Does Activity Based Working deliver on intended goals?

brainybirdz are sometimes commissioned to write articles and blogs for other organisations. This is a re-post of a blog written for Open Sensors earlier this month, where we dig into existing scholarly research studies to understand whether Activity Based Working actually works.

Designing an activity based workspace is increasingly becoming the desired aspiration as a new digitally connected generation is driving change in the workforce, but it is important to consider that Activity Based Working may not be suitable for every organisation.

Over the last five to ten years, Activity Based Working (ABW) has been implemented as a new way of working in many different workplaces across a variety of sectors. Particularly in London with its high property prices, but also elsewhere in the country and around the globe, organisations have increasingly bought into the idea that working activities in the 21st century knowledge-intensive economy are anything but static and require more than one spatial environment.
Giving employees a choice of where to work in the office and providing a multitude of different settings besides regular desks, seems to make ultimate business sense:
  • ABW allows for cost savings due to more efficient use of space
  • It means teams and projects can sit together more flexibly
  • It gives employees autonomy to decide where and how best to get their work done
  • And it also solves the difficult problem of how to accommodate both collaborative and concentrated work in one and the same workplace. The answer – variety.
Thus, ABW is loved by the CFOs of this world, is endorsed by consultants who value the opportunity to implement innovative approaches and favoured by designers who enjoy the creative freedom that this office arrangement brings.
At the same time, many employees in traditional offices fear the prospect of losing their own desk and are wary of the fundamental changes ABW brings. In our previous article ‘Real life lessons of implementing activity based working’ we discussed what happens when organisations embark on the journey to transform their workplaces into activity based ones and what lessons can be learnt in this process.
This time we want to ask the question whether activity based working actually works (and in fact how it works). So, what do research studies evaluating ABW schemes tell us?

Sparsity in activity based working research

Firstly, we should note that not much research is published on ABW. This coincides with a general trend in workplace research, where post-occupancy evaluations are rather rare despite the value they could bring. Another reason for this sparsity is that ABW is relatively new and as such little research has yet taken place scrutinising ABW and its effectiveness.
Certainly, the number of research projects and associated publications looking at ABW should rise in future years. Another factor could be that evaluations were undertaken but not made publicly available, for instance if research was commissioned privately or done by consultants as part of their own internal evaluations.
Still, some research is available and allows us fascinating insights into the subject matter.

Research 1: Effects of office innovation on office workers’ health and performance – Journal Ergonomics 

A 2009 study of a Dutch government organisation, moving from a cellularised workplace to an open plan layout with ABW, reported:
  • Long term increase in perceived health of employees
  • Fewer back pain complaints; and
  • A significant increase in perceived quantity and quality of performed work
The researchers measured baseline data before the refurbishment and twice after, at 6 months and 15 months of working in the new environment. Interestingly, no significant improvements were found at the 6 months point, indicating that employees needed time to settle into the new workplace.
It is also worth noting that employees in this particular case adopted a very dynamic work style. The researchers published an overview of an exemplary regular working day of a policy maker in the new ABW workplace and found that they shifted location eleven times during the day and used seven different settings. This might not, however, be all that representative.
In addition the change in workplace did not just implement ABW, but moved from a cellular office to open plan, so it is hard to judge whether the improvements were due to ABW or the open plan layout.

Research 2: An end user’s perspective of Activity Based Working – Journal of Corporate Real Estate

In 2011 a team of researchers in the Netherlands published results from their study of four different organisations having adopted ABW. The authors came to the conclusion that the workplaces were mostly not used as intended:
  • 68% of surveyed employees reported that they would never switch workstations during an average day at work.
  • Only 12% of employees reported using more than three different types of settings during a week, while 56% of employees used only one or two types of settings.
This means that in these cases work was not really based on activities, because that would have meant more mobility in using different settings for different tasks at hand. Another interesting problem emerging from the research is that of territoriality and perceived availability of workstations since:
  • 35% of respondents felt discouraged to use particular workstations, because someone else would usually sit there.
  • 28% of employees admitted claiming workstations by leaving personal items, so that spaces would feel unavailable to others.
It seems from this research report that employees in this case struggled with adopting ABW in their daily routines.

Research 3: Emerging Activity Based Working Traits – Journal – Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies

In a 2017 study of a single workplace in the UK, researchers found that the activity based workplace, in this case of an architectural practice, resulted in a lot of interactions crossing team boundaries.
Traditional offices often lead to strong departmental silos, where the majority of face-to-face contact remains within a team. Therefore, it seems that the ABW approach in this case allowed for more contact between teams. While team interaction showed how the workplace was used as intended by the ABW principles, another research insight from this study highlighted the opposite.
The researchers found that employees chose workstations not just by the activity they had to do, but instead displayed strong preferences to sit next to their friends. This means that the idea of ABW to allow employees to sit next to someone else frequently was somewhat contradicted by employee behaviours, who opted to sit physically adjacent to close team colleagues and friends.

Research 4: The Rise of Activity Based Working – Leesman

The biggest research study to date comes from the Leesman team, who have evaluated more than 11,000 user responses across 40 different ABW schemes. Results show that workplace satisfaction and perceived productivity of employees in ABW are not generally higher than for a control group of employees in traditional office environments.
However, interesting differences are revealed when breaking down the responses by how often employees shift locations. The researchers developed four mobility types and asked staff to self identify with a profile:
  • 30% of staff performed most activities at a single setting, rarely using other locations (called ‘The camper / squatter’)
  • 41% of staff mostly stuck to a single work setting, but used other locations as well (‘The timid traveller’)
  • 19% of staff reported to use other locations frequently (‘The intrepid explorer’)
  • 10% of staff used multiple work setting and rarely based themselves at single locations (‘The true transient’).
The most mobile staff experienced significant improvements to their perceived productivity – the intrepid explorers showed a 10% higher rating than the control group, while the true transients experienced an even larger gain of 15%. In contrast, self-reported productivity was up to 23% lower for the squatters, compared to the control group.
This highlights both the opportunities that ABW offers, but also the associated challenges of overcoming employee inertia and lack of mobility.

Key takeaways

So what can we learn from those existing research studies? Key lessons to take away include:
  • Activity based working schemes can lead to high levels of interactions across team boundaries
  • ABW does not automatically guarantee higher employee satisfaction or increased productivity
  • Overcoming old habits of territoriality and encouraging employees to make use of the new opportunities of ABW is important
  • Highest benefits are gained by those able and willing to adopt highly mobile patterns including working from a variety of settings regularly.

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