If you work in an office, chances are your office isn’t working for you.
That’s because an estimated 80% of workspaces today use an open-office design—barrier-free spaces where employees work shoulder-to-shoulder at shared tables, desks, or low-walled cubicles.
When they emerged in the early 2000s, open offices were intended to spark productivity, collaboration, and kumbaya among knowledge worker teams—especially teams of developers at tech firms, where the concept first gained traction.
By eliminating or reducing the number of private offices, open designs signaled a less hierarchical way of working. They also slashed overhead by squeezing more workers into the same space. (The average amount of workspace per employee has dropped from roughly 225 square feet in 2010 to just 150 today.)
Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that most open-office layouts are out of step with the needs of today’s employees. In a 2018 study, Harvard researchers found open offices decrease face-to-face interactions among co-workers by 70%, increase their sense of isolation, and handicap productivity. Other studies show that open offices elevate levels of stress, fatigue, and depression. And 76% of workers say they simply hate them.
Small wonder that new approaches to workspace design aim not just to save workers from open-office hell, but to create workspaces that leverage the capabilities of the digital enterprise and foster a happier, more productive employee experience.
One promising idea is activity-based working (ABW), a concept that offers more flexible layouts, restores much-desired privacy, and can be customized to a team’s workflows and other needs. In an ABW environment, workers don’t have an assigned personal desk (or reserved “hot desk”). Instead they move among a variety of environments designed for collaborative or heads-down work, depending on what they need.
Companies have good reason to take the issue seriously. According to a Human Spaces global research study, 1 in 3 job candidates says workplace design is a key factor in choosing whether to accept an offer.
Offices designed for what you do
The activity-based workspace isn’t a new concept. Architect Robert Luchetti co-designed the first “activity-based work environment” in 1983. But only in recent years, as workers have rejected open-office setups, have large companies including Microsoft, Unilever, Credit Suisse, and KPMG, started to embrace it.
ABW practitioners organize the workspace not by business function, but by activity. “Neighborhoods” feature shared tables and a glassed-in conference room, an ideal setup for collaborative teams. “Town squares” are designed for all-hands meetings, “libraries” are for heads-down work, and “pods” are small spaces for private calls. Barista bars and cafes offer spaces for socializing. Personal lockers also let workers store laptops and other belongings overnight, then retrieve them in the morning and migrate to whatever space suits their schedule.
“ABW is much better suited for agile workflows than open offices,” says Brian Westfall, principal HR analyst for software consultancy Capterra. “DevOps teams in particular are better positioned to succeed if each team member is able to utilize a workspace optimized for the activity they’re working on.”
Developers in an intense sprint, for example, might jump into a conference room for a brainstorming session, then peel off to a library for focused coding. Or, if team members are more productive in a noisier environment, they can bring their laptops to the cafe.
“You lose your desk, but you gain the office,” says Caroline Morris, associate and project manager for Clive Wilkinson Architects, a design firm focused on ABW installations.
ABW’s impact on productivity
One company that has fully embraced ABW is Gerson Lehrman Group, a global corporate learning provider that, in 2014, tapped CWA to redesign its New York headquarters as an ABW workspace.
After extensive surveying of employees and pilot projects that guided overall implementation, Gerson ultimately eliminated assigned desks and offices and got rid of all desktop computers and landlines. It filled spaces with a mix of pods, neighborhoods, and more than 30 digital-ready conference rooms of varying sizes and configurations. Workers got lockers for storing equipment overnight.
Within six months of completion, 77% of workers credited the new design with allowing them to be more productive. The project proved so successful that the company built a second ABW-based office in Austin in 2018.
Microsoft is another recent convert to the activity-based model. After an ABW-based redesign of its Amsterdam office several years ago resulted in 25% worker productivity gains, the company began reconfiguring its Redmond campus. The company has so far converted 20% of that office space and expects to reach 80% by 2022.
Two key factors drove success at both companies. Morris credits improved productivity to ABW’s mixture of shared and private spaces. Nearly all workers (95%) say working privately is essential to their jobs, but only 41% say they can do it in their current office, according to research by Steelcase, the global office furniture and design firm.
The second factor is that workers can choose where and how they work on a daily basis. According to Steelcase, 88% of highly engaged and satisfied employees work in offices where they can choose their workspace based on the task at hand.
“Everyone wins,” says Morris. “The business side gets more productivity because people are excited that their bosses understand how they work, and want everyone working at their utmost capacity. That’s really psychologically motivating for people.”
Another principle of ABW that sets it apart from simple architectural schemes is that it requires an integrated effort between IT, facilities, and HR groups to deliver the desired employee experiences—both digital and physical. Facilities teams must own the logistical requirements of an ABW plan. HR groups survey employees to design spaces effectively and gather feedback to ensure it meets workers’ needs. IT staff must integrate and deliver the digital services.
“Imagine a conference room outfitted with A/V equipment designed to get the most of meetings with remote workers,” Westfall says. “Or kiosks with HD webcams that managers can use to have one-on-ones with remote direct reports. ABW demands that spaces be designed to get the most out of every type of work activity.”
Breaking old habits
The biggest challenge companies face when undergoing a sweeping office redesign isn’t cost, but individual and organizational resistance to change. Switching to an ABW model, for example, isn’t just a matter of showing employees to their new space after you finish the build; 71% of workers report difficulties adapting to a task-oriented ABW environment.
At Gerson Lehrman, for example, managers found that despite the freedom to sit anywhere in their new headquarters, employees at first gravitated to the same seat every day, out of habit. To fight stagnation, the company rearranged the neighborhoods to move business groups around. Eventually, people—and the culture—changed for good.
Both age and tenure are key factors in resistance to adoption. Workers younger than 25 adapt to ABW office design best, while those 55 and older are the most resistant. Newer employees (six months or less) find the transition easier, while employees of 8 to 12 years chafe against it.
As much as digital connectivity is critical to workers’ productivity today—and as appealing as neighborhoods and pods sound to improving it—companies often overlook basic physical connectivity problems.
“In our client’s previous office, people weren’t talking because they were physically separated, even people in the same building with just one floor between them,” says Morris. “When they broke that down with a connecting stair, it had a huge impact.”