Activity-Based Working and Biophilic Design: The Future of Office Spaces?

The office is dead, right? Remote working is the future. Pretty soon, we’ll all just be plugging our brains directly...

The office is dead, right?

Remote working is the future. Pretty soon, we’ll all just be plugging our brains directly into our laptops and pointing our rocket ships at low-orbiting space stations with a Starbucks and low-fi Martian jazz.

Or have we jumped the gun a little? 

Many people think that fixed-location office space is outdated and unpopular, but is that true?

COVID-19 made remote and hybrid working more acceptable and accessible, but it also changed our understanding of working environments. For some forward-thinking business owners, the office is now more than just a place with a designated desk that employees gather to work at.

Offices can become more than just spaces filled with people and stuff. They can boost productivity, employee focus, happiness and health and, when designed well, potentially increase revenue and staff retention. They can also be used to support brand messaging. Employers are beginning to see this. 

Business Software company Capterra found that 4 out of 5 US space decision-makers said their company needed to operate from an office. Most companies were also looking at moving into larger premises, showing that the future of modern working is far more nuanced than just the location-based versus remote working debate: companies are not only keeping their office space but seeking to expand it.

Capterra’s research also recognises specific trends and changes in how employees interact with their working space, finding that contactless technologies like smart keycards and dedicated video conferencing rooms are now more common. So what does this mean, and what other types of office trends are emerging? 

Activity-Based Working

When most people think of an office, they’re probably thinking of the traditional set-up: banks of individually designated desks, artificial lighting, and maybe a communal printer, filing cabinet and water cooler all sharing the same floor space, perhaps with a few doors leading to a conference or board room. The employees define the space rather than the space reflecting the tasks that need doing. 

Traditional office with open-plan desk arrangement and artificial lights


The traditional office layout isn’t always an ideal approach. For example, is focused work possible when someone sits at a neighbouring desk making a phone call or eating a pot noodle loudly? Can you collaborate effectively if an entire team huddles around one person’s desk? Are meetings more exhausting in a conference room without natural light?

Activity-based working (ABW) creates areas or zones within an office to help employees become more productive. The idea is that rather than a person assigned to a specific desk to complete a wide range of tasks, under an ABW system, that employee is free to move around the office, dropping into the most applicable zone for that task. Capterra describes it as a desk ‘neighbourhood’ because you can pop from one place to another as if you were visiting specific areas within a town. 

Amos Beech offers the following example of what a typical day of ABW might look like.

“An employee can start her morning with a brainstorming session at the coffee bar, then move to a conference room for a client meeting and then move to a more private workstation to make calls and work tasks that require extra focus.”

Kelly Dubisar, a principal design director, explained to WorkLife News that ‘the idea is that you’re really able to choose your own adventure in terms of the furniture settings.’

Collaborative areas would be where employees meet face-to-face to hash-out ideas, debate or discuss concepts and find creative solutions to challenges or issues. So what would this area look like? It might have a large central table and smaller satellite tables. There could be a breakfast bar area with high chairs for grabbing a coffee to talk things through or comfortable beanbags for later-in-the-day discussions. It would need tools to aid collaboration: plug sockets, whiteboards, television screens or monitors, fast WiFi and maybe a coffee machine.

Compare this area to a quiet zone designed for more focused work time. This could have individual booths or spaced-out tables with headphones. There’d be signs reminding people that there shouldn’t be conversations or phone calls taken in that area.

Compare this to an exercise area with an ECO:POD where employees can exercise to relieve stress and recharge focus and productivity.

Employers may also want to add a social or kitchen area, encouraging staff to take a lunch break away from their desks. This would ideally be a brightly lit and inviting kitchen with big tables. It’s also a way for employees to socialise and increase morale and community within the building, especially if the company has many different departments. 


Activity Based Working Office Different Areas


By adapting to ABW, offices should be able to make more of their existing space by reducing the number of desks without compromising the workspace. 

Hot desking is already popular in some companies. If employees are concerned about desk availability on certain days, then ABW is adaptable. Several companies use a system called desk hoteling. Office RND describes this as when ‘people assigned to a neighbourhood can choose a desk upfront and reserve it for an hour, day, or week’ Having added it to their own office, they decided on an 80/20 split of hoteling and hot desking so that everyone can be accommodated, even at short notice.

ABW will differ for each company, depending on the type of work undertaken and the number of employees. One of the most significant advantages for companies is that by making office space more flexible, managing that space becomes easier. It may also allow a company to grow without upgrading to a larger, more expensive area.

WeWork explains that ABW should pay attention to design and sensory experience so that the zoning is apparent to those using it. They believe it’s vital to differentiate between high and low-energy areas. For example, when someone walks into their kitchen, there are brighter lights, the smell of freshly brewed coffee and music. It sets the tone for the working area. This would not be the same vibe for a quiet focus area. 

These details help create a more productive environment, but their impact on employee wellbeing shouldn’t be underestimated. Creating a pleasant and exciting workplace may also help even the most die-hard remote worker see the benefits of a hybrid model. It also gives employees a sense of control over their working day. Individuals choose how to execute and manage their workload, which creates trust, giving employees agency over their working day. 

But ABW isn’t the only thing touted as the future of office space design. 

Biophilic Design

Biophilic design brings nature and the outdoors into the office environment. It’s indoor plants, green walls, large windows that bring in natural light, water features, natural scents and sounds, and design elements that mimic natural shapes like curves, domes and arches. It uses raw materials like wood and stone in the building’s architecture or interior design.

Biophilic Office Design

Compare this to corporate colour schemes, fake pot plants and the utilitarian decor and furniture of some older offices. Companies are starting to adopt Biophilic Design because it can benefit the business as much as the employees. 

Take natural light, for example. 

We sleep better when exposed to natural light because we experience the natural cycle of the day, which our bodies and brains have evolved to respond to. Well-rested employees have more energy and will find it easier to maintain focus. One study found Walmart stores with skylights had sales that were 40% higher than those that didn’t, despite everything else in the store, including design and layout, being the same.

Another study found that exposure to natural light reduced the number of headaches, eyestrain and impaired vision by 84%. 

Employees exposed to natural light also take 6.5% fewer sick days than those who aren’t. And, of course, natural light can save money on electricity bills because artificial lights can be turned off on bright days. One study by Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis found that those sitting nearest the window were often 2% more productive, which throughout the year could add $100,000 ‘in value for every 100 workers’. 

And plants are important too. One study in 2014 found a 15% increase in productivity when ‘a previously spartan space’ had plants added to it. Plants can also reduce noise levels in an office by reducing ‘the distracting effects of background office chatter’, especially when larger plants are added to the edges of spaces —something anyone thinking of switching to activity-based working may find helpful. 

Of course, the clear advantage of Biophilic Design is that it makes for a much nicer working environment, especially now that officers are competing with the draw of remote working. And according to Coalesse, Biophilic Design can also convey messages ‘about brand and a signal about caring for the building occupants’.

Both ABW and Biophilic Design show that the way employers create and present office space has an impact beyond just aesthetic window dressing. It can boost productivity, employee job satisfaction and health, assist recruitment campaigns and contribute to a brand image strategy.

ABW and Biophilic Design show that rather than writing the office off, employers should look at adapting existing space and making it an active contributor to productivity and brand. 

It’s why Energym is developing the ECO:POD, a self-contained area where employees can exercise to boost productivity, decrease stress and improve fitness. Employees generate clean energy as they exercise, powering a nearby hot-desking area and helping businesses fulfil their ESG requirements. 


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