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The 1,2,3 of ABW


Businesspeople working together on an activity
Image: Drobot Dean -
Even as the Delta variant’s spread throws return-to-office plans into a state of flux, one thing seems a certainty for many workplaces: The days of the fixed desk are done.
That’s to say, any doubts about the activity-based working (ABW) office concept that’s been floating around for the last several years have necessarily dissipated for any company considering a future hybrid mix of in-office and remote work at scale. A one-to-one ratio between employee and desk might have made sense in the pre-COVID days when offices tended to be 40% to 50% occupied on any given day, but not when the daily occupancy rate might typically be closer to 20%.
With the ABW model, an office comprises a diverse mix of areas set up for different types of activities, and employees have the flexibility of working in whichever area best suits their needs of the moment. “Depending on whether your next hour of work will entail a sensitive phone call, a group discussion, or some focused writing, you could choose between heading to a private phone booth, a cafe-type meeting area, or a standing desk,” wrote real-estate strategy firm PLASTARC, a longtime ABW advocate, in a January 2017 article.
Now, as always, approaching ABW requires thinking about the physical space, of course, but technology and people/policy, too, Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, said. She elaborated:
Space – Diversity is paramount, to the point PLASTARC made in that 2017 article noted above. The short and sweet of it is, “There’s no sense in having activity-based working if there are no different spaces to go to based on activities.”
Technology – In many cases, the office space employees return to will be a shadow, square footage wise, of its former self. This reduced footprint, combined with the new ABW model, will make some employees uneasy about their days in the office. Implementing a room or space booking system is one good way make people feel more comfortable and confident that the space they need while in the office will be available for them, Marsh said. “While that kind of technology isn’t a requirement for ABW, it is becoming increasingly important,” she added.
People/policy – Likewise, workplace leaders need to make people comfortable enough to use all of the various activity spaces, Marsh said. This they can accomplish through formal communications and informal communications. For example, “if a senior leader uses a soft seating or lounge area, through their own behavior they’re endorsing the use of that space,” she explained. “That’s a really important component” for ABW acceptance, she added.
Fortunately, many employees have already needed to empty out their desks and take home all the personal trappings that once made their workspaces their own, thus lowering the barrier of entry on ABW, Marsh said. “Now,” she added, “a lot of companies have the advantage — even if they haven’t gotten new furniture — of having a clean slate, so to speak, because they don’t have a lifetime of personally stored items at every single workstation.”