(As Published in The Monday Morning Quarterback, November 11, 2014):

Activity Based Working (ABW), or the model that strays from the common office layout of cubicles, private offices and conference rooms to a space where employees utilize multiple areas around the office dependent on their varied task at hand, is a topic that isn’t new – but is gaining speed worldwide. This trend has seen the implementation of benching and desking systems in offices as the main location for workers, with function-specific spaces located throughout the space. Locations like focus rooms for less formal meetings, huddle rooms for creative sessions, high-impact lounge areas for impromptu collaboration, and town centers for social “water-cooler”  interactions are commonly found in ABW implemented spaces.  A Haworth whitepaper cites a shift from individual to group work from 90 to 10% respectively to 50-50% or even 40-60% – creating a greater need to accommodate for areas in the office to support these changes.

Although cost can be a driving factor towards this shift through fitting more workers in a smaller space or saving on real estate costs by occupying smaller floor plates, there are other benefits of its implementation. When speaking with various industry professionals who all play different roles during the discussion, planning and execution of ABW, the benefits and perspectives of the topic help to paint a well-rounded and in-depth picture that easily explains why so many organizations have begun adopting this model. One overarching theme that appears throughout the discussion of ABW, no matter the perspective, is culture.

Culture

Looking at ABW from a cultural standpoint is two-fold: as a means of expressing an organization’s corporate culture, and as a result of a geographic culture set forth through building regulations and standards. Each confront and provide reasons as to why this trend has taken off from companies small to large, in places from Australia to New York City.

Corporate Culture

As organizations evaluate what is important to the overall success of their business, factors like talent acquisition, profitability and productivity are often at the forefront. Interestingly enough, ABW has been found to benefit all of these factors. Often times, an organizational culture of a company can be identified through three ways: technology, policy, and space. When these are all in line and allow for a more open, task-oriented space, the workstyles of the associates are able to shine through. Culturally, ABW helps to create trust between workers, while respecting and empowering these workstyles. This trust from executives to associates to complete tasks while they are less visible is a vital factor in building the culture of the office. With such support of workers, there is lower level of absenteeism and an increased sense of workplace satisfaction.

The demographics of the workforce are changing – with millennials entering the job market at a rapid pace – a generation that represents a larger number of people than generations like Baby Boomers before them. Their familiarity to an ever-evolving world often makes millennials more adaptable to change, less focused on privacy and more open and transparent, thanks to the likes of technology and social media. These millennials generally find it easier to adapt to this model, as they are the generation closest removed from the idea of adjusting place and thinking throughout the day in school and educational institutions.

Corporations strive to continuously acquire young talent, who want to feel as though their goals align with those of the company and can often be found in urban areas. This makes adopting ABW a great fit in urban markets such as New York City and San Francisco where real estate costs are continually growing and companies are looking to maximize on their real estate as much as possible. CoreNet Global’s Corporate Real Estate 2020 study identified the decrease in square footage per employee and anticipates the continued decrease in this number.  From 2010 to 2012, these values dropped from 225 to 176 square feet per employee. The projected numbers will dip to 151 square feet in 2017, with 40% of survey respondents reporting they’d go below 100 square feet before 2017.

The most important cultural aspects of an organization often come from management understanding dynamics the all levels of staff.  When these individuals are in tune with what they want the company to convey, and no longer desire the perceptions of what “corner offices” mean for your status in a company, ABW lends itself as an easy transition. Katherine DeMercurio of M Moser Associates spoke to athletic brand Tough Mudder’s office where the design was inspired by the courses and obstacles of the brand’s famous races. In addition, “the planning approach reflected the CEO’s desire to have impromptu walks with his staff, opposed to traditional meetings held in conference rooms – engaging the circulation path, furniture and open collaboration areas designed to promote this kind of spontaneous conversation promoting fitness and activity, the heart of the company’s non-traditional style and brand.

Geographic Culture

Often times, ideas and trends are implemented simply due to the geographic location in which these decisions are being made. Melissa Marsh, Workplace Consultant at Plastarc, reports that the charge for ABW started in Australia, where the mentality of frequent change and evolution takes center stage. As Marsh states, Australian’s culture of “prove a reason to stay the same” became a catalyst for thinking outside the box at the workplace. Around the same time at the turn of the 21st Century, European countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom began to develop building standards that would later lead to planning and configurations that synergized with ABW.

BREEAM, or the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology was established in the early 1990’s by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the UK to measure the sustainability and wellness of buildings. The government funded research body of BRE has established standards involving the measurement of natural light in a space, which their research has found to increase health and wellness in the workplace. These standards state that in order for rooms lit by windows on two sides to rate satisfactory, the rooms must have a maximum depth of twice the length of window wall to window wall. According to the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), health regulations in the Netherlands and Germany prohibit buildings where staff members sit farther than 6 meters (or 19.6 feet) from a window. With daylight as a requirement, the usage of open floor plans and glass front offices has increased in many of these countries and those surrounding them – matching the qualities of spaces that have adopted ABW.

In the US, the shift towards ABW has occurred later in time than the aforementioned places worldwide.  Primarily focused within global gateway cities like San Francisco, New York City and Washington DC, ABW has become a strategy for organizations to keep rising real costs from hurting their bottom line. These cities, where maximizing the number of employees housed in a space, have some of the highest real estate rents nationally – with New York City’s asking rent in Q2 2014 topping $68.00 per square foot, followed closely by San Francisco at $55.89 and Washington DC at $50.41. These metropolitan locations, geographically located on coastlines easily accessible to both domestic and foreign organizations.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer took over headlines in early 2013 for her policy on eliminating telecommuting, in favor of office work, noting that people often work better alone,  but are more collaborative and innovative when together. Just months after announcing this change, Yahoo invested in a large New York City office location in the Times Square neighborhood to consolidate associates that were working in three office locations across the city. This investment in an office that promotes the workstyles of those who need privacy but can participate in collaborative sessions, is a great example of the benefits of ABW in the US.

Conclusion

As Gensler’s 2014 Workplace Trends Report suggests, companies have a greater need and desire to explore choice in the workplace, through the use of touch-down tech hubs, easily reconfigurable offices, open-bench workstation neighborhoods, and open network team areas. As more organizations are adopting this ABW model, the creative ways in which they transform their spaces is something to look out for. Integrating technology with the innovations of team members is sure to impact and shape the ABW trend, and it will start from the culture of the organization looking to continue to grow their productivity and collaboration.

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