The subject of office design has changed considerably over the last decade, moving from a focus on ergonomics to creating a workspace that enhances efficiency. Surprisingly, office design has drawn the serious attention of upper-level management, including serious financial investments in the open-office design theory. According to the Daily Mail, the “Googleplex” (Google’s CA-based HQ) was a $120 million investment with an emphasis on “casual collisions of the work force.”

Google’s push to the open office led many companies to follow suit, though the open-office theory has undergone its fair share of criticism. As an article from the Harvard Business Review states, “Smart companies understand that workspaces are a business tool . . . We’ve seen an explosion of open office layouts, in part because openness, transparency, and collaboration some of the attributes companies strive for today . . . However, research shows that this collaborative push may be too much of a good thing.”

Office designers went so quickly from one end of the workplace design spectrum to the other that they essentially skipped the middle-of-the-road design philosophies that really are working. That middle ground is where you’ll experience world-class design for activity-based workspaces.

This is a pretty common term for workplace managers, but for those unfamiliar with it, activity-based working is the idea that workstations and areas of your office are designed around various tasks. Collaborative workstations for designers, for instance, will be different than the ones for sales reps.

The real genius behind activity-based working is that it provides the best of both “extremes” of office design. When tasks require collaboration – like designers working with copywriters on website changes – workstations exist to enhance those tasks’ efficiency. If a task demands quiet, then spaces are available for solo work as well.

Activity-based working also advocates for common spaces where you can “casually collide” with your coworkers, exchange jokes from the latest episode of Rick and Morty, or debate whether or not the Golden State Warriors can lose a championship with Kevin Durant on their roster.

If that sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. The kinks are still being worked out of this strategy, and we’re going to spend the rest of this piece examining recent examples and research that shows activity-based working is, in fact, working.

Think Musical Chairs

In a great piece over at Bloomberg, Belinda Lanks calls modern activity-based working more like a game of musical chairs. Instead of assigned cubicles, top tech firms are quickly switching to an office design where employees choose where they sit – and more importantly, how they work.

Lanks gives the example of both Google’s 65,000 square-foot headquarters in California and the office for Gerson Lehrman Group in New York City. The GLG office is a great example of activity-based working, allowing employees to choose from workstations in a cafe with a barista on staff to closed-door booths.

Does that sound like a productive atmosphere or a lot of employee time waiting to be wasted? Well, according to Dutch consultant  Erik Veldhoen (quoted in the above-linked Bloomberg piece) employees who choose where they sit and how they work are, “More conscious of what they’re [doing], and why they’re going to do it.”

Minute Hack released a massively helpful study last year that details exactly how to get the most from activity-based working. Minute Hack acknowledged the challenges activity-based working presents, but summed up its efficacy with the following points:

  • “Half our workforce are doing at least ten different things at any one time.”
  • “The people who have to perform between 16 and 31 activities, just to honour the terms of their employment contract, are 24 times more likely to stress the importance of a variety of spaces.”
  • “Variety is key for the people with more complex activity portfolios.”

As with any office design theory, activity-based working has its own pitfalls. However, looking at its implementation from the point of view presented by Minute Hack provides a better idea of how you can use this theory and why it’s effective.

Mobile Workforce Management

Along with a more globalized economy,  top tech firms deal with a remote workforce on a scale we’ve never before seen. As written on the Visix blog, “Technology doesn’t have to be tied to a desk. [This] gives both individuals and teams the opportunity . . . to choose the best space for their purpose at the time they need it.”

So instead of importing workers from around the world, tech companies can employ them wherever they live and benefit from arguably a higher quality of work, as noted in a recent article from Forbes.

The Pitfalls

The largest issue facing companies looking to adopt activity-based working solutions is that they view the solution as, “An off-the-shelf product rather than a large-scale culture change,” per a Business Insider article.

That article also lists some of the other pitfalls worth noting, among them that companies tend to look at activity-based workstations as an opportunity to cut costs rather than a true change to how work is completed.

Not adding personal spaces – quiet rooms with closed doors – is usually the most overlooked aspect of activity-based working that’s not accounted for in design changes.

Taking these pitfalls into account before deciding to go ahead with an office design based solely on activity-based working is the best way to make sure you achieve the cultural mindset shift you’ll need in order to make sure that this new way of working produces the desired levels of efficiency.  

Activity-based working strikes a balance between the old-fashioned cubicles and closed-doors office design theory, and the too-social open-office theme. Workers retain the benefits of the open office – easy collaboration with coworkers, casual socializing, etc., – yet still have a private space where they can go for solo work.