The Benefits and Challenges of an Activity-Based Working Environment

Coined in 1996 by Erik Veldhoen, author of the book The Demise of the Office, the concept of activity-based working (ABW) refers to a workplace strategy that provides workers with a choice of settings for various workplace activities. Instead of forcing individuals to perform all their tasks at one setting, ABW allows people to choose from a variety of settings the one that best suits their specific task.

It’s important not to mistake ABW with hot-desking, an office organization system which involves multiple workers using a single physical work station or surface during different time periods, or working from home programs. While ABW does share a number of features with these workplace strategies and others, it essentially focuses on streamlining the worker’s experience in the office environment.

Lately, more and more organizations are turning to ABW solutions in response to the new trends directly impacting the workplace. Sustainability, the need to reduce real estate costs, technological innovation, globalization, and management culture are some of the most important drivers of this change. Instead of giving everyone a desk that lies empty for the majority of the day, activity-based working proposes a hybrid environment that provides people with shared spaces and amenities.

What Are Its Benefits?

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Fosters innovation by eliminating ‘locked’ areas. Traditional work environments consisting of private offices, cubicles, and closed meeting rooms make it difficult for individuals to find new experiences and get to know new people. In an ABW environment, spaces are designed to create opportunities for focused work and meaningful collaborations. Creativity often sparks from impromptu discussions with people with different experiences and knowledge, and such a free workplace encourages the sharing of information.

Accommodates diversity of personal and professional preferences. The new generation of workers has a drastically different perspective on what they expect from their employer and office environment. Among GenY and Millennials, there is currently the least tolerance for an environment and management approach that doesn’t align with their expectations and perspective of innovation, flexibility, and autonomy.  Now more than ever, people want to be who they are, and the work environment serves only as a tool for self-actualization.

Supports employee wellbeing by encouraging movement. Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of a traditional work environment with assigned seating is the static work employees must perform, which often leads to chronic pain and severe health problems. In a work environment that intrinsically promotes movement and eliminates fixed workstations, this problem is solved. Stepping out of their chair more often, shifting work positions, and taking regular breaks will not only boost employee health and energy, but also increase their level of work performance.

What Are Its Challenges?

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Can meet resistance from workers. One of the greatest challenges in an ABW change management program focuses around non-assigned seating. Some employees will have a hard time giving up their personal space, while others might feel frustrated of having to pack up the desk at the end of each working day. The fear of not being seen in the office and territorial concerns associated with hierarchy may add to the mix and have the potential of alienating the workforce if not properly managed. To make the transition smoother and help workers come to terms with the concept of non-assigned seating, office managers should first introduce the concept of team zones, which are places where specific teams will reside. Such zone can act as the first contact point when trying to locate a team member.

Requires a higher level of trust from leaders. Implementing an ABW environment requires leaders to have a higher degree of trust in their employees and settle for less visibility. New communication and control methods must be established to ensure everyone is informed about project objectives and has all the tools necessary to achieve them. Since an activity-based working strategy creates a setting where people have more means to indulge their personal preferences and work styles, it’s essential for leaders to review their approach in order to make room for this greater diversity.

The transition from ‘me-to-we’ requires increased training. Because the relationship between the manager and the worker changes in an activity-based working environment, training is required to support this shift. Employees must remain empowered and engaged, both professionally and socially. A sense of belonging must be cultivated, while also promoting stronger connections between workers. On the other hand, leaders must be taught to acknowledge that employees may exhibit emotional reactions to their physical environment and understand the importance of addressing each resistor in particular.

Moving to an activity-based working environment is not only an interior design project, but a radical transformation requiring knowledge and experience. To ensure your future space will be cost-effective, attractive, and connected, contact an experienced office space planner and discuss the options that suit your business best.

About the Author Lynne Lemieux

Lynne Lemieux, Founder and President of Alliance Interiors Inc., has devoted more than 20 years of experience developing and implementing growth opportunities for some of Canada's leading office furniture dealers. Her ability to provide clients with inspiring and versatile interior solutions for both business and home office environments has garnered her title of Aboriginal Business Woman of the Year in the city of Toronto for 2012. In her spare time, Lynne takes an active interest in politics, public speaking, and philanthropy, but also enjoys gardening, interior decorating, cooking, yoga, and traveling.

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