“Activity-based working” first appeared in Erik Veldhoen’s 1995 book, The Demise of the Office. Over the past few years, the concept has rapidly grown in popularity. Changing circumstances have called into question many aspects of the traditional workplace that we’ve taken for granted.
Activity-based working (ABW) is a workplace model that provides employees with different work environments for different types of work. Rather than giving each employee a single dedicated workstation, employers offer a variety of settings to choose from according to their immediate needs. Each space is optimized for certain kinds of tasks, rather than requiring any one workspace to serve all of an employee’s needs.
For example, you may have quiet, isolated spaces for focused independent work and collaborative areas for groups of various sizes to work together, plus café areas, meeting rooms, and workstations with specialized tools. The intent of activity-based working is that employees can change their environment and reserve different spaces as needed, working wherever they’re able to be most productive at a given time.
In some ways, activity-based working served as a precursor for the hybrid workplace, laying the foundation for a more fluid work environment with reservable spaces. But regardless of whether your workforce is fully in-person or a blend of in-person and virtual employees, activity-based working helps them find the spaces that best meet their needs.
Depending on the size of your workplace and how fully you embrace ABW, switching to this model could be as simple as optimizing the space you have with a different mindset. Or it could require a more significant investment—such as acquiring new real estate or making major renovations. Take Salesforce, for instance, which recently bought a 75-acre retreat that they plan to use for onboarding, training, meetings, and social bonding.
Transitioning to activity-based working could represent the next step forward in the evolution of your workplace. But it isn’t necessarily for everyone. Here are 10 pros and cons of activity-based working.
Pro: Increased employee satisfaction
Employees tend to find greater satisfaction in an activity-based working environment than in a traditional workplace. Instead of fighting against a non-ideal workspace—like trying to do deep thinking or take important calls in a loud open floor office—they can transition to a space that doesn’t create friction. In fact, a 2020 study by Veldhoen + Company found that, on average, employee satisfaction rose by 17% after companies switched to activity-based working.
Activity-based working gives employees a greater sense of autonomy. They’re free to decide where and how they work best, based on what they have to do on a given day. This helps them feel more trusted and supported.
In an era where workers are in high demand, flexibility can be a huge selling point for attracting talent. It can also increase retention, shaping loyal employees who stay with your organization for longer. Who wants to work in the same cubicle every day when they could experience a dynamic environment tailored to their needs?
Con: Decreased connection
Although activity-based working typically increases employee satisfaction, that doesn’t always hold true for every individual. Some folks find it harder to connect with others and develop meaningful relationships with colleagues when they don’t have an established workstation.
They may count on seeing and interacting with certain deskmates or team members every day. They might feel that it’s more difficult to find the help they need. Or they may be frustrated with seeking out people to work with or finding a space to work.
Before switching to an activity-based working model, it pays to have a good understanding of your existing employee base. You’ll need to gauge whether their individual temperaments and the overall workplace culture would make this a net positive change, and consider who would be negatively impacted.
Tango’s desk booking software, Tango Reserve by AgilQuest, can help alleviate this pain point by empowering team members to stay together in a changing work environment. Tango learns which employees prefer working together, what types of spaces they usually work in, then dynamically recommends spaces to reserve based on who’s in the office and where and when they’re working.
Pro: Increased productivity
Giving employees more autonomy to choose the environment that works for them not only tends to improve morale, but also improves their efficiency.
An employee may start their day in a quiet space to complete some focused work. Then they might switch to a brainstorming session in a communal area. And they could finish their day collaborating with a co-worker in a small office. Activity-based working allows them to seamlessly transition between spaces as needed.
The same Veldhoen + Company study mentioned above found that employees’ individual productivity increased by 13% after switching to activity-based working, and team productivity improved by 8%.
Another study, commissioned by Samsung, compared activity-based workers to those in more traditional workplaces. It found that the activity-based workers were 16% more productive on average than their counterparts.
Con: Hesitancy to change routines
The benefits of activity-based working come from employees actually embracing the model and moving from space to space as needed. But humans are creatures of habit. We develop routines, and sometimes we get stuck in them.
Even if employees don’t intentionally resist activity-based working, some will naturally use the same workstations every day, preventing you from fully utilizing your office space and decreasing their efficiency. Ideally, employees will actively participate in the flow of activity-based work, but that isn’t always the case.
It may be worth doing smaller-scale trial runs of activity-based work to learn how well your employees will actually take advantage of it before committing to a full-scale switch. You’ll also want to ensure you have the tools and processes in place to measure how space is being used.
Pro: Efficient use of space
In a traditional workplace environment, each employee has a desk or office that sits empty when they aren’t on site. You’re paying for that space whether it’s being used or not. With activity-based work, there are no dedicated workstations per employee. Each activity-optimized space is available to whichever employees need it.
When an employee is sick, on vacation, or working from home, their workstation or office is still typically unavailable to other employees—even if it’s an ideal place for them to get things done. But that’s no longer a problem with activity-based working, since workstations are created for activities—not individual employees.
Additionally, any space has the potential to become a productive workspace. A café area. A treadmill desk. A comfy couch. An office booth. Employees can use whatever space will best enable them to do their work at a given time.
Note: As mentioned above, some employees naturally feel more comfortable with dedicated workstations, so it’s worth evaluating the overall impact on employee satisfaction. Not having dedicated workstations also means you may need to find alternative storage solutions (like lockers) for employees to keep their things throughout the day.
Con: Constantly changing demand for space
Letting employees choose where they want to work is great—until they find out that the space they want is already taken. If there’s too much or too little demand for certain types of space, you’ll need to make some changes.
This is where real-time occupancy management becomes essential. Using Internet-of-things (IoT) sensors like LiDaR strips and blurred motion cameras, you can track exactly which spaces are being used at any given time. Our space management software, Tango Space, turns this data into a live floor plan, giving you better visibility into current utilization.
Combine this functionality with your reservation system, and you’ll be able to see which stations are consistently in high demand—so you can set up more of them. And if it turns out that some spaces are underutilized, you can reallocate them.
Pro: Reduced occupancy costs
Use your space more efficiently, and you don’t need as much of it. When Interpolis made the switch to ABW, they reduced their space requirements by 45%, decreasing their annual occupancy costs by 24 percent. And when AT&T embraced the combination of activity-based working and telework, they saved $15 million a year in real-estate costs.
By removing dedicated workstations and keeping up with changing demand for space, you can potentially decrease your real estate footprint, too.
Con: Upfront costs
Activity-based working is an investment. In the long run, you increase productivity and could even reduce your occupancy costs. But in the short run, it comes with some initial costs as you reconfigure your workplace.
In order to facilitate your new activity-based layout, you might need to replace desks, cubicles, furniture, and other office equipment. You may want to add office booths for quiet work. Treadmill desks to help stimulate creativity and deep thinking. Lockers or some other form of secure storage for employees to keep their belongings throughout the day. And you’ll need to invest in software and sensors for workspace optimization. Depending on the scope of your renovations, you might even need to plan and budget for more extensive capital projects in multiple locations.
Additionally, activity-based work is best when employees have access to mobile technology—laptops and tablets as opposed to desktops. If you’ve mostly been assigning desktops, then the better part of those computers may need to be replaced.
Pro: Improved health
The traditional workplace setup tends to promote sedentary behavior. Employees sit at their assigned desks and often stay there all day (with a few brief breaks). Prolonged physical inactivity is linked to a number of health complications, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Activity-based working won’t solve this problem entirely, but it can certainly help. With employees moving around throughout the day, they’ll be staying more active. Employees could also experience mental-health benefits since they aren’t dealing with the constant friction of trying to work in an unsuitable environment.
Some companies also include outdoor work spaces as a part of their model for activity-based work. This lets employees get more fresh air and sun, and it can help alleviate COVID-related concerns.
Con: Increased need for cleaning
Keeping a workspace clean has always been important, but never more so than with the pandemic. And since every workstation will potentially be used by multiple employees each day, staying on top of sanitization becomes critical.
Part of your strategy might include planning your furniture purchases around those that are easy to keep clean. Furniture with antimicrobial surfaces is a good option. Additionally, make sure employees have easy access to disinfecting wipes, and encourage them to wipe down the station they were using before moving on to another one or leaving for the day.
Space utilization data will also help determine which spaces have seen the most traffic on a given day. You can flag high-traffic areas so your cleaning crews know where to pay extra attention to detail.
Is activity-based working right for your workplace?
Activity-based working has a lot going for it, but it isn’t the best model for every workplace. It ultimately depends on your industry and your unique employee population. You may find that for most tasks, your employees really only need one type of space. Maybe their space needs vary widely by department. Or perhaps your employees are already waiting for you to make the switch.
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