Is activity based working the solution to open-plan office unrest?

disability discrimination

If a workspace doesn’t have a slide or at least a ping pong table, you might be under the impression it isn’t an enjoyable place to work. This of course might be the case, but it won’t necessarily be because its lacking in Silicon Valley-style office perks. There are bigger design factors at play that determine whether employees feel content in their working environment. A recent report by Office Genie found that being comfortable with the design of the space you work in can boost happiness levels by a third, so it’s certainly worth giving the subject of design (and its relation to happiness) some serious attention. The Workplace Happiness Report, resulting from a survey of 2,000 office workers in the UK, discovered the design factors impacting employee happiness.

It will probably come as no surprise to find open-plan offices are the least favoured, housing the least happy workers. They’ve received a fair amount of criticism in recent years – with headlines as bold as “Open plan offices suck” appearing in The Telegraph. The open-plan office has not yet had its day, but rumblings of change are beginning to be felt. Activity based working (ABW) is providing an alternative to the open-plan design synonymous with the modern workplace. ABW encourages the use of a variety of spaces, each tailored to a different task. Try creating an area to aid collaboration and another to aid quiet concentration, an ABW advocate would most likely proclaim.

One of the key issues with an open-plan design is the fact it doesn’t allow for very much personal space, or very much control over personal space. When 40% of workers are concerned with the levels of privacy in their working environment, it is not an issue to be overlooked. The report found a cubicle design lends itself best to employee happiness, followed by the traditional set up of several, smaller rooms – this is probably due in part to the increased levels of privacy afforded by these spaces.

There are other environmental factors to bear in mind too. One in four office workers believe their workplace is too noisy and feel the levels of social interaction are too high. This is where ABW can come in handy; if an employee requires a quieter place to work, there should be one available if the employer adopts this design-led way of working.

ABW can also cater to different personality types in a way that workplaces with undifferentiated space cannot – without wanting to reduce people to simply introverts or extroverts and ignore individual nuances. If you need time alone to re-energise, or need to be in a more social environment for this to be the case, spaces in which to do so would be available with an ABW approach.

So what can we take from the findings related to design in Office Genie’s report? Should an open-plan design be confined to history books in place of ABW? Perhaps not. It is clear, however, that workers want more privacy, and they want a workspace that affords them the chance to escape noise and social disruptions – for reasons we can assume are both personal and professional.

When the working environment is cited as a source of stress by 16% of the workforce, and 12% consider “a better working environment” as the key incentive to improve their workplace happiness, such wants should be considered needs.