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Activity-based working: reconnecting spaces with the work done in them

Wellbeing at work is being placed ever more firmly at the heart of HR strategy. One effective way to support employee wellbeing is activity-based working (ABW), an organisational strategic framework for the workplace that gives users different spaces to choose from, each of which is designed for a specific activity. Buroconcept, an expert on the topic, has been introducing its clients to ABW for over 10 years. We talked to Christine Rillaerts, architect and partner at the Brussels-based company, to find out more.

What is activity-based working (ABW)? 

It’s about decoupling the workspace from the occupant in order to reconnect the space with the work that need to be done within it. With ABW, employees therefore perform the different tasks required for their roles in different spaces. These activity-based stations, which I also call “ingredients”, are each specifically designed for each activity. The ABW approach understands that in the space of one day, workers perform different activities. As a result, they need different work environments to perform these different activities well.

That’s the polar opposite of the traditional office environment.

It’s a totally different mindset. In a traditional workplace, each person has one dedicated space where they work for the entire day, often the classic office. There they write emails, make phone calls, hold a video conference, do some admin and sometimes even hold a small informal meeting. In short, every office activity takes place in one room. ABW is the exact opposite of this.

What is the difference between a flexible working environment and ABW?

Creating a flexible environment means moving away from each employee having their own desk. This type of set-up has unfortunately often been chosen, unwisely, with the sole aim of saving office space without putting in place the tools required for it to function properly, which has had a devastating effect on the public image of flexible working environments. ABW takes a different approach. It consists of adapting the work environment to each activity so the spaces are perfectly designed for the activities that will be performed in them. For example, a space for making and taking phone calls would be different in size, have different equipment, and be finished with different materials to a room for brainstorming. Rather than being dedicated to a person, spaces are instead dedicated to specific tasks. People move from space to space depending on the task they need to perform. Flexibility is therefore a logical consequence rather than an end in and of itself.

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What positive effects can ABW have on employees?

Firstly, and in a general sense, ABW supports both physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace. Employees choose where they want to work depending on the task they need to accomplish, taking responsibility for their work and therefore increasing employer trust. It also keeps employees more mobile, as they need to move around to get to their chosen activity-based station, i.e. the space, location or “ingredient” that works best for the activity they need to complete. This movement and the range of configurations in the different spaces, such as sit-stand desks and lower seats, mean that people are not stuck in one position all day, a change that is good for their health. The more dynamic behaviour that this concept encourages also makes offices more sociable and promotes networking between a company’s employees. ABW also reduces noise levels, for example by allowing each employee to choose an appropriate place to make a phone call without disturbing other people or being disturbed themselves. And you can’t put a price on the pride an employee feels belonging to a company that prioritises their wellbeing.

By employing ABW in its designs, does Buroconcept therefore use the office environment as a way to improve employee wellbeing?

Many studies have shown that when wellbeing at work is improved, the quality of the work improves, productivity increases, employees become more committed to the company and there is less absenteeism, to name just a few of the benefits. That’s why we explain to our clients the positive impact ABW can have on their employees.

What about remote working?

We implemented a lot of ABW projects for our clients before the pandemic when remote working was much less common, so remote working isn’t a must for an ABW environment. An employee’s home should simply be seen as another activity-based station.

ABW requires companies to rethink the way they work at the office. How does Buroconcept bring them round to the idea?

Our aim isn’t to convince them at any cost. With all our projects, we start by introducing our clients to the principles of ABW and most see the benefits of the concept straight away. We then run workshops to determine which different “ingredients” the company will need, such as workstations, meeting rooms, silent rooms and pods, and in what quantities. Ten years of ABW know-how is normally enough to convince them!

Can you give us an example of how ABW is used?

An employee starts work in an open-plan office space in the morning but later wants to make a phone call without disturbing anyone else or being disturbed, so they move to a completely soundproof cubicle in the style of a phone booth. If they then need to write a report and work in a highly focussed way, they can move to a library-style room or a pod. A company can have lots of different activity-based stations and its employees can move between them in the space of one day.

What is the most popular station in ABW environments?

It depends on the company and what they do. It’s probably the one-to-few space though, which is a closed room with a meeting table, an ergonomic chair and several other seats to the side. This versatile space can be used as a meeting room and a temporary private office, or as a pod for making a call. Managers who don’t have their own office like this kind of room in particular as it allows them to hold small meetings.

Is ABW suitable for small companies?

Yes, Buroconcept has designed ABW offices ranging from a few hundred square metres to tens of thousands of square metres. ABW makes workstations and rooms more versatile, so they meet a range of needs. Rather than installing both a pod (a place to focus) and a phone booth, we might suggest a sound-proof pod to our clients that meets both needs in one.

Is ABW really a new trend? 

Not at all, Buroconcept has been offering ABW and our expertise in this area to clients for over 10 years. This type of workplace organisation has historically been part of the New Ways of Working. These new approaches are not actually so recent though. The theory of ABW can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s, although the name activity-based working had not yet been coined. I think it was Eric Veldhoen who first expounded on the principle of ABW in his 1995 book “The Demise of the Office” and developed the concept at Veldhoen + Company, a large workplace strategy consultancy firm in the Netherlands.

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