Activity-Based Working: Trendy Fad or Efficient Model That’s Here to Stay?

Back in 1993, Jay Chiat, owner of the Chiat/Day ad agency in Los Angeles, had an idea to revitalize his office. Chiat noticed that his workers functioned much like elementary school students, sitting in the same desk and performing the same activities every day, only getting up for lunch and bathroom breaks.

So Chiat made a radical change: he banished job titles for his workers and took away personal workstations, landline telephones and desktop computers.

Instead, employees were able to work from home and only come into the office for meetings. They could also work in the office and sign out a company-owned laptop and cell phone; belongings would be stored in a small locker as employees worked at large tables with their colleagues.

Ultimately, the experiment failed, as there weren’t enough cell phones and laptops for everyone, and many employees skipped work altogether. And the lockers didn’t hold all personal belongings and files properly, so many employees had to use the trunks of their cars for storage.

Yet today, this type of office is actually on the rise once more, according to architect Clive Wilkinson, who also created Google’s quirky work spaces. Wilkinson had designed the agency for Chiat, who passed away in 2002.

Chiat was “way ahead of his time,” said Wilkinson. In the mid-90s, he was perhaps a bit too far ahead by placing “an appalling burden” on his staff at that time.

Today, this model is used by other organizations, like the Wilkinson-designed Gerson Lehrman Group. GLG’s 250 employees use company laptops and phone headsets and store their belongings in lockers.

GLG employees can also choose from a variety of work areas rather than using assigned seating: a traditional or standing desk, a semi-enclosed carrel or a closed-door booth. They can also work in the sunlit atrium cafe, which has a barista on staff from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

This approach is referred to as “activity-based working,” a term coined by Erik Veldhoen, a Dutch consultant and author. Workers are free to sit wherever they want, without having to reserve desks in advance.

“We’ve seen a shift in the workplace from people going from full height cubicles down to the open plan, collaborative layouts,” says John Kiel, Owner of Precision Office Furniture Installation. “There are pros and cons to each of these designs. Time will tell which proves to be the most effective office environment conducive to higher productivity.”

Louis Lhoest, a partner at Veldhoen + Co., explained that this approach helps workers be more conscious of what they’re doing in the office — and why they’re doing it. But it also takes some adjusting for workers.

Managers, for instance, have to get used to not seeing their workers right in front of them. And workers aren’t able to decorate their desks like they would in a cubicle, though they can use their laptops to fill that need.

Wilkinson, however, thinks the need to personalize a work space is a response to bad office design. “If you have an exciting work space, you really don’t need to decorate it further,” he said.

Additionally, employees should have a say in the design of their office, according to Wilkinson. GLG, for example, held town hall-style meetings to keep employees informed about the upcoming changes before the redesign.

“You’re really asking for trouble if you don’t carry your staff along with you,” Wilkinson said.

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