Activity-Based Working Nurtures Mobility, Looks to Homes for Office Design

As companies worldwide begin stepping away from the pure open office design, more investigate activity-based working.

The decline of the open office appears to be accelerating, at least for forward-thinking companies. What comes next likely will involve looking back.

Dutch consultant Erik Veldhoen published the book The Art of Working in 2004 after several years of experimenting with a fresh conceptualization of the office. Among other things, Veldhoen believed historic philosophical underpinnings of office design — scientifically optimizing productivity for as little expense as possible — were corrupt.

Offices propelled people into unnatural environments: cubicles, private desks in large spaces, little “break rooms” with microwaves and refrigerators, bright overhead fluorescent light. These offices did nothing to promote human companionship, collaboration, creativity or pleasure. They discouraged walking around and essentially demanded sitting down, which is not ideal for the world’s most accomplished bipedal animal.

With traditional offices, it was easy enough to achieve cost-savings, and productivity could be incrementally improved for awhile. But by ignoring more organic human experiences, offices failed to nurture transformative productivity and creativity.

Activity-Based Working Is Rooted in Flexibility

Activity-based working wasn’t necessarily new when Veldhoen published his book. But he coined the term and proposed a new way of thinking about the office. Instead of a factory, he considered people’s homes, where different rooms, like kitchens, bedrooms and garages, involved varied activities. An office, he thought, should not be a vast, roughly uniform space persuading everybody to do the same thing all day. It should invite different experiences — quiet, pleasing rooms for concentrated working; spaces that promote collaborative work; layouts that support walking; natural light; and so on.

It’s an approach increasingly more companies around the world are embracing, regardless of whether they refer to it as ABW.

“People like to have freedom, it’s human nature,” said Luc Kamperman, president of Veldhoen + Company, a leading international office environment consultancy. “They like to feel empowered. But what we are doing in these transformational journeys is unlearning. We have to unlearn certain habits. Why are things like the personal desk in place? Are they beneficial? People often think about what they are giving up, but they should be thinking about what they are gaining.”

Kamperman has been consulting companies worldwide about ABW for nine years. When he started, it was novel. But now, his company is booming. He is a true believer in activity-based working, but he fears it could turn into a fad.

“It’s a way of thinking,” he said. “Offices will change over time. Technology will change. But the questions behind the core thinking — What is it we are trying to achieve? How do we want to relate to one another? What activities will make us more successful? — remain the same.”

He also believes the press about the “end of the open office” is overwrought.

“It’s not an open or enclosed situation,” he said. “You need both. They support different activities.”

Activity-Based Working Research Uncovers Value for Companies and Employees

Even though the formal conception of ABW is less than 20 years old, it has attracted research worldwide. And so far, the results are promising.

Lina Engelen, a research fellow at the University of Sydney School of Public Health, has been researching ABW for several years and believes if done properly, it works for businesses. But its success revolves around three things: people, place and technology.

“If you don’t have the technology, you can’t do it,” she says. “If the office culture doesn’t support it, it doesn’t work. And if people are talking loudly in areas designed for quiet work, it undermines the approach.”

In one 2018 study conducted by Engelen called The Impact of Activity Based Working on Workplace Activity, Eating Behaviours, Productivity and Satisfaction, she found that ABW “has positive merits in the areas of interaction, communications, control of time, and space and satisfaction with the workplace.” At the same time, however, the study cautioned that concentration and privacy are areas where ABW needs more attention.

Engelen believes that management buy-in is essential. When ABW is imposed on the workforce without solicitations for input, it can struggle. And if managers still have private offices with doors, it sends the wrong message. Her research found that the elimination of personal desks and other office equipment — one of several ABW hallmarks — is the kind of switch that needs prep-work by management.

“For many people, change is scary. They need to be taken on a journey,” says Engelen. “If management just says we are moving, here is what it looks like, get used to it, that’s setting up failure. If the model involves no fixed desks, no filing cabinets, none of the things they’ve become used to in office settings, that amounts to massive change. It needs to be a collaborative process.”

Australia happens to be one of the leaders, and Australian academics like Engelen are conducting myriad studies into its benefits and challenges. Whether it’s called ABW or not, it increasingly is becoming part of the conversation around office design in the United States and elsewhere, as companies search for ways to deconstruct the pure open office and replace it with something healthier.

For people today working in former open offices that now sport cafes, libraries, stand-up desks and ambitious kitchens, they at least in part can thank the ABW movement for office evolution.