Productivity is personal. Your employees perform at their best when you empower them to work when, where, and how they want.
Implementing an activity-based workplace allows employees to choose the kind of work environment they need based on the type of work they’re performing and their preferred work style.
What is an activity-based workplace?
Coined by Erik Veldhoen in his 1995 book, The Demise of the Office, Activity-based working (ABW) encourages a work style that allows employees to choose from a variety of space types that support different tasks and empowers them to utilize those spaces throughout the workday. An activity-based workplace provides flexible work settings for:
- group work
- brainstorming meetings
- heads-down work
Inside an activity-based workplace, you’re likely to find an office design that includes soft-seating, reservable desks, conference rooms, pods (or phone booths), and cafes (to name a few space types).
An activity-based workplace evolves from the outdated working model where everyone had assigned desks and instead provides a workplace design based on activity settings.
While these are standard space types of an activity-based working model, they’re not a mandated part of your office layout. You have to choose which spaces (and how much of each space) are best for your team. And, what’s best for your team today may not be the case six months from now, which is why informed agility is a critical component of an activity-based workplace.
Informed agility means using data to make real-time decisions. At the foundation of this informed agility is the feedback loop.
Creating a feedback loop
You can (and should) create a feedback loop through both qualitative and quantitative data. Qualitative data provides context from the employee’s perspective.
“If people understand that you’re actually listening to them, there is a trust that is formed,” says Omar Ramirez (formerly the Senior Program Manager of Workplace R&D at Atlassian). “Then, they are more likely to give you more feedback — and that creates more data for you to work with.”
But qualitative data can be unreliable or misleading — particularly following something so cataclysmal as a pandemic.
The emotions you feel when taking any survey don’t often correlate with the behavior patterns you unknowingly showcase.
For example, remote work has proven both popular and effective. But many employees can’t wait to get back to the office for some work/life separation. However, these employees may want to choose where and when they come to the office on any given day. An employee survey won’t capture these nuances and the spaces they actually use day to day.
No matter what they say on an employee survey, people will always vote with their feet for the spaces they prefer.
Successful activity-based workplaces find a balance between these different data points. They gather clear and indisputable space utilization metrics and add context through employee feedback. They then implement those findings to improve the workspace based on how space is actually used.
ABW use cases
A perk of the activity-based workplace is it can look and feel however is best for your team and make your existing real estate work for you. That said, ABW spaces can be categorized into three use cases: informal collaborations, formal collaborations, and head-down work.
Below, we break down each use case to help you understand what answers you need to ensure each space — and your work areas as a whole — are designed for an efficient yet rewarding employee experience.
Spaces: Soft-seating, cafeterias, lounges
Activity: Huddles, brainstorms, and quick syncs. Casual collisions, impromptu meetings, and cross-department collaboration
What data can uncover
- Are these the types of spaces drawing people into the office? Most work can be done from home, potentially limiting the volume of informal collaborations in-office. But spontaneity is a critical component of creativity. Do employees come to the office because these spaces make it easier to feel connected with colleagues?
- If so, which spaces, in particular, get the most use? Knowing this can determine which space types to remove, which to expand, and which might need signage. One workplace manager, for example, told us how no one used soft-seating outside of a conference room. When he dug deeper, he discovered no one knew why those soft seats were there. Signage helped.
- How does reconfiguring these spaces impact utilization? A/B testing is at the heart of the new workplace. The more you test, the closer you get to the truth. If a cafe with stand-up desks has high occupancy levels, replicate that design elsewhere. How does this impact utilization across both spaces? If couches outside conference rooms get little use, try relocating these seats elsewhere.
Spaces: Conference and meeting rooms, shared spaces
Activity: Group work, presentations, and detailed planning
What data can uncover
- Is this space being used the way it was designed for? It’s always surprising to find out just how frequently a meeting room is misused. One of our customers, for example, used Density data to discover that her 10-person meeting room was primarily used by one person at a time. This data helped her choose not to expand her footprint. She reconfigured her existing footplate instead.
- What’s the optimal size we should make our conference rooms? Data will help you determine how frequently your meeting rooms are used and by how many people at any given time. But beware of where you turn to for this data. We know one global company, for example, that used Google Calendar data to determine meeting room utilization. But Google Calendar only tells you how many people were invited; it doesn’t tell you who actually showed up and for how long. Another company required one person to swipe in before every meeting to acknowledge the meeting took place. But that doesn’t tell you how many people actually showed up. There is always a bit of disparity between who is physically present for meetings vs. who is shown on the calendar invite.
That’s a thing we’ve been trying to solve recently by working with Density. Who is physically present for meetings vs. who is shown on the calendar invite?” — Omar Ramirez, Atlassian
Spaces: Reservable pods, phone booths, and workstations
Activity: Focused work, admin work, individual work
What data can uncover
- Are these desks available now, or are they currently occupied? Reservable desks have the same data issues as meeting rooms — just because someone reserves a desk doesn’t mean they’re using it. They might not have come to the office. They might be in meetings. Knowing how often your desks are used will help you determine how best to design your space (it also helps you better understand when to sanitize workstations).
- How long is the average dwell time and peak occupancy for desks? Gathering this data will help you understand and adapt to use patterns. Do you need 15 workstations throughout the day? Should you encourage more people to work from home to maintain your ideal occupancy level? Is human load balancing required (by reassigning teams to different floors or staggering schedules)?
- Do we still need all these desks? How many should we take out? Twilio is undergoing this type of transformation now. Up to 30% of its office space located across the globe — previously dedicated to assigned seating — could eventually make way for hackable scrum spaces (spaces where employees can reconfigure the furniture as needed). But Twilio’s workplace team isn’t relying on hunches to make this type of widespread change.
- “We’re going to beta this in a few of the larger offices,” says Devorah Rosner, Sr. Manager of Global Workplace Operations of Twilio, “to model it, to test it, to measure it, and to see how our spaces are actually being used, not how we think they’re going to be used.”
- Twilio’s approach is an interesting take on ABW. Most activity-based workplaces design environments that employees move to based on their needs. With Twilio’s dynamic spaces, employees can change their current office environment to meet their needs.
Not a solution for all
Activity-based working might not be for everyone. Some companies might choose to follow Dropbox’s lead and convert every office into meeting spaces. Heads-down work can be done at home, in other words.
Other companies want the office to continue to play an integral part of the workplace experience. They still see value in those water cooler and stairwell conversations. They value how a physical space can help employees feel connected and proud of the work they do.
“Our workplace is an amplifier of our culture and our brand. It’s a brand statement.” — Peter Van Emburgh, CBRE
Regardless of whether you employ ABW as a way of working in your office, there’s no denying that the purpose of the workplace is changing. Employees don’t have to come to the office to be productive. Workplace managers need to be agile in how they design their spaces to maintain efficiency and a positive workplace experience.
Qualitative and quantitative data help you identify which spaces are working and which are not so that you can design even better spaces in the future.