Activity-based working - Changes as a result of the pandemic

In our latest blog, Guenaelle Watson, Managing Director of 360 Workplace, and Sam House, Senior Designer for Area, discuss the benefits of activity-based working and what changes we may see as a result of the pandemic.

What is Activity-Based Working?

Guenaelle Watson (GW): Activity-based working (ABW) empowers people with choice and provides users of a space with a range of work settings which support a variety of tasks: collaboration, focus work, formal and informal meetings.

Sam House (SH): It’s important to note that each client and their requirements for their teams and business is different. Some companies may require a lot of focussed areas and other businesses may need a higher percentage of collaboration spaces. It’s as important to make sure the ABW strategy is the right fit for the client as it is providing the right working environment choices for the users.

GW: Completely agree. It’s important that as a business we design for the user. There is a misconception about ABW and agile working that it’s only suited to some sectors, but this isn’t the case - an effective ABW strategy can be applied to any sector. This approach is different to remote working or hot desking – it’s not incorporating beanbags or slides – it’s making sure the environments you create support the profiles of the people using the space and the type of work being undertaken. Having an environment that suits different personalities gives everyone the opportunity to feel comfortable and perform better.

What are the benefits to employers and staff using this workplace design approach?

GW: ABW has been enabled by technology. Wi-Fi has empowered people to work from wherever they need to in the workplace as well as places that are an extension of the workplace, such as cafes or home. Clients will typically implement an ABW strategy to support increased collaboration, knowledge sharing and what we call ‘bump moments’ whereby mobility is encouraged round the office and individuals interact with other teams. This in turn breaks down silos, creates positive friction, stimulates innovation and supports productivity. ABW environments tend to be more modern working spaces which are also great for attracting and retaining talent.

Our data shows that workstations are occupancy is 51.9% on average so typically businesses will find that their office sits half empty most of the time. Furthermore, we have found that meeting room occupancy is approximately 39% and the average meeting size is three people, whilst companies think they need more meeting rooms, it is generally not the case.

This shows the importance of undertaking a workplace consultancy process prior to developing a workplace design. The process allows a business to understand how their workspace is being used as well as the different profiles of people using the environment. For example, undertaking a time utilisation study will provide insight that shows how and when specific spaces are being used. It goes back to the point of designing for the user and creating evidence-based design through data.

Traditionally, what work settings are commonly used in workplaces, and why?

GW: A recent survey from Cushman & Wakefield found that the top two things employees wanted from their workplace is choice and flexibility, and this will be even more prevalent now we’re dealing with the effects of COVID-19. Flexibility and choice are core factors which support implementing an ABW strategy.

SH: Workstations are obviously very popular within workplaces, the nature of how they’re designed and utilised has evolved from technology. I read an interesting observation recently where someone said that before technology people were using paper and pen which enabled them to work from anywhere, so individuals were a lot more agile in comparison to when traditional technology was introduced and people were locked down to one place. Now with technological advancement, including laptops and WiFi, people have become more transient which shows human beings don’t like having to stay in one place. We’re going back to the original roots of being more collaborative and encouraging impromptu ‘bump moments’ between colleagues.

GW: Sam makes a good point about free technology. There have been three phases where we began working in a very agile way, then big monitors being installed meant people were chained to their desks and now laptops have provided more flexibility. However, it does depend on the business and your role. Looking at our business, for example, if you’re a CAD or visualisation designer it is more difficult to base yourself is a different place every day.  whereas if you work in central services, such as Marketing, HR or IT, you can work anywhere. Your function can limit your agility index.

SH: Open plan working doesn’t work for everyone and the requirements of their job function. The workspace conversation has moved on from ‘The Google Effect’ where businesses wanted massive collaboration tables, slides and bean bags to a wider, more strategic concept which explores the need for focus ‘heads-down’ space and areas for private conversations. Consequently, workplace design has evolved and now incorporates focus pods and phone booths to provide alternative opportunities to work.

This design evolution has coincided with the notion that prior to the lockdown people were spending more time at work than at home, so we design a lot more working environments with a ‘home from home’ feeling, including lounge areas for catch ups and collaboration tables that are more reminiscent of a dining room style. Designed to blur the lines between work and home life, these types of settings create a soft, calm and relaxing environment which many clients find works for them and their employees. I think this approach will become increasingly popular when businesses start returning to work because people will be so used to working from home and have become accustomed to home comforts.

How do you envisage activity-based working changing when people start returning to their offices?

GW: I think we’ll see different phases. Initially the focus will be maintaining a high-level of hygiene and adhering to social distancing guidelines. In the first few months of people going back into office environments we’ll see a return to assigned desking and individuals staying in one place all day long. This is because you know the area is clean and you have the assurance it’s a safe working environment.

In the long-term working environments will return to normal but in the first few months people will be cautious. Work settings such as meeting rooms, booths, collaboration tables will be used by sole individuals, and therefore these spaces will be still be used but for different purposes, such as focus work.

I spoke to a Real Estate Director for an American-based client last week and they said their business still uses cubicles and are therefore ready to return to work! Our client will eventually transition into an ABW working environment but currently the assigned desking solution works for them.

SH: I agree with Guenaelle. People are currently used to being in their own homes, being able to control their own environments and only having to rely on the people they live with to share the same standards of hygiene and social distancing when out and about. When we return to our workspaces, we’re going to be reliant on other people and them following hygiene and social distancing rules. It’s going to take a while for us to relax the rules, it’s then going to take longer for individuals to be mentally and socially ok with working normally and in proximity with one another. As much as we’ll all want to hug one another on day one!

How can work settings be adapted to ensure workplaces remain safe and healthy?

GW: Workplaces are part of a wider infrastructure and eco system, so when we think about work it’s not just the physical workplace we need to consider. Employers and employees have a responsibility of ensuring returning to work is safe in its broader sense.

Employers need to understand how people commute. If employees use public transport, do they need to commute at peak time, or can they implement a staggered return? Employers also need to determine what teams need to return to the office. This goes hand in hand with occupancy and density levels and how many individuals can fit into a workspace whilst adhering to social distancing guidelines.

In the short term, those who can work from home will continue to do so.

The communication aspect of returning to the workplace needs to be carefully considered. Install signage to signpost access routes, one-way systems and entry and exit points. Further signage should be used to encourage regular handwashing, labelling desks to show what time the desk was last cleaned, and to signify what a 2m distance is. Employers need to communicate where individuals can sit, what time they can commute and what days they should come into the office. It is a large logistical operation therefore a lot of businesses are not in a rush to return to the office. We are hearing anything between September or even not this year for those who are able to work from home.

There are so many considerations, such as lifts. This obviously poses a challenge for businesses located in high-rise buildings, for example, one client in Canary Wharf has said it will take three hours to get just the people on their floor up to the right level. This is something that should be discussed with the building’s landlord, but again, this goes back to reviewing who and how many people need to come back to the office in the short term.

Lastly, employers need to explore storage and locker options if they don’t have these in place. It’s common practice within many ABW working environments that people share keyboards, mouse and equipment, which obviously won’t happen again anytime soon. Therefore, people need somewhere to store them while they’re not in the office.

SH: The other thing I would add is the use of protected screens. Many suppliers have brought a variety of screen options onto the market, which will help to adapt collaborative working spaces so people can still use these areas together in a safe way. However, there still needs to be guidelines in place to how these spaces should be used, for example, limiting how long people can work in these spaces and the number of people in the space at any one time. The additional challenge will be changing the mindsets of the individuals using the environments in a different way. They have been using them in a certain way for so long, it will be interesting to see how well they’re adopted for a different purpose.

What advice would you give to businesses considering moving away from assigned desking to activity-based working?  

GW: The main concerns we hear from our clients and their teams regarding ABW is user adoption and the transition from assigned desking to an ABW environment. Therefore, the change management piece is important. Change doesn’t feel natural, it’s unknown and consequently it’s critical that people understand what it’s like to work differently. It’s also important to understand individual’s concerns and anxieties so you can address them.

Typically, noise levels are often a concern, and we often have questions regarding how individuals will know where to sit in the morning, or how coworkers can be encouraged to keep the space tidy. Having some guiding principles which define how individuals using the space will help overcome these concerns from day one. During a change management process, 360 works with selected change champions who help create a set of guidelines which are then communicated to the wider business. This approach is beneficial in terms of user adoption because you’re communicating what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how the process will be implemented and provides a better understanding of how the space can be used.

 It is important to understand identify current ways of working, concerns about working differently to be able to address them. People need to understand what the transition means practically and how it will impact them on a day to day basis

SH: It’s about taking people on that journey. If individuals turn up to their office without any change management process and their way of working has completely changed, an employer is likely to receive negative feedback and a lack of user adoption. It’s imperative employees are taken through the change journey to ensure they know how to use the environment. Humans are creatures of habit, so you need to help guide people through change.

GW: Clients often ask the question ‘how do you know it has worked?’ It’s about data and understanding how people are finding their new ABW environment. Data is crucial in helping understand how the individual spaces are being used long term and will help clients with their real estate decisions.

We measure satisfaction levels with a pre and post occupancy survey. Sensors enable to capture space utilisation data which then enables business to make decisions regarding their office environment.

SH: If you think about it, people have been working for the past two to three months working from a dining room, a bedroom, on the lounge floor etc., and I think people will find it difficult to transition to having to work from one space. It will be short term until we can start to use working environments in the way we used to. In the long term, ABW is here to stay.


Our B Corp Impact Report 2023/2024


Creating a Workplace that Supports Mental Health


Your Workplace or Mine? Podcast: Building a Thriving Remote Workforce

Get in touch