The essential guide to activity-based working

Employees today want more flexibility, autonomy, and the ability to choose when and where they work. Learn how activity-based working can help employees and employers

Space is a powerful tool to foster engagement, inspire innovation, and drive productivity. But what exactly does an optimal space look like? In the Science of Space, we explore how the science of intentional design can turn any work environment into a holistic experience.

Thanks to technology, the traditional working model, in which everyone has an assigned desk, has been steadily eroding. In its place: workplaces that have a variety of space types, ranging from lounges that resemble living rooms to collaboration areas with writable surfaces for brainstorming, to phone booths for private calls. Welcome to activity-based working.

Activity-based working (ABW), defined

Activity-based working is a work style that allows employees to choose from a variety of settings according to the nature of what they are doing, combined with a workplace experience that empowers them to use those spaces throughout the day. The idea is that employees will be more productive when they have the right spaces for the tasks they need to accomplish. Think about it: Today, everything is “on-demand,” from TV shows to food, music to travel. Shouldn’t workspaces be as well? To step into the future of work, workspaces themselves should be treated like living, breathing organisms that adapt to accommodate employees’ needs. 

The four defining elements of ABW

ABW isn’t just about adding couches and phone booths to a workplace. For ABW to exist in a company, four elements must be present: design, sensory experience, behavioral reinforcement, and iterative learning.

  1. Design. An ABW workspace is designed with a variety of space types under one roof.  Need a space for heads-down work? Take a desk in the study, where everyone can go to focus in silence as frequently as they need or want. Have to host a client meeting in a large conference room? Book one for your group instantly. Want to collaborate with a team over lunch? Gather them in a restaurant-style booth. How about a quick call with a colleague? Duck into a phone booth. Whatever the activity, there’s a corresponding space type, ready and waiting.

  2. Sensory experience. ABW spaces need to provide employees with explicit and implicit cues about how to use a space. Whether they need to access high- or low-energy space for the type of work they’re doing, employees should be able to easily gauge which space is right for them in the moment. Let’s take the kitchen area at WeWork as an example of a high-energy space. Upon walking in, you smell freshly brewed coffee, hear music playing over the speakers, and feel the energy of others in the space. These elements draw people in and make them feel welcome to pour a cup of coffee and chat with colleagues. On the other end of the energy spectrum, the study in our WeWork New York headquarters is quiet from the moment you walk in, providing you with enough mental space to focus on your next pitch deck or design project. In this way, different environmental elements provide unique cues and act as an overlay on the physical design, inherently sharing how to use each space differently.

  3. Behavioral reinforcement. With optimal ABW design and sensory cues, the space itself works best when people are aware of its expectations: Being quiet in the study, using phone booths for calls, bringing personal belongings with them to allow others use of a space, and feeling empowered by their teams and people leaders to use the space as it suits them and the work at hand. No amount of free coffee will encourage a team to have a meeting in the kitchen if their leaders frown on them being away from their desks. 

  4. Iterative learning. Employees are truly empowered to  adopt a new work style such as ABW when company leaders fully embrace the change in mindset, combined with the design, behaviors, and programming of an ever-evolving workplace. When leaders are committed to  creating a feedback loop through qualitative and quantitative data, and implementing those findings to improve the workspace, they’re helping to ensure their ABW space will be a success.

The origin of activity-based work 

While ABW is a natural fit with our on-demand culture, the concept is not exactly new. It all officially started with Robert Luchetti, an American architect who, by 1983, had co-invented the idea of creating “activity settings” for a variety of office tasks, such as typing or conducting meetings. While ABW didn’t quite take off in America at the time, countries like Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden adopted it more readily.

The term “activity-based working” was coined in The Art of Working by Dutch consultant Erik Veldhoen (Veldhoen + Co.), who also wrote, The Demise of the Office. In the 1990s, Veldhoen + Co. partnered with Interpolis, one of the biggest insurance companies in the Netherlands, to implement activity-based working throughout their offices. After understanding the true flexibility and freedom it afforded their employees, Interpolis leaned all the way in: They got rid of fixed desks and encouraged managers to give employees complete autonomy to choose when and where they worked, and for how long.

The flexible nature of the new Interpolis workspace permeated the company’s culture. Employees didn’t have to clock in and out or feel pressure to sit or stand in one place all day. The motto of the company: “As long as the work gets done.” 

“Today’s most effective management styles are built on trust and autonomy rather than on command and control. Physical space, then, can reinforce or contradict these efforts,” says my colleague Claire Rowell, senior lead of applied research and cultureOS at WeWork. “For example, if your employees feel pressure to sit or stand in one location all day, every day, they may start to wonder, “Does my employer value me based on my performance or my presence in the office?” 

This way of working is very different from a traditional workplace. “Traditional” could mean cube-farm to some; to others, it could mean open-plan desks—but in any case, it means “inflexibility.” “The traditional office layout no longer makes sense,” says Rowell. “Employees perform at their best when companies empower them to work when, where, and how they want to.”

This is why 45 percent of real estate executives anticipate migrating to an activity-based workspace curated for employee effectiveness and future design flexibility, according to the CBRE Americas Occupier Survey 2018.

Going from traditional to ABW requires a change in mindset

ABW challenges company leaders to ask: “What do people, regardless of their job title and expertise, need?” Then, they need to trust and empower their employees to use whichever spaces they see fit for as long as they need. To get to that point, many companies need to make a cultural shift.

“The biggest stumbling block we have is getting people out of the mindset of the traditional work culture they’ve experienced in the past,” says Luigi Sciabarrasi, senior vice president and global real estate lead at AECOM, a multinational firm that designs, builds, finances, and operates infrastructure assets for governments, businesses, and organizations. 

Getting everyone on board with a new work style, or any flexible work environment, requires a combination of education, IT investment, and employee input. AECOM uses pre-project surveys to find out how employees work and which tools they need and don’t have in order to continually listen and improve their offerings.

The power of changing mindset and spatial design together

With ABW, shifting mindsets is a crucial part of change. As such, responsibility for adapting to a changing workplace has been placed mainly on the people within the space itself. However, it’s important to note that success in the workplace of the future hinges on a balance of people and space adapting and evolving together. Rather than seeing space as static, or unchanging, the opportunity lies in seeing it as flexible, nimble, and adaptable.

This mindset also parallels the future of real estate. “Why take on a 15-year traditional lease when head count is rarely planned for more than three years out?” asks John Lewis, head of global real estate advisory at WeWork. “By embracing agility, WeWork is disrupting the traditional model. We’re looking at real estate as a liquid, not a static, asset.”

In the past, with more traditional real estate options, the emphasis was often on the front-end of designing, building, and logistics of a new workspace. Once a company actually signs on the dotted line and moves in, any changes (whether it was the lease term or the design of the space itself) are not easy to implement in a more traditional model. Ironically, it was only possible to understand how the design and functionality of the space itself was affecting employees after they’d fully settled in. With a traditional model, it could be upward of 10, even 20 years before design changes can be fully enacted without hindering business as usual.

The ability to fully embrace and leverage change on both a real estate and experience design level has the potential to restructure the very core of how companies approach their workplaces. In other words, we’re getting closer and closer to a more human-centric workplace for employees while simultaneously benefiting the company’s bottom line. It’s a win-win.

The future of work is flexible and people-centric

Applied correctly, ABW offers a way for employees and employers to improve efficiency and productivity in the workplace, and show how flexible and adaptable it can be. Talent is becoming more global and mobile than ever, and it’s important for the workplace to adapt and grow with the trend.

ABW is an exciting opportunity for our teams here at WeWork. It allows us to combine the powers of space, design, and research to continue pushing forward to uncover deeper truths about what is essential for people in workplaces around the world. We’re making it our responsibility, now, to get to the work of making work better for everyone.

Corinne Murray is the activity-based working and change expert at WeWork, where she develops and tests new concepts that unlock greater potential and better experience for her colleagues and clients. With a background in religious philosophy, Corinne is committed to understanding and facilitating the evolution of the relationship between space, design, people, and culture. Prior to WeWork, Corinne helped advocate for people and systems for Gensler, American Express, and CBRE.

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