Is Open Plan old news? Activity Based Working 101

The ‘open plan office’ has actually been around since the 1960’s. So if you’re still referring to it as the ‘new way of working’, you may have some catch-up to do.

The trend away from private offices and into open plan environments has been in full swing in New Zealand over the last few decades driven mainly by organisations looking to reduce overheads and improve collaboration.

There’s been a significant amount of research and experimentation into the efficacy of open plan working, including its many guises such as hot desking.

Most of the research indicates that while savings in real estate costs have been achieved, the impact of open plan working on employees is not always positive.

For the most part, open plan offices are noisier; employees can find it difficult to concentrate or hold private conversations, and improved collaboration isn’t always achieved. And yes, the results will depend on the design of the fit out and how it meets the needs of the users.

Essentially – there are open plan environments that work and open plan environments that don’t.

Enter Activity Based Working.

Many proponents see Activity Based Working as a way to take the upsides of open plan working (collaboration, flexibility, space efficiency) and eliminate the downsides (noise and distractions).


Activity Based Working (ABW)


ABW is a concept where spaces are tailored to work tasks rather than individuals. No employee ‘owns’ a workstation. Rather, the broader workspace provides a variety of activity areas that allow you to conduct specific tasks including learning, focusing, collaborating and socialising. So where you work, is driven by what you’re doing. It allows you and your team to choose the most productive way of working including how, when and where.

You may choose a quiet area for focused work, a team hub for project work, a casual area for brainstorming with colleagues. ABW also extends to outside of the office. You can work from anywhere — from home, from a coffee shop or an airport lounge.

But, as with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages.

ABW Advantages

– Ability to choose where to work based on needs leads to better productivity
– Improves support for teamwork and collaboration and therefore innovation
– Helps to attract and retain talent
– Improves employee well-being
– Greater real estate efficiency with higher utilisation of space
– Improves flexibility to move teams and people quickly
– Reduces workplace footprint per person reduces environmental impact.

ABW Disadvantages

– Many employees tend to stick to the same work setting
– It can impact the social dynamic in the workplace, creating tensions around the use of space
– Creates additional work; finding and setting up a workspace, moving between spaces, packing up.


Is ABW the answer?


ABW is about much more than hot-desking and open plan interiors; rather it’s about carefully designed spaces meeting functional requirements and thoughtful changes to company culture.

Where ‘open plan’ is a style of office space, ABW is a style of working.

For ABW to be successful, it must be relevant to the workforce: who they are and what they do at work. It must be relevant to the culture of the business. And most importantly it must be supported by leadership.

Watch this space – as we’ll explore ABW further in next month’s blog.

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