Activity-Based Working: What It Is and Why It Matters

Activity-Based Working: What It Is and Why It Matters

The world got a sudden introduction to a non-optimal form of activity-based working when, in the spring of 2020, work in the office shifted to work from home, almost overnight. Suddenly, kitchens and bedrooms became offices and teleconference rooms, sharing space with remote schooling. Thousands of people were working in spaces not designed to accommodate their activity.

As companies bring workers back to the office post-COVID, understanding well-planned activity-based working, what it is, and why it matters could mean the difference between success and failure. Workers have leverage in the post-pandemic labor market, and they want flexibility in their working lives.

Many tech companies had already been leaders in providing activity-based working spaces. People often deride foosball tables, lounges, fitness rooms, quiet rooms, and snack bars as excessive perks for young tech workers. But as it turns out, they have a positive effect on worker morale, productivity, and company culture.

Office spaces that had to make physical alterations to address COVID safety protocols now have an opportunity to take a page from Silicon Valley’s book by incorporating activity-based working design in their offices.

What Is Activity-Based Working?

Simply put, activity-based working is a design and organizational concept that allows workers to choose the workspace environments that best match the type of work they’re doing at the moment. This means they can work from portable devices, moving from team-friendly environments like lounge spaces and conference rooms to quieter study-type areas for independent work requiring focus and concentration.

Activity-Based Working Is Employee Driven

Activity-based working requires a design that puts employee needs first: workers get to choose the type of environment they want to work in, and they’re free to move around as long as they meet productivity expectations.

This shifts the focus of workplace design from the employer to the employee and from hierarchical management (where top-down management assigns the way work gets done) to collaborative, interdepartmental, and interlevel co-working. With this model, teams and individuals can work together or individually in spaces that best help them complete their part of a project.

Sensory and Behavioral Cues

Activity-based workspaces must clearly telegraph their purposes. The moment an employee enters the space, the space should communicate the kind of activity that takes place there. A lunchroom looks and sounds like a café, while a study with individual workstation carrels looks like a library, and it’s quiet like one too. Phone booths provide privacy for phone and online video conversations.

The sensory experience of the space in an activity-based work environment provides reinforcement of behavioral expectations for the space. It even comes down to the smell of coffee, whether and what kind of music is playing, and how loud or quiet the space is.

However, in offices where nobody has an assigned desk, some employees can feel lost and left out. It’s critically important to adopt universal design principles that allow employees of all abilities to benefit from flexible space. Persons in wheelchairs should be able to access all the spaces of the building.

Everyone needs to be free of distractions sometimes. All workers need some privacy, a place to safely store their personal belongings, and a sense that they are noticed, valued, and appreciated for the work that they do. It shouldn’t matter where or when they choose to do it. No one should feel excluded from company culture simply because they prefer to work independently.

What About Recreational Space?

Just as deals get made on golf courses, work gets done at the foosball table, during a table tennis match, or in the game room. Initially, employers can be leery of providing flexible spaces that allow workers to choose to relax and re-energize during the day, assuming this would decrease productivity. Experience shows the opposite to be true.

Variety is the spice of life, and the monotony of sitting at the same desk, seeing the same people, and having the same perfunctory conversations every day can turn a workspace into an “Office Space” where employees do “just enough work not to get fired. “

Where workers have more autonomy to choose where, when, and next to whom they work, they’re more engaged, more creative, and more productive.

Health and Wellness

A company that provides unlimited free food but requires employees to clock eight hours a day at a computer workstation is going to end up with elevated health care costs from diseases related to sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles.

Employees know what’s good for them, but they don’t want to be coerced into healthy lifestyles. On-site gyms are great, but so is a walkable, invigorating, natural outside environment. Nearly everyone has gotten the message that sitting down for eight hours a day is unhealthy, but for some workers, prolonged standing is a health risk.

A flexible, activity-based workspace gives employees choices about when and whether to work at a standing desk or when to retreat to a private, quieter, seated workstation. It also enables them to choose what to eat and when and how to get some fresh air and exercise during the workday.

Design and Location Matter

Some design firms have developed specializations in activity-based working design. Coupled with the expertise of a professional site selection firm, the transition to an activity-based workspace will go more smoothly. These professionals will also show you how to get more use out of existing space, which can create cost savings.

Feedback Is Essential

Converting to an activity-based workspace environment from a traditional cube-farm, workstation, or individual office space is an iterative process. Creating a feedback loop to hear from workers about what they like and what they don’t like, then implementing improvements based on worker experience, is critical to success.

However, employee surveys and suggestions constitute a qualitative measure of the activity-based workplace’s success. Gathering solid quantitative data on results and how they change and evolve will help businesses see what’s working and what isn’t.

Trust and Transparency

Activity-based working, what it is, and why it matters might boil down to a single word: trust. Implementing activity-based working dilutes hierarchy and distributes leadership more broadly within an organization. Leadership takes a leap of faith when it adopts activity-based working because it involves a significant loosening of the reins and trusting employees to work when and where they want.

Reorganizing space, including taking away assigned desks and “corner offices,” is unsettling to more than leadership. It affects many people. It’s not just the change in where they choose to work, but the sense that the organization itself has changed in ways that aren’t yet understood.

That’s why it is critical for businesses to secure buy-in from employees and managers to make the flexible, activity-based workspace a success. Communicating that worker input is essential, but also that productivity is measurable, is key. Share data points that demonstrate success but also those that identify “opportunities for improvement.”

Workers with greater autonomy about choosing where, when, and how they work in an activity-based workplace will respond with creative solutions, innovative teamwork, and renewed energy.


Activity-Based Working: What It Is and Why It Matters