Activity based and agile working are nothing new; they’re a return to an old order

One of the most talked about office design trends right now is activity based working. The principle itself is pretty simple: it means work that is based on a range of specific activities which people do in a number of different and appropriate locations. Because it is something of an alternative to the tradition of personal workstations and because it allows people to work both in a traditional workplace (albeit in task specific zones) as well as other places, it is usually associated with the wider trend towards more flexible forms of working. It is typified in the current era by a range like Atom designed by Simon Pengelly for Boss Design.

It is also somewhat controversial; partly because it is seen as something of a radical departure from what we might still consider mainstream office design. And yet, in an historical context, it is activity based working that is the norm. When seen in this light it is the idea of one person working at one desk that stands out as a peculiarly 20th Century idea, beginning with what is widely seen as the first truly modern office, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building from 1903 in New York State, which lasted until technology became more mobile during the 1990s and authors such as Frank Duffy and Franklin Becker captured the idea that the office could become a series of spaces in which people could work depending on what they needed to do.

But even in the 1990s there was nothing really new to all this. In fact most of us are introduced to this idea at a very early age. It is school and later higher education that provides the archetype of the building for learning, sharing, working quietly, interacting and taking breaks. Students, lecturers and teachers alike move constantly to the best space for what they need to do; classrooms, labs, break areas, gyms, computer rooms, workshops, seminar rooms, media spaces,  assembly halls and whatever, each fitted out with the right furniture, materials, resources and equipment. Schools embody activity based working and it would be madness to suggest any alternative.

We can see the same intuitive adoption of activity based working throughout history. The commentators of the 1990s, for example, habitually compared the idea of activity based work to a private members club, or the cloisters of medieval monks. In both cases, people did not sit still but moved through the building to the most appropriate space. The two main voices behind this idea belonged to Frank Duffy of DEGW in the UK and the writer Franklin Becker in the US. Echos of the way they spoke about the workplace can be heard in the public discourse on office design to this day.

Yet when we talk about offices we still tend to seek out prescriptive solutions, which is where much of the controversy about activity based working derives, as it does for the open plan, telecommuting, hot desking and other models of workplace design. But we are fortunate to live in an age in which these practices, coupled with the intelligent use of technology and the right working culture, offer us choices about how we can make ourselves as productive, healthy and balanced as we can be and consequently help the business to thrive.

Indeed there’s nothing to stop us creating hybrids of these models of the workplace based on a thorough understanding of the needs of the people who work for the business, its culture, technological infrastructure and the type of building it occupies.