Activity Based Working: What HR Professionals Need to Know

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Activity Based Working: What HR Professionals Need to Know

As companies are trying to strike a balance between remote work and the office, activity-based working could emerge as one of the solutions. In this article, we take a closer look at activity-based working. What is it, what are its benefits and drawbacks, and what best practices can help you get started? Here goes!

Contents
What is activity-based working (ABW)?
Pros of ABW
Cons of activity-based working
ABW best practices
Wrapping-up
FAQ

What is Activity-Based Working (ABW)?

The concept of activity-based working (ABW) evolves around the idea of giving people the possibility to do their work tasks in a setting that is fully optimized to do that specific activity. Examples of such a setting are silent zones, collaboration zones, learning zones, social zones, etc.

ABW is about connecting work activities with an environment that supports or even improves those tasks. It often goes hand in hand with hot desking, a workplace strategy where some or all employees share desks instead of having an assigned one.

The reasons for implementing activity-based working include reducing overhead costs, saving space, and increasing flexibility in office use (Appel-Meulenbroek, Groenen, and Janssen 2011, de Been and Beijer 2014, Brunnberg 2000). As of 2020, another reason might be complying with COVID-related, government-imposed, workplace regulation.  

Benefits of ABW

Let’s start with some of the benefits of activity-based working.

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  • Perfect for the post-COVID workplace. Combined with working from home, ABW could become the ideal workplace concept in a post-COVID world. After all, people get to choose where they want to work that day, depending on the specific task they want to achieve. This allows companies to reduce the number of employees that are in the office at the same time, something that in many countries has become mandatory as a result of the global health crisis.
    It also enables organizations to, at least for now, stay in the same building rather than having to look for office space that is two, three, or even four times bigger just to comply with the new rules.
  • Appealing to candidates and employees. Flextime gives people the possibility to decide, to a certain extent, about their working hours and the location they want to work from. It’s an employee benefit that is becoming more and more popular. Candidates, especially from younger generations like Gen Y and Z, and employees appreciate being able to work from anywhere and having the liberty to choose whether or not they want to come into the office.
    An ABW set-up, in combination with a work from home policy can, therefore, give you a competitive recruiting advantage and also have a positive impact on your employee retention.
  • More communication and knowledge exchange. Research done by the Center for People and Buildings (part of the Delft University of Technology) found that people in an ABW office environment experienced more communication and knowledge exchange in general. Coincidental meetings with colleagues and greater interaction between different departments were also cited.
  • Efficient use of office space. An ABW office set-up can lead to a more efficient use of the workspace. Rather than having assigned desks that remain empty a couple of days a week – for instance when people work from home – other employees who are in the office on those days can use them.
  • Fewer costs. Together with a work from home arrangement for employees, activity-based working enables organizations to lower the number of work stations they need. This has several advantages: it probably reduces the size of the office you need, which, in turn, lowers the rent. It also lowers the amount of money being spend on unused desks and facilities, and it cuts down your utility bills.
  • Increased productivity. We’ve put this one last because opinions differ when it comes to whether or not ABW boosts employee productivity. For Microsoft’s Amsterdam office it did. In 2008, they redesigned Microsoft NL around activity-based working. On the first floor, they built a communal workspace for staff and visitors, teamwork benches, individual workspaces, meeting rooms, and two auditoriums. They also added a coffee shop, indoor and outdoor dining areas, lounges, and sleep pods. Employees are guided through the different work zones by a playful ceiling runner. The office’s other five floors have a mix of open and enclosed spaces. The result? A 25% productivity gain (and a 30% drop in real-estate costs).
Activity-based working set-up

Drawbacks of activity-based working

Several (case) studies have been done into the effects of ABW. Here are some of the drawbacks that were identified.

  • Humans like their routines. While the idea is for employees to change settings depending on their activity, it turns out that in reality, we like to return to the same spot. Unsurprisingly, we human beings, we like our habits. Another reason for this behavior is the fact that people often have more affinity or connection with one colleague than with another. As a result, they like to sit together – in the same area. 
    While there is nothing against people wanting to sit close to a colleague they get along with, it does undermine one of the ideas related to ABW; connecting tasks with optimized settings – and creating opportunities to connect more with different colleagues.   
  • Noise. If you’re working in a ‘silent zone’ and a co-worker starts to make a phone call this will distract you and eventually cause some unnecessary stress. The same thing goes when people are constantly passing by because the restrooms or coffee machines happen to be just next to the zone that is meant to be for people who need to concentrate. But even in collaboration zones, people can find other teams too loud or distracting.
  • A lack of connection. While the idea of ABW is that it will lead to more spontaneous collaboration between people, reality shows that this isn’t always the case. There are several reasons for this. People see less of each other in real life because they don’t go into the office as much, and when they do go into the office chances are they won’t run into their team members or other people they often work with.
    Another reason why people don’t necessarily connect as much as they could is the fact that people quite often wear headphones when they’re in the office, especially if they’re working on something that requires them to concentrate. While there is a purely professional motivation behind the ‘earphones mode’, it does have a tendency to ‘scare’ other people away and prevent them from approaching their colleagues. 
  • The quest for colleagues and work stations. There are two sides to everything. Yes, ABW can give co-working and interaction with different people a boost. At the same time, research shows that an ABW set-up can also make it more difficult for people to find a colleague they need, their team members, or someone from support, for instance. And yes, having no assigned desks can help in optimizing the office space. However, it can also create situations where people lose precious time searching for a work station or teams wasting time looking for enough available space to have a co-creation session.

ABW best practices

Let’s take a look at a few best practices that can help you minimize the cons of activity-based working and make the most out of this workplace strategy instead. Morgan Lovell has put together a detailed, step-by-step guide to implement ABW (which I highly recommend you take a look at) from which we’ve distilled the following best practices.

1. Prepare

For many organizations, introducing activity-based working will be quite a culture change from how they were operating before. This is why it’s important to gather information (data) on, among other things:

  • Your organization goals (do you want to improve collaboration or is innovation more important for instance)
  • How is the office space currently being (un) used?
  • Ask stakeholders what they think
  • Hold staff surveys

We already mentioned that people like their habits so when you go from a ‘classic’ way of working to ABW, naturally some employees will be concerned. Assess what concerns your people have before you introduce activity-based working so you know how to address their worries. Typical fears include:

  • Fear of change
  • Loss of identity
  • Old and faulty IT

As with any big change and the investment that comes with it, you’ll need to build a business case for activity-based working to convince people. This is not just to get senior managers on board, but also employees. Elements to include in your business case can be:

  • Cost per square foot and per employee
  • Accomodating future growth
  • Improving recruitment and retention
  • Lower energy consumption

2. Build a team

Perhaps this one comes even before you start gathering data, but in any case it goes without saying that you need a great team to make sure your ABW project will be a success. The team should consist of:

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  • A project manager, preferably someone senior from, for instance, HR or finance
  • A mix of people from various departments within the company (the ‘internal team’), ranging from the organization’s CEO or managing director to HR, property teams, IT, finance, line managers, and PAs. In some countries, depending on the legislation, it may also be required to involve a union representative since switching to activity-based working can be considered a big organizational change.
  • Very large companies may have the necessary experts in-house, but most organizations will need to bring in some external experts to make sure everything goes well. Think of a workplace strategy consultant (with competencies and previous experience in data collection, interior design, change management, ABW business cases, etc.), a designer, and a company that can do the actual building.

3. Define the essentials

When it comes to activity-based working, there are a lot of topics that need to be addressed – and defined – before the project kicks off. Think of:

  • The budget. An obvious one, but important nevertheless. This should include staff survey costs, design costs, budget for a workplace strategy consultant, etc.
  • Technology. The successful implementation of ABW relies on strong technology. Check if your Wifi, laptops, cloud systems, video conferencing tools and other tools employees use are flexible and efficient enough or if they need an upgrade.
  • Heating, lighting, and ventilation needs.
  • Policy changes. Activity-based working is more than a simple office makeover. It involves a change in existing work practices. As such, it will require various company policy changes These include HR policies, working from home policies, IT policies, office rules, and more.

4. Design is key

When the idea of ABW is to have different zones to support different work activities in the best possible way, it should be no surprise that the design of the workspace is crucial. While you’ll probably have an expert designer and/or workplace strategy consultant taking care of the design, we’ll highlight some design-related elements to take into account:

  • Space audit. Make sure you evaluate your spatial needs (how many people do you need to accommodate, who can be flexible and who needs to be in the office more, etc.)
  • Storage. You’ll probably need much less physical storage space in an ABW set-up, but what kind of storage do you still need?
  • Furniture. Furniture plays an important role in activity-based working and, therefore, requires some thought. A collaborative area will have different furniture than a quiet zone or a phone boot.

5. Plan the roll-out

You don’t go into an activity-based working set-up overnight, that much is clear. Even though the project takes some time, it’s good to keep the delivery – in other words, the finish line – in mind and to prepare for it as much as possible. Things to keep in mind are:

  • Key stakeholder schedules. To avoid interrupting them during their holiday because they need to sign-off on something…
  • Moving. How will you go about the actual move? And if you’re not moving offices, how will you manage the fit out works while people need to work at the same time?
  • Deadlines. Do set some deadlines at the start of the project to help things stay on track throughout.
  • Communicate and train. To avoid some of the cons of ABW, it’s good to communicate with your employees as soon as the decision about activity-based working has been made. Organize a couple of training sessions too so that people understand this new way of working and everyone can make the most out of it. Topics could include a clear explanation of the different work settings and their specific rules, IT security, collaboration tools, and the new office etiquette.

Wrapping-up

Activity-based working, as every workplace strategy, has its benefits and drawbacks. When well-planned and implemented though, the former will outweigh the latter. Because not only does ABW allow companies to strike a balance between remote work and the office, it also helps them to stay more flexible and adapt if circumstances suddenly change. On top of that, it meets both candidate and employee expectations in terms of flexible working.

FAQ

What is activity based working (ABW)?

The concept of activity based working (ABW) evolves around the idea of giving people the possibility to do a work-related activity in a setting that is fully optimized to do that specific activity. Examples of such a setting are silent zones, collaboration zones, learning zones, social zones, etc.

What are the benefits of activity based working?

Benefits of activity-based working include a more efficient use of office space, more communication and knowledge exchange, better recruitment and retention numbers, and fewer costs.

What are the drawbacks of ABW?

Drawbacks of ABW include a lack of connection, people searching for work stations and colleagues, noise, and people not switching work stations but returning to the same spot most of the time.

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