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28 Sep 2018

How activity based working is revolutionising the modern office

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Workplaces are constantly in flux as a matter of necessity, but is it time we transform the way we work based on activity rather than hierachy?

Workplace transformation is a key concept within many industries. In fact, one piece of research carried out by CBRE found that 86% of organisations were reinventing or adapting their workplace standards last year. While there are a number of transformation options that are gaining traction among those seeking out office design services, one of the most significant and important is the concept of activity based working (ABW). 

Essentially, the theory behind activity based working is that employees should have the ability to move between different work areas, which are set up to facilitate different kinds of activities. It is similar to the concept of agile working, although ABW set-ups tend to be slightly more rigid in terms of when and how employees complete their tasks. Nevertheless, the concept of movement between different spaces is the same. 

A key idea connected to activity based working is the belief that employees should not have a single assigned work station. Instead, businesses work with office space planning experts to create a number of different work areas, which each enable a certain kind of activity to take place. So, for example, there may be one area for concentrated work, one area for collaborative work, one area for meetings, and one area for 'accidental collisions'. 

One of the reasons for the rise of ABW has been a backlash against open-plan offices, which were, in turn, created as a means of combating the lack of collaboration generated through traditional cubicle layouts. 

"The real genius behind activity-based working is that it provides the best of both 'extremes' of office design," says Michael Moulton, in a blog post. "When tasks require collaboration – like designers working with copywriters on website changes – workstations exist to enhance those tasks' efficiency. If a task demands quiet, then spaces are available for solo work as well." 

An example of an office revolutionised by activity based working is Microsoft Netherlands' office in Amsterdam. As part of the design, the company did away with private offices, ensuring all employees are equal. It provides a variety of different workspaces and meeting rooms, as well as a coffee shop area, and allows employees to move around freely. As a by-product, the company has reduced real estate costs by 30% and boosted productivity. 

Research supports the use of activity based working designs as office space planning solutions. Indeed, Leesman carried out an in-depth study into ABW, The Rise and Rise of Activity Based Working, which concluded that "The data consistently supported industry claims that ABW increased staff collaboration, productivity, pride and effectiveness." With that being said, the study also found that there are significant challenges too. 

In total, 67% of employees working in ABW environments agreed that the design of their workplace encourages them to choose work settings that best suit their current task, while 82% agreed that the technology and infrastructure is in place for them to work in different locations throughout the office. Meanwhile, 81% felt their company culture enables this, and 70% agreed they have the right support and training. 

On the surface, these are encouraging statistics. However, it is worth noting that only 46% of employees agreed with all four statements. As a result of this, the study found that a substantial number of employees did not actually embrace the new way of working. This highlights the importance of making sure that office design services and internal procedures face up to these challenges and support adoption of activity based working. 

When collaborating with commercial interior designers to actually create a modern office design, which facilitates activity based working, one of the most crucial steps is to assess the needs of employees in terms of the types of space they need and how space will actually be used. For example, you need to gain an understanding of how often employees need to use a collaborative space, or a private space, and how many use these spaces at once. 

"People may be commuting 45 to 60 minutes (or more) to get to the office, and they are worried about travelling all that way and finding no desks available," explains Jo-Anne Mann, writing for Serraview. "To create an activity-based workplace design that actually works for your business, you need to understand how each specific group is currently using space. That means taking the time to gather actual utilisation information." 

Moreover, designs need to actually encourage people to move based on their task. For this reason, you cannot create a design where the collaborative spaces are so much higher in quality than private spaces that people do not want to move from them - or vice versa. At the same time, you need to ensure that the infrastructure and technology is in place to allow people to move, without compromising the quality of their work. 

When this occurs, and adoption of activity based working succeeds, the evidence shows that it can have a revolutionary impact on productivity, work quality, morale and teamwork or collaboration. 

With open plan offices facing increasing backlash, activity based working has emerged as one of the fastest growing design trends. As a result, many businesses are enlisting the help of commercial interior designers to help them create a workplace that facilitates greater flexibility in terms of where employees carry out their work. 

While there are challenges, such as ensuring that utilisation information is gathered and that the office design itself adequately encourages movement between spaces, research into the trend is promising. In companies where employees embrace activity based working and feel free to move to the space that best suits their current task, improvements are seen to happiness, productivity and the quality of the work being produced.

Reno Macri is a founder and director of Enigma Visual Solutions, a London based commercial interior designers specialising in office design services, office refurbishment, office interior design & office branding.

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