before COVID-19, the typical workday and offices that supported them were undergoing seismic changes.

As companies continue to think through how best to bring their employees to the office in a safe and effective manner, many are rethinking basic tenants of workplace design with an eye towards the core reasons people want to go back to the office.

Key among those reasons, according to research we conducted in April: Connecting with colleagues, attending meetings and effectively collaborating with colleagues — all in person.

Enter activity-based working (ABW), a workplace design ethos centered around providing employees a number of spaces to work around the office.

Below, we’ll explore:

What is Activity-Based Working? A Definition & Primer

Originally coined by the Dutch consultant Erik Veldhoen in his 1994 book The Demise of the Office, activity-based working is a workplace design ethos that offers a variety of work settings geared towards different workplace activities and tasks.

While Veldhoen would expound upon his theory in the 2004 book The Art of Working, the concept itself has earlier roots in the early 1980’s with an American architect named Robert Luchetti.

After studying the workplace and looking for alternative ways to design effective office settings, Luchetti came up with the idea of activity settings where different workplace environments serve different workday activities.

“In an activity settings-based environment, multiple settings are provided which have different technical and physical attributes assembled to support the variety of performance ‘modes’ that take place in a work environment,” according to the Robert Luchetti Workplace Consultants group [PDF]. “They range from small, dedicated, acoustically private enclosed spaces to large, open, team shared areas.”

In concept, these workplace settings are often flexible and reconfigurable with moveable furniture and an emphasis on technology.

By the 1990’s, Veldhoen worked with the Dutch insurance company Interpolis to turn the concept of activity-based working into reality, helping the company redesign its offices with a focus on flexibility.

The big breakthrough: Thinking through every part of Interpolis’ office building as a potential workspace and doing away with assigned desks. In doing so, Veldhoen helped Interpolis maximize its available square footage and helped promote greater wellbeing and productivity amongst its workers.

As Veldhoen + Co say in their case study, they undertook this effort with Interpolis before modern technology such as mobile phones, laptops and email.

Since then, technology has radically changed office design — and bolstered the case for activity-based working, too.

“The combination of Wi-Fi networks and mobile technologies now allows you to work in multiple locations,” Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University with expertise in ergonomics, tells Hana. “That means companies have to think of their entire space as a workspace.”

Common Examples of Activity-Based Working in Practice

Since Veldhoen + Co first helped redesign Interpolis’ office space in 1996, many companies have embraced an activity-based working design model.

From technology giants like Facebook and Google to flexible workspace operators, activity-based working has helped pave the way for a greater array of potential workspaces in the office — and increased flexibility for employees to determine where and how they work within the office.

So, what do these workspaces look like? First and foremost, they prioritize productivity and comfort, recognizing that not all tasks merit an individual desk.

Popular examples of activity-based workspaces include the following:

Individual Workspaces & Focus Rooms
Not unlike a typical office, activity-based workspaces offer individual working areas. But unlike their more traditional counterparts, activity-based workspaces focus on a variety of individual work settings that run the gamut from the traditional desk and chair to private, one-person focus rooms, to individual carrels and shared desk spaces.

The goal under an activity-based working model is to acknowledge that the nature of the individual work someone is doing determines what environment is best suited for it. For some tasks, a private, closed door space offers a nice respite for heads-down focus. For other tasks, a quiet desk — or even a shared desk — works best.

Notably, activity-based working recognizes that different people need different workplace settings for individual work. Some may want a closed-door and private room to work in while others prefer the din of a coffee shop. If properly implemented, activity-based working offer spaces that meet the needs of individual workers.

Collaborative Spaces & Open Lounges
A classic hallmark of activity-based workspaces, collaborative spaces such as collaborative spaces and open lounges are intended to offer office workers a comfortable place to work together.

Collaborative spaces can range from closed rooms with moveable furniture and whiteboard-topped tables to open spaces with moveable whiteboards and circular seating arrangements.

Open lounges, on the other hand, are designed to combine comfortable seating arrangements with productive touches such as laptop tables and easily accessible power outlets.

These spaces are intended for employees to catch-up, work together on a project, complete individual work in an open space, or take a 15-minute break during a stressful day.

Huddle Rooms & Project Rooms
Head into any office and two of the most popular workspaces are meeting rooms and quiet areas. Part of this comes down to workplace acoustics — they’re often not great (although they can be fixed) and many office workers often end up looking for quiet and private spaces to work with colleagues. Meeting rooms are consequently in high demand — but there are rarely enough to go around.

Huddle rooms and project rooms are popular solutions in activity-based workspaces. Comprising of small spaces that fit between two and four people, these rooms typically offer desk space, an LCD display, screen sharing and video conferencing capabilities — plus, a whiteboard.

These spaces offer excess meeting space for ad-hoc get-togethers, and also offer great working environments for focused group work.

Cafe Areas & Open Workspaces
While office cafeterias and kitchenettes are popular additions in most activity-based workspaces, cafe areas and open cafe workspaces have steadily gained in popularity over the past decade.

Taking cues from coffee shops, these spaces offer coffee, teas, small lounges, cafe seating and tall-boy tables for work and impromptu meetings. Some workspace designers even go so far as to offer banquette seating.

These spaces are ideal for people who want to work over a cup of coffee or connect with a colleague.

Importantly, these workspaces encourage “workspace collisions” between colleagues. Research has shown these serendipitous social interactions can foster ideas, spur collaboration and make positive business impacts.

Conference Rooms, Pitch Rooms & Private Lounges
In any office, meeting rooms are some of the most prized spaces — be it for board sessions, executive meetings, strategy sessions, or any other array of collaborative working sessions.

But in activity-based workspaces, meeting rooms take on a different emphasis with workplace designers focusing heavily on offering a number of meeting spaces that cater to a wide variety of needs.

These range from pitch rooms with seminar-style seating and center podiums to private lounges, conference rooms and training rooms that can fit up to 50 people.

Every space features a mix of technology and design touches squarely aimed at helping people be more productive in extended group sessions. Technology specifications can range from 4K displays with screen sharing capabilities to full AV setups with video conferencing and VoIP (voice over IP) configurations.

The central aim: Creating collaborative meeting spaces that meet the needs of a wide range of activities ranging from client pitches to strategy sessions to board reviews.

Quiet Nooks & Phone Booths
Surveys show that the most popular office features among employees are quiet, comfortable spaces for work — and among flexible workspaces and coworking spaces, phone booths and private pods rank especially high.

In activity-based workspaces, designers take heed of these preferences and will offer a number of private workspace offerings ranging from quiet nooks adjacent to social spaces to private phone booths.

The central aim of these workspaces is to offer single-seat areas where employees can either work individually or make a call without disturbing other workers.

Some workspace designers will also build out pods, which serve as phone booths with extra soundproofing. These self-contained workspaces typically offer a narrow desk and comfortable chair in a closed-door room.

Other designers (including our own team at Hana) focus on building out work booths, which offer comfortable seating, a shared desk for up to four people and acoustic treatments to help mitigate any excess noise. These are ideal spaces for people who want to feel connected to the din of the workplace while also maintaining a sense of privacy.

The Essential Elements of Activity-Based Working

Even if some companies have taken to building out small scale kitchen areas and adding meeting rooms and the occasional lounge area, it doesn’t mean they’re nailing the essentials of activity-based working.

At its core, activity-based working signals a paradigmatic shift in thinking about how teams leverage workspaces — and what types of workspace settings they need to be more productive.

At Hana, we think about activity-based working in three key ways: well-designed spaces that meet the needs of all office workers, signage that gives people cues on what each workspace is designed for and implementing a system to monitor how workspaces are being used.

Here’s how this breaks down:

What activity-based working design looks like
At its core, activity-based working recognizes that different people — and even the same person throughout the course of a day — need different working environments. Or, at the very least, the flexibility to choose the working environment that best works for them throughout the course of the day.

This means thinking through the daily work behaviors of employees across a given company and creating workplace features that are both cost effective and enable employee satisfaction and productivity.

The desired end state is to build a variety of workspaces that meet a large variety of needs. These range from individual focused work to collaborative team projects.

But under activity-based working models, it’s not just about building spaces dedicated solely to work. It’s also about designing places that cater to individuals’ personal and professional needs — and that means thinking through how integral office staples like the water cool and kitchen area can evolve into productive spaces.

In short, activity-based working design means thinking through every inch of the office and thinking about how it can be turned into workspaces that facilitate a variety of working styles and tasks.

How the right furniture can make (or break) activity-based working
A sometimes underestimated component of activity-based working? Furniture.

“The furniture you choose to turn a workspace into an effective work setting matters,” says Claire Keane, a Design Manager at Hana. “Meeting rooms, for instance, will have a wide variety of setups to accommodate different collaborative needs — and open work areas have a variety of places to sit ranging from lounge furniture to dedicated workstations to standing height tables, booths, banquettes and communal tables.”

Simply put, the furniture you use to create a workspace telegraphs the purpose of that workspace to office workers.

“The variety of furniture types are there to give people the choice of where they want to sit and the ability to change that setting based on what they are working on or who they are working with,” says Kean.

If all of your workspaces have just desks and chairs, the purpose of those workspaces will be the same: ideal for seated work, but not much else.

By leveraging different types of furniture ranging from standing desks to comfortable couches and private booths, workplace designers are able to signal what types of work each space is best suited for.

What activity-based working signage works best
You can design and build the best activity-based workspace imaginable — but if you don’t give people behavioral cues on how best to use each workspace, you may end up falling short.

At Hana, we’ve discovered one of the best ways to ensure each workspace is used most effectively is signage. Across our workspaces, you’ll find small tent cards letting people know to be quiet in quiet shared spaces — and to be aware of how much time they spend in individual focus rooms.

These signs are intended to set expectations for how to use each space with intentional room titles and brief guidelines for room use.

In our shared workspaces, for instance, you’ll find stylized designs on walls alerting people once they enter a quiet space — and even more mundane, helpful signage helping them to use the coffee machines.

Taken together, subtle cue cards can help people maximize each workspace (and amenity) and have a more fulfilling workday experience.

How to monitor the efficacy of activity-based working
A classic maxim in business is “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The same is true of activity-based workspaces.

If done right, the goal of activity-based workspaces is to encourage employee productivity and satisfaction. But as with anything, the desired outcome isn’t always the reality.

Some companies create task forces to measure employee feedback and monitor workspace utilization. At Hana, we combine people and technology to monitor how workspaces are being used, the frequency of use, and the type of work most often conducted around the workspace — and then fold those learnings into actionable alterations.

This doesn’t necessarily mean redesigning workspaces. But it does mean reconfiguring furniture setups, implementing signage and thinking through other ways to help individuals maximize their time in a given space.

Likewise, we recommend that enterprise clients, workplace designers, landlords and even professionals think through how they use given space and monitor what workplace features and amenities receive the highest utilization — and make changes accordingly.

The Benefits of Activity-Based Working

No discussion of the benefits of activity-based working is complete without acknowledging the time we’re in.

With the onset of COVID-19, employees expect to have flexibility to determine where and how they’ll work. And among the top reasons they expect and want to go back to the office include connecting with colleagues, collaborating with teams and attending in-person meetings.

Activity-based working provides the adaptability desired by employees and required by businesses. There are other vital benefits activity-based working brings too, including the following:

Activity-based working can increase productivity
In a survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 34% of respondents said a lack of workday flexibility makes it harder to be productive.

Among these employees, the key ask was for more workday flexibility to determine their working environments — both inside and outside the office. In fact, the same study found that in-office flexibility is a key element to improve productivity.

Activity-based working offers just this type of in-office flexibility, enabling employees to choose their own working environment depending on their workday task. And if executed correctly, activity-based working also segments out quiet individual workspaces from social collaborative spaces and dedicated meeting rooms.

In doing so, it grants employees spaces to do their best work, whatever that work might be. Case in point: In a survey from Skanska and JLL, almost 80% of office workers said their productivity was dependent on if they had a quiet and private space to work.

Activity-based working can improve employee satisfaction
In a Hana survey, we discovered the biggest motivator for going to the office is to get work done — and employees value workspaces, amenities and services that make the workday more efficient and productive.

Activity-based workspaces offer exactly this trifecta, offering well-designed workspaces, productive amenities (including cafe space) and helpful services such as technology and hospitality assistance.

But it also gives employees the ability to choose where and how they work.

In a survey from Steelcase, 88% of highly engaged employees said they valued having the option to choose where and how they work based on the specific work they needed to do.

That includes working outside the office, which is something that activity-based working explicitly recognizes in its embrace of flexibility.

Activity-based working can decrease real estate costs
Earlier, we referenced how the Dutch insurance giant Interpolis embraced activity-based working — in 1996. In doing so, they were able to minimize their office space from two buildings to one building.

Part of this stemmed from their realization that the entire building could be turned into a workspace instead of just dedicated spaces.

The same is true for companies today. Cafeterias can be turned into effective workspaces, lobbies can be outfitted with seating and coffee machines to encourage work or impromptu meetings with guests … the list goes on.

But it goes further, too. Under today’s regulations in the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), companies are required to list office and furniture leases as assets and liabilities on financial disclosures.

Companies face pressure to maximize their real-estate investments by utilizing as much space as possible for employees to use. Under an activity-based working model, companies are able to turn any part of the office into a place for work.

That can lead to savings — and better designed offices spaces that do away with decorative and impractical areas.

Why Post-COVID-19 Workspaces will Prioritize Activity-Based Working

In a recent Hana survey of 1,600+ U.S. and U.K. office workers impacted by COVID-19, we found that 54% of employees want the flexibility to work from home and the office. Additionally, a second survey by Hana found that almost 30% of office workers value having the flexibility to work in different places around the office.

This isn’t surprising. Flexibility — both to work outside the office and in different places around the office — has been a long sought perk amongst employees. COVID-19 has turned it into a reality for many employees over the past year, and they expect to keep it after the pandemic passes.

For businesses, this means rethinking workplace policies and extending flexible work benefits past the COVID-19 crisis.

But it also means rethinking how to best leverage office space and create workplace settings that employees will embrace upon their eventual return.

For some, that means adopting a hub-and-spoke model and offering suburban employees nearby flexible office space to leverage to minimize commuting times. For others, it means reorienting office space to augment the workday tasks people can’t accomplish remotely.

Surveys show that people want to return to the office for specific functions — chief among them in-person meetings, connecting with colleagues and collaborating with coworkers. They also want a place to work outside the home that offers quiet and private spaces — especially employees with children or roommates at home.

Activity-based working offers a design ethos that accommodates just these demands with workspaces built for individual and group work.

But more importantly, activity-based working signals a paradigm shift that enables companies and professionals to embrace flexibility; both the flexibility to work in different environments within the office and outside of it.

Take This With You

The office workspace is no longer a traditional, centralized place of business. Instead, the modern work environment gives employees the flexibility to choose where and how they do their work.

Activity-based workspaces like huddle rooms, pitch rooms, and other innovative spaces provide employees the choice of an environment that supports different tasks throughout the day. And activity-based working is beneficial for both employees and companies.

As companies continue to rethink workplace policies, real estate investments and office designs after COVID-19, expect to see flexibility become a central deciding driver — and activity-based working take a front seat.

Learn more about the importance people place on meaningful connection at the office in our latest report, COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility and meaningful connection.

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