December 5, 2018

A tailored approach: why ABW isn’t for everyone

Where space is increasingly a commodity for businesses and workplace flexibility becomes a goal for companies and employees alike, more businesses are opting for ABW as the ‘golden ticket’ to driving greater business outcomes, with less waste. But it’s not the only way to creating a productive workforce. Here, we look at some of the commonly asked questions about ABW – and why it’s not for everyone.

What is ABW?

Activity-based working is a workplace model where employees aren’t assigned a fixed seat or space in the office. Teams gather in collaborative or open settings for team-based tasks, and quiet rooms give individuals an opportunity for privacy when needed. Many businesses opt for this model as a way to reduce floor space. The model assumes a certain degree of flexibility and autonomy with regard to the way people work. These environments can often offer employees a sense of freedom and empowerment to choose the work settings that best suits the task at hand; be it collaborative or focus work. ABW also tends to offer flexibility when it comes to working from home or outside the office.

Does ABW work for every business?

‘Every business is different,’ explains Laurent Soulat, Principal Client Partnerships. ‘And when it comes to which workplace model is right for the business, there is no magic formula. It’s about taking the time to understand the company, and finding the best solution based on the culture, people and objectives.’

Madalena De Barros, Design Principal agrees: ‘ABW isn’t the only option. In determining the right workplace model, we need to consider the client’s history. What’s their heritage? Are they a global company, with global guidelines? What kind of work do they do? Through an intensive strategic approach – with interviews, workshops and stakeholder engagement – we can begin to understand what their unique requirements are.’

What are the alternatives to ABW? 

ABW is not a one fit all solution, there are a number of different ways of working, from traditional, to open, agile and hybrid settings. Within each of these models, are further variations – for example, there could be a traditional model with private offices, but also incorporates some of the agile ways of working, offering alternative work settings, collaboration areas and breakout rooms. Importantly, no two designs are the same – as no two businesses are the same.

‘We don’t take a cookie-cutter approach,’ says De Barros. ‘We work with our clients to understand their business drivers. We challenge our clients to make sure the design stays true to the project objectives, offering our expertise and understanding of trends and workplace behaviour; but most importantly, we take the time to ask the tough questions and then listen.’

The benefits of traditional workplace models

‘One of the benefits of a traditional workplace model is being able to work with a team in close proximity,’ explains Soulat. ‘Management work beside their teams, which can help to foster a tight team spirit. By seeing the same faces every day, it can create amongst employees a deeper bond and attachment to the team.’

‘ABW can have its cons,’ says De Barros. ‘It assumes that everyone can communicate in a certain way, and if those communication methods aren’t aligned with the company culture, it can create tension within the teams and people in the office. There is also no ability to personalise and create a sense of belonging within a certain space; employees can gain emotional value from having fixed desk.’

Traditional forms of working can arguably be a more efficient way of working, suggests Soulat: ‘You don’t lose time trying to find people. Team members can gain the answers to their questions quickly, simply by walking over and having a direct conversation.’

Keeping it traditional: considerations to keep in mind

As with all workplace models, an important consideration is how people spend their time. ‘We structure time in four different ways,’ says Soulat. ‘Focus time, collaborative time, learning and social time. When we do workplace strategy, we work with the client to understand how their employees spend their time. So even with a traditional model which may allocate a significant amount of space for focus work, there will still be consideration given for spaces that allow employees to collaborate, learn and engage with each other socially.’

And when it comes to design, access to natural light is always important; but with traditional working, designing around light becomes somewhat more nuanced. De Barros explains: ‘When designing fixed workspaces, we need to consider how the view is accessible to everyone, and how the natural light filters through private offices into the other areas of the workplace.’

Future-proofing design is key to business success

No matter the workplace model, a key component to successful workplace design is future-proofing; that is, facilitating business growth through design. “And with millennials set to make up 75% of the workplace by 2025, businesses need to understand how to work with the future workforce, as well as the current,' says De Barros.


Read how Boston Scientific adopted a hybrid model to transform the way they work.