Why Activity Based Working is a Better Alternative to Open Office Design

Open office design plans that minimize private offices and eliminate walls and doors have been gaining traction since the idea was introduced in the mid-20th century. There’s a good reason why: the premise is that open office design floor plans tend to promote collaboration among workers, since the lack of barriers encourages more interaction.

Tech companies such as Facebook and Google are leading the movement to open office design, and the idea has become mainstream in Australia and the Netherlands: the Sydney Morning Herald reports that nine out of ten offices in Australia are open plan. In the US, open office design plans are used in about 70 percent of offices, according to the International Facility Management Association (IFMA).

At the same time, in recent years there has been a flurry of negative press about open office design, with critics now saying that it hinders productivity and worker attitudes.

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of the open plan office, and an emerging idea that can combine the best features of open design and private work spaces.

Open Office Design: The Upside

Here are some of the touted benefits of the open office design plan:

Increased collaboration. Particularly for functions such as sales and marketing where interaction is beneficial, open plan environments do tend to encourage employees to work together.

Creative thinking and innovation. When workers are able to easily get input from others without having to schedule a meeting, it can lead to better ideas.

Lower build and fit-out cost. Without the need to build so many walls (or even purchase cubicles), the costs of constructing a space with an open office design can be as much as 20 percent lower.

Energy savings. Having an open plan workplace also may reduce heating, cooling and electricity expenses thanks to improved flow of air and light.

Reduced office equipment expenses since the open office design plan makes it easier to share printers, copiers and other office supplies.

Easier layout changes. Open plan offices can more easily accommodate increases in headcount, or rearrange groups due to changes in company structure.

The Challenges of Open Office Design

Here are a few of the reasons behind the criticism of the open plan office:

Noise and distractions make it more difficult for employees to focus on their work and conduct business. Decreases in productivity can result, especially for work that requires concentration or privacy, such as finance, accounting or human resources.

Lack of privacy. This becomes a concern with open office design spaces, because computer screens are easily visible to those passing by. It’s also difficult to have a sensitive telephone conversations without being overheard. There is also the possibility of ethics issues arising from confidentiality issues, particularly for legal or HR staff. Plus, workers just don’t like feeling watched.

Implied lower status is another common complaint, especially from senior workers who felt they had earned their private office. The resulting worker dissatisfaction can also lower productivity and job performance.

The best of both worlds: Activity-based working (ABW)

Office design trends in some regions and industries (especially in Australia and the tech industry) are moving in a new direction: Activity-Based Working (ABW) environments, which provide a combination of open office design spaces with other task-oriented spaces. Especially when an ABW office design is combined with a non-assigned seating model (also known as “agile” or “flexible” working), many of the problems associated with open plan are eliminated.

In an agile office setting, workers don’t have an assigned desk, but instead choose where they want to work each day. Not only do agile environments greatly reduce real estate costs by maximizing space utilization and reducing footprint, but employees get to choose the space that’s best suited to their work.

That’s where the ABW plan is most beneficial. Someone who needs to make confidential phone calls can choose a private “phone booth.” A team brainstorming session can take place in a comfortable lounge that encourages creative thinking. Someone writing a legal brief can choose a small quiet space for thinking and concentration.

A Harvard Business Review article supports this idea. According to the authors, “Our studies show that the most successful work environments provide a range of spaces—an ecosystem—that allow people to choose where and how they get their jobs done.”

Related article: What Does the Agile Work Environment Look Like?

The use of mobile office furniture is another useful design trend (especially in an ABW environment) that mitigates the problems of the open office design plan. Instead of traditional desks, moveable furniture can be rearranged to accommodate different activities. It can also be quickly and easily rearranged to meet a business need such as increased headcount or a business unit reorganization.

ANZ is a company that has reaped enormous benefits from adopting modern activity-based work spaces, to the tune of $33M in additional revenue and avoided costs. The company has implemented what they term a ‘Playbox’ of 14 different workspace designs and flexible furniture products to match the way people work.

Not only did ANZ reduce build costs by 30%, the move increased team engagement and even improved work performance. Decision making speed went from 4 days to 4 hours, and a new banking app was completed 6 months ahead of schedule.

Read more about ANZ’s successful ABW program: Bank offers flexible work pick’n’mix.

The company will also be presenting a case study about their ABW program at CoreNet Global in October.

Technology helps drive the right workplace design

So how does a company go about designing the right environment for their workers and their bottom line? The planning process starts with workplace management technology that can help you understand how your current space is being utilized.

That means gathering data about each building, floor, conference room and desk, and tracking who is using what. It also means implementing space utilization tracking technology, such as sensors and network tracking, to determine exactly when and how often spaces are used. That data can help determine the right mix of spaces and ratio of people to desks.

You can read more about the process in this article: 10 Steps That Drive Better Space Efficiency in the Workplace.

Insight from data-driven technology can help design workplaces that meet everyone’s needs. What’s more, that data can also power wayfinding tools that help employees find spaces and find people in an agile working environment.

Here are a couple of helpful resources that help you understand how to evaluate workplace management and utilization measurement technology:

5 Critical Comparison Points for Workplace Management Software

Managing Workplace Utilization

However, it’s important not to rely on data alone when designing the workplace of the future. Companies that have successfully transitioned to agile working environments know that it’s important to gather input from business units to ensure that their needs will be met in the new workplace. Soliciting feedback early in the planning process, and throughout implementation, also helps reduce anxiety about the transition and increase everyone’s comfort level that the new space will work.


This article was contributed by Ian Morley of Serraview.

It originally appeared in Serraview’s Space Planning Blog on May 27, 2016 .