The history of the modern office has been defined by a push and pull between openness and privacy, between tearing down walls and putting up partitions.
Despite the headlines that the open office is dying, a modified version of the traditional layout, supported by activity-based working, is emerging. According to Gensler’s 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey, “mostly open” environments tend to perform highest on both effectiveness and workplace experience. Unlike completely open environments where an employee’s only option to get work done is either a meeting room or desk, “mostly open” environments provide ample on-demand areas of enclosure that support privacy and individual work, even while most or all employees sit in “open” individual spaces.
Here are six companies who successfully implemented an activity-based working environment, proving that designing around employee behavior increases a sense of belonging and connectedness, makes people more productive, and provides a level of flexibility employees crave.
1. ANZ Bank
ANZ boosted revenue at its Melbourne headquarters by nearly $50 million by embracing a style of ABW it called the “Playbox” project, in which different departments have different furniture and technology options. The 14 workspace designs are based on the 14 ways ANZ employees were found to work.
ANZ’s workplace change manager, Tessa Roulston, said that this was effectively like turning the idea of ABW on its head.“In activity-based working you have environments that people move to, whereas with Playbox, the environment itself changes,” she said at the 2015 Worktech conference in London. Decision-making speed went from four days to four hours, and a new banking app was completed six months ahead of schedule.
“In activity-based working you have environments that people move to, whereas with Playbox, the environment itself changes,” she said at the 2015 Worktech conference in London.
Decision-making speed went from four days to four hours, as a result of the shift, and a new banking app was completed six months ahead of schedule.
2. Costa Coffee
Design firm Morgan Lovell helped Costa Coffee design an office that would accommodate the company’s two historically separated business sides: its office employees and its roasting-plant workers.
Breakout spaces were “intentionally placed between the two different working areas—the office and roasting plant—to encourage different teams to interact more,” Morgan Lovell writes in its brief for the project.
Costa Coffee employees have reported “an increased sense of belonging and connectedness in their new office.”
"This shift from ‘my desk’ to ‘our space’ is set to improve productivity, while allowing staff to connect in different ways and move away from a culture of presenteeism.”
3. Gerson Lehrman Group
For most of GLG’s 21-year existence, its global headquarters, in Midtown Manhattan, looked like that of any other big-city consulting firm. Employees had designated desks in what was essentially a cubicle farm; higher-ups had their own closed-door offices.
In 2014, not only did the company move its Big Apple employees to a new space—65,000 square feet spread over two floors near Grand Central Terminal—but it also completely changed how those 300 employees worked. As CEO Alexander Saint-Amand writes in a first-person piece for Fast Company, the office was designed “around a new paradigm, neither open nor full of private offices”: ABW.
GLG was the first large company in the U.S. to embrace the activity-based working model. The office is organized into “neighborhoods” where people working on similar projects can gather. Each contains a variety of workspaces, from multi-person team tables, conference rooms, and enclosed glass meeting pods to single-person phone booths, quiet concentration areas, and adjustable standing desks.
“Yes, we give up our personal desks,” Saint-Armand writes, “but we gain the whole office.”
Still, there was, at first, pushback. Employees were hesitant to give up their personal space for photos and plants. Clive Wilkinson, the architect behind the office, Wilkinson thought that if employees had a variety of cheerful, comfortable workspaces to choose from, he or she wouldn’t have an urge for aesthetic customization.
Indeed, ABW soon caught on. One GLG employee, a systems analyst, told Business Insider, “I definitely find that moving around helps me get work done.” GLG surveyed its employees six months after the move, and the data was validating. Two-thirds of employees were already using multiple workspaces, 91 percent felt excited about ABW’s flexibility, and 92 percent found ABW to be fun.
At the global advertising agency’s North American headquarters, not one of the 1,200 employees has their own private office. And despite being spread across eight floors of a staid Midtown skyscraper, Publicis employees feel connected to one another in a way that’s fluid, organic, and well-established at the same time.
Clive Wilkinson Architects designed the office around ABW, which Wilkinson, in an interview with Architizer, called a “highly supportive version of mobile working” that leverages technology “to be super mobile and to be able to use an office in a very different way.” He acknowledged that open offices have been criticized—fairly—for being unfriendly to introverts. But in an office like Publicis’, one designed with ABW in mind, introverts “can really go wherever they like because there are no designated desks,” he said.
“They can curl up in corners. They can slip away from noise and the crowd. It’s self-selective, and as a result it’s actually probably the best possible environment for introverts.” The new Publicis space allows for supreme flexibility.
“I don’t know how we’ll be shaped in five years but I do know we’ve built an office that will accommodate it.” - Andrew Bruce, CEO of Publicis North America.
In the architecture firm’s old office, employees had assigned workstations with polarizingly high partitions. In 2014, Unispace moved into a compact, 5,000-square-foot, ABW-optimized space in downtown Los Angeles. The office’s central feature, inspired by a communal dining table, is a massive, shared table with embedded desktop technology and a fully cloud-based server, which, Unispace says, “allows teams to determine their own day-to-day workplace parameters” and “move from location to location based on the needs of their projects.”
Unispace’s ABW-focused design, when compared to a traditional office layout, increased available dedicated workspace by 33% and communal space by 20%.
In 2008, Sevil Peach and Veldhoen + Company redesigned Microsoft’s Amsterdam office, known as Microsoft NL, around ABW. “Microsoft wanted to encourage social interaction and collaboration whilst actively demonstrating the flexibility of the company’s software within the workplace,” reads Sevil Peach’s project brief.
On the first floor, they built a communal workspace for staff and visitors alike, along with teamwork benches, individual workspaces, meeting rooms, and two auditoriums. They also added a coffee shop, indoor and outdoor dining areas, lounges, and sleep pods. Employees are guided through the different work zones by a playful ceiling runner. The office’s other five floors have a mix of open and enclosed spaces.
The result of Microsoft NL’s switch to ABW? A 25% productivity gain and a 30% drop in real-estate costs.
Those numbers were so promising that in 2010, Microsoft’s global headquarters, outside Seattle, began experimenting with ABW. For decades, coders on the Redmond campus had worked in private offices, but accelerations in technology forced Microsoft to pick up the pace, too. Now, most of its newly renovated buildings have no offices at all, and their team areas fit no more than a dozen engineers, which Michael Ford, the company’s general manager of global real estate, called “the sweet spot for Microsoft.”
Two years later, Futurespace helped Microsoft redesign its Sydney office around ABW. “The refurbished workplace consists of a menu of work settings that enable and allow individuals and teams to work according to task,” Futurespace says in its brief. The office’s first floor is open, active, and accessible to customers, while the top three floors are private working floors for Microsoft employees only. There are no allocated desks—instead, the office is configured to the needs of the different business units within it.
This environment “provides flexibility and choice, supports mobile and virtual work, and inspires innovation, creativity, and transparency—both physically and in the team’s work practices.”