Activity-Based Working & Wellness: The Human Nature Side of the Popular Design Typology

Activity-based working (ABW) is often mentioned in conjunction with cost savings. Executed well, this workplace design typology—wherein employees forego dedicated seats in favor of moving between different areas suited to particular tasks—can indeed save organizations money on real estate and office furnishings. However, ABW’s biggest benefits don’t show up on the bottom line as quickly or succinctly as those line items. They are subtler, broader, and longer-term. They’re the human-side results of properly executed ABW: its ability to foster employee wellness—mentally, physically, and socially.

ABW is better at this than other office typologies (the sea of cubicles, for one, or rows of trading desks) in part because it more closely emulates the natural environment: the place our species grew up. For example, an activity-based layout requires employees to walk from place to place many times throughout the day—something our predecessors clearly did more than almost any of us do now. (While the currently touted goal of taking 10,000—or even 15,000—steps a day is laudable, our ancestors could easily have been logging 50,000 as they roamed the earth!) ABW workplaces, with their inherently biophilic characteristics, also often incorporate plant life, natural light, and fresh air into their schemes. As the simple act of walking in a forest has been shown to reduce stress hormones and blood pressure and help regulate glucose levels, we can see another way in which ABW designs help fulfill one of architecture’s most pressing current goals: to make buildings less like the indoors and more like the outdoors.

In honor of summertime (official "Get Outside" season), let’s walk through the wellness benefits ABW can bring to a workplace. They overlap, to be sure, but we might put them in three basic categories:

Mental health

While the traditional workplace is built to be one-size-fits-all, any given office inevitably hosts a range of personalities and habits. In an ABW environment, employees are able to choose the workspace that best suits their mood and current task. While some people need peace and quiet for reading, writing, or analysis, for example, and might become cognitively exhausted in a frenetic environment, others find the stimulation of nearby activity an energizing context for such heads-down work. An ABW office doesn’t push workers into one setting or the other: it lets them make the call, hour by hour, every day. This scenario imitates our native human brain-state and behavior much better than sitting at the same desk all day.

The freedom ABW confers on employees to choose or alter their environment—be it through switching rooms or just manipulating multipurpose furniture—has been linked to positive feelings of agency and control. Such feelings are crucial components of sustained mental health and overall employee satisfaction, particularly in high-stress workplaces.

While the distributed arrangement of the activity-based workspace ensures that workers will get at least a bit of walking exercise throughout the day, in many cases, ABW offices provide additional options for movement in their various activity areas, in the form of amenities like adjustable height desks, posters demonstrating feel-good stretches, and balance ball chairs.

Physical health

Many of the chronic illnesses that plague our time—diabetes, obesity, depression—have been clearly connected to sedentary behavior. Sitting ("the new smoking") became the default position for too many Americans in the 20th century: between taking elevators instead of stairs, driving instead of walking or bicycling, and sitting behind desks instead of doing manual labor, we’ve increasingly been encouraged to stay still. Thankfully, designers have begun to incorporate active design elements—such as big, visible staircases—into more buildings and floor plans. Simultaneously, the growing popularity of personal fitness trackers (as well as meditation apps and mindfulness courses) is evidence that individuals also are getting on board with more active lifestyles—the type we used to have.

One example of significant overlap between ABW’s benefits: we now know that improved physical fitness is not only good for the body, it also stimulates brain function. According to recent studies in neuropsychiatry, when your body starts moving, almost all regions of your brain "light up," signaling improved creativity and problem-solving ability.

Social health

Awesomely, ABW’s wellness advantages don’t stop at the individual scale: the typology also fosters a greater diversity of connections between officemates than more traditional layouts. The corporate work environment of yore tended to cluster workers by department—and therefore usually by expertise, perspective, and background. ABW floor plans, on the other hand, are decentralized, with connecting pathways that allow clear lines of sight, necessitating movement between and among a wider variety of individuals and groups, and increasing exposure to one another. (Read more about how clear vistas and movability serve our historic human interests.) This more open context encourages increased professional and casual communication among workers, stimulating the type of interdisciplinary and cultural cross-pollination that has been proven to increase risk-taking and innovation, ultimately driving business success. Additionally, building familiarity with a higher percentage of their coworkers also heightens employees’ sense of bonding, and of communal and social responsibility within the workplace, both of which bolster emotional health.

Which all adds up to… Organizational health

To say it plainly: happier, healthier workers are more productive workers. Any corporate leaders who don’t think this simple truth gets reflected in their organization’s effectiveness (and therefore finances) will have trouble succeeding in the 21st century of work. These days, workers (not machines) rule the roost.

Forward-thinking companies across industries are already proving it. For example, Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox web browser, has created ABW "zones" in their offices that range from a research library with little ambient noise to a coffee shop with music where employees can make phone calls without fear of annoying others. Staff members also choose where to sit (or stand) within the office each day, a policy designed to avoid top-down decision making about seating arrangements and space allocation. The results? Employees go where they’ll be most effective at any given time—not where they’ve been told to sit—increasing collaboration and productivity, and engendering a sense of autonomy and importance.

What we at PLASTARC would like to see the next generation of innovative workplaces take on is the normalizing of collegial exercise. For decades, company culture has grown up in large part around food: between donuts to ease the Monday blues, catered staff retreat lunches, birthday and retirement cakes, and happy hour beers on Friday, most of us have become quite comfortable consuming calories with our work cohorts. On the other hand, what can we say about expending those calories together? Who among us would be totally cool jogging on the treadmill beside our boss before our 10:00 am check-in, or taking a lunchtime yoga class with the marketing department? Needless to say, that number is significantly smaller. PLASTARC envisions a healthy workplace future in which exercising together is socially acceptable and even desirable; a future in which next-gen community managers are just as likely to recognize, reward, and connect coworkers by organizing an energizing group stretch, a refreshing walk outside, or an hour off to hit the gym as they are by unveiling a plate of gourmet cookies.

Honoring the new bottom line, naturally

Though the efficacy of the ounces of prevention bestowed by ABW and other healthy workplace initiatives can be seen in the most black-and-white of metrics—like health insurance costs, absenteeism, and turnover rates (as well as in more qualitative measurements, like employee morale)—some CEOs are still unwilling to evolve. At present, ABW’s greatest obstacle remains conventional company culture.

Yet, we believe that as positive empirical data continues to mount and diminish misgivings about ABW’s wellness benefits, this hurdle will eventually fall away. Activity-based working offers a sound strategy for improving employee well-being on multiple levels—not least of all by helping workers avoid that post-lunch "Why am I not thrilled to be going back to my desk right now?" sensation—and it can work especially well for organizations lacking the wherewithal to implement more formal wellness programs. Simultaneously, as employees increasingly hold well-being—a composite of healthy mental, physical, and social states—to be an indisputable right that their workplace should support, we believe employers will accommodate them only more and more, by offering amenities that don’t go against the grain of their innate needs, but actually cater to them. After all, people are industry’s breadwinners in the information age. It’s the thought-work of us nature-bound human employees—not the widget-stamping of inanimate factory equipment—that’s now driving business success. Today, people make the bottom line.