What Is Activity Based Working (ABW)?
By Reagan Nickl
Enterprise Customer Success Senior Manager
An activity-based working (ABW) or activity-based workspace is the middle ground between cubicle life and communal desks. Spaces are designed around different tasks that require different types of energy and inputs. The goal is increased productivity by giving workers a variety of options of where to work. While every office using this plan differs, there are generally more traditional desk setups, conference rooms for group meetings, phone booths for private calls, couches and lounge areas for creative collaboration, and social areas such as a kitchen or dining area.
Activity-based working is a trend making a lot of noise in the business world. But it’s hardly a new concept. The term was coined more than two decades ago by Erik Veldhoen, a Dutch consultant and author of the book “The Demise of the Office.” In it, he describes his ideal office as adaptive to diverse sets of tasks of needs. Veldhoen wrote this in 1995 when offices were divided by temporary walls and alcoves, hiding employees in plain sight.
Suggesting the need for an adaptive space was ahead of the time, as most office workers were still stuck in cubicles. In the mid-2000s, the dividing lines of the previous decade began disappearing. Employers moved to long rows of tables for communal working. They oscillated from one extreme to the next. It wasn’t an adaptation, just a 180.
Now, business owners and operators are seeing the flaws in both individual office spaces and bare-bones open plans. At the same time, employees are vocalizing their need for different kinds of space in one. There’s been a shift in how labor is divided in the workplace, with job descriptions blurring lines across departments. Employees in traditional office jobs aren’t paper-pushers bound to a single set of tasks. Human resource departments work on marketing projects. Accounting teams dip into purchasing and operations. Businesses are requiring employees to be flexible and dynamic, so it’s time their workspaces did the same.
Chief among the complaints of open-office plans were constant distractions. Telling employees to use noise-cancelling headphones so they can focus while colleagues talk around them is ridiculous. In an ABW, group projects can be worked on in project on conference rooms, or an employee who needs a few hours of quiet time can reserve a phone room to work without interruption. According to Steelcase, workers who are most engaged are those who believe they have control over their work experience. By giving employees options for completing their work, they’re empowered to use the different spaces and tools to be the most successful.
While open offices can be distracting, cubicles are too isolating for some employees. As the workforce decreases in age, the desire for social contact at work is increasing. Millennials and Gen-Z workers thrive on collaboration; when the walls literally come down at work, younger employees look to each other as sounding boards for complicated projects. Group work is rising as businesses hire employees whose skills transcend a single department. Designing a space where colleagues can physically come together to work is the recipe for productivity.
Adopting an ABW doesn’t mean employees lose the option to sit at a desk to work. The key is option. The old adage “chained to my desk” enforces the idea that a fixed workspace is a punishment. Instead, an ABW shows employees they’re trustworthy enough to work from whatever space suits their work style and needs. Most people are more productive when given the carrot—an ABW—than the stick.
If you don’t believe us, ask your employees.