How to succeed at activity based working

A combination of individual home bases, many vibrant open spaces, quiet areas for concentration and a number of closed meeting rooms. These are the main success factors for activity based working (ABW), according to recent research.

Activity based working is about providing people with a choice of settings for a variety of workplace activities. Jan Gerard Hoendervanger, researcher at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in the Dutch city of Groningen, has explored ABW concepts and how they are used.


It's naive to think that all people want to perform one activity in one space and then switch to another, all the time.

He found that lack of concentration, inadequate privacy and loss of assigned workstations can cause major issues in ABW environments – and that only a small percentage of people actually switch workplaces as intended. This indicates that it is not enough to simply create one silent area. Even in the busier spaces, acoustics need to be taken into account, as the majority of people use these spaces for high-concentration work as well.

Jan Gerard Hoendervanger

Jan Gerard Hoendervanger, researcher and lecturer in ABW.

An interesting finding is that the small percentage of workers who actually switch on a regular basis are far more satisfied with the office concept and productivity support.

“The response I get to this is ‘So we must teach people to change their behaviour, then everybody will be happy’. I don't agree. It's naive to think that all people want to perform one activity in one space and then switch to another, all the time. Also, people don't use different desks throughout the building. We like to consider a space as our home base, for both social and habitual reasons. I guess that’s human nature. So don't put your energy in trying to change that behaviour. This is one of the main pitfalls with ABW,” says Hoendervanger.

Three main success factors for ABW

Instead of pushing all employees towards the same behaviour, more private spaces should be provided for high-concentration work and meetings, along with a kind of home base for each employee and team. Most of the successful cases Hoendervanger has studied have three basic things in common:

  1. Home base: Workplaces that staff perceive as a kind of home base; open spaces that are not too big, 8-10 workstations with good acoustics.
  2. Open spaces for communication: A large number of attractive, vibrant open spaces for communication and interaction in the centre of the building, well separated from the primary workstations.
  3. High-concentration areas: A number of closed meeting rooms and back-up stations for high-concentration work and phone calls.
High-concentration areas are crucial for making ABW a success

High-concentration areas are crucial for making ABW a success.

High-concentration work most of the time

Hoendervanger estimates that about 60-80 per cent of the ABW environments in the Netherlands do not live up to their potential because the importance of privacy and concentration are underestimated. Instead there are many complaints among employees.

Hoendervanger underlines the fact that everybody in an office is not engaged in what architect Frank Duffy has described as ‘transactional knowledge work’: combining high autonomy with high social interaction, task variety and mobility.

“We tend to think about all people in an office as this type of knowledge workers. But that is not accurate. There are many workers performing individual tasks, who arrive at the office at the same time every day. One of the risks of ABW is a failure to distinguish between different types of workers and personalities. The dynamic and flexible millennials are represented, that´s true, but they are not the only type. Across all generations, we see very different needs and preferences.

“The main reason ABW fails is that not enough analysis has been done. There is a common vision of a dynamic and open work space with lots of communication and collaboration. But we are over-estimating the amount of communication-based work carried out. Most of the time in an office is spent doing high-concentration tasks. The translation to an open and vibrant office design is often too simplistic.” 

Open plan spaces are overrated

Over the last ten years, the trend towards open spaces has been strong. Too strong, says Hoendervanger.

“Open plan spaces are overrated. They are very attractive visually, and I understand that they fit in with modern management visions. But we should be careful not to make the home base workstations too open and full of distractions. We have nothing to gain there. If you want interaction, make good spaces dedicated for that purpose instead. Both informal open spaces and closed meeting spaces are needed. The essence of ABW is to provide variety and a sufficient quantity of the different types of spaces, instead of trying to combine conflicting functions into one open space.”

Open spaces should be well separated from the primary workstations.

Open spaces should be well separated from the primary workstations.

Hoendervanger always returns to the fact that people are different. An office contains a large variety of personalities with differing needs. This is something that is being examined in the field of psychoacoustics, and the findings can be applied when planning an office design. Some people have a high need for structure and get very stressed if you say that everything is flexible. They need clear guidelines and function better in that kind of environment. So how do you create an office that fits everyone?

“Good question!” says Hoendervanger. “The key word is variety, based on an analysis of the population. In the Netherlands most companies are egalitarian and aim to treat everyone as equal. That’s a good thing, but let´s not be dogmatic. We need to treat people more individually when it comes to facilitating different needs. This includes providing closed rooms and assigned workstations to people who perform in those conditions. ABW is about supporting people in doing their work well. Every solution that helps achieve that goal is a good solution I would say.” 

Pay attention to acoustics

Having different types of dedicated spaces for different kinds of activities is a challenge when it comes to acoustics. Without both an acoustic and a visual design, there is a risk that these spaces will be perceived as disturbing and obstructing instead of supporting productivity.

“In general, the importance of acoustics is underestimated. Most people involved in these kinds of projects are strongly focused on the visual aspect of the design. I think that’s human, it’s difficult to imagine what the acoustics will be like. But we must pay more attention to acoustics and become better at discussing this aspect. If you look at surveys on staff satisfaction in offices, acoustics is usually in the top three aspects that staff are dissatisfied with. Therefore, don´t make the primary workspaces too open and make sure the acoustics are well designed. Again, a lot of individual high-concentration work will be done in these base zones.” 


If you look at surveys on staff satisfaction in offices, acoustics is usually in the top three aspects that staff are dissatisfied with. 

ABW only suits a small minority

Another example of what can go wrong when designing ABW offices is that the need for variety is misinterpreted so that different types of workspaces are created in the same area, he says.

“Instead, activities should be separated more. Knowledge workers need single-task areas and I think there should be more separation, both with space and walls. This might support a single-tasking work style, which is needed since we’ve learned that multi-tasking is a myth.”

Overall it seems that facility managers, architects and managers need to change their perception of how the concept of ABW should be designed and transformed into offices that meet the needs of both the organisation and the individual.

“Our findings indicate that currently, the ABW concept fits the needs of only a small minority of workers. But the concept has the potential to support the needs of contemporary knowledge workers and their organisations, if implemented with caution. Our studies also include best practices that support this positive view on ABW.”


Text: Lars Wirtén