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Workplace Design Trends: The Rise of Activity-Based Design

It’s no secret that the way we work today will have evolved by the time we awake tomorrow. As we transition past the Post-Information Age of rapid change and growth, our attention is shifting away from the technology itself. Rather, we now see more value in how we can innovatively use technology as a tool...

By Megan Garcia


August 1, 2019

It’s no secret that the way we work today will have evolved by the time we awake tomorrow. As we transition past the Post-Information Age of rapid change and growth, our attention is shifting away from the technology itself. Rather, we now see more value in how we can innovatively use technology as a tool to enhance our work and productivity. We are constantly transforming how we perform job functions and the methods of communication and interaction in the workplace, much of which is influenced by new that allow us to connect virtually and on the go. Therefore, it is no surprise that employers seek out workplaces that promote collaboration and incorporate technology in an optimized footprint.


Death of the Open Office

Collaboration not only increases productivity, but also promotes knowledge exchange and thus grows the collective intelligence of a work group. A vital requirement of successful collaboration is face-to-face interaction with others. Many employers believe that the open office is the infallible solution that will lead to increased face-to-face interaction. However, studies have found that this is not true. One study reports that open workspaces actually reduce collaboration by roughly 70%.

Productivity in open workspaces is hindered by increased noise level, decreased visual privacy and decreased sound privacy. The natural response of employees in an open office is to create psychological or perceived barriers where the physical barriers once existed. We use noise-cancelling headphones to block out distractions, though these can create another distraction and reduce productivity. We resort to e-mail and messenger applications to communicate with colleagues to avoid being overheard by others, which results in more time spent expressing one idea and less time exchanging ideas back and forth. To mitigate further exposure to others, we stay glued to our seats in our limited personal space, eliminating the opportunity for impromptu collaboration. All of these stressors, introduced by open floorplans, interfere with our ability to work collaboratively. While there are design solutions that mitigate the effect of distractions (think acoustic baffles and panels), they do not eliminate the stressors from the environment.


Rise of Activity-Based Design

The open office space is not a one-size-fits-all solution to workplace design. Employers are increasingly turning to alternative models such as activity-based design to create spaces that are tailored to the needs of their employees. Activity-based design promotes productivity and collaboration by responding to how people work and understanding that this fluctuates based on personal preferences and work modes. An activity-based office design does not necessarily eliminate the open workspace, but rather balances it with other types of work spaces based on the needs of the employees to productively perform their jobs. Activity-based work can be categorized into three broad zones: concentrative, community, and collaborative.

Concentrative zones provide a space where employees can retreat to perform heads-down work. These are quiet zones where acoustic privacy is a prime concern. Visual privacy is another key element in order to reduce distractions. Other considerations to promote productivity in concentrative zones include access to natural daylight and views, air quality, and biophilic elements.

Community zones provide the opportunity for informal face-to-face interaction, which ultimately improves collective intelligence and innovative thinking. These zones should provide flexibility for both individual work and group work, and should be amenable to various functions. In order to encourage the exchange of ideas, these spaces should be inviting and noise-friendly social areas. Although acoustically isolated from the rest of the office, these zones should be within close proximity to encourage frequency of use.

Collaborative zones are highly interactive gathering spaces, equipped with acoustic controls and technology to support effective communication. Collaborative zones should be flexible and able to accommodate a range of informal and formal gatherings, everything from a two-person brainstorming session to an all-hands presentation.

What these zones ultimately look like depends entirely on the job functions of the employees. The goal of activity-based design is to focus on how people perform their jobs and then to plan a space that supports how they work. Whatever form these zones take they need to be separated but in proximity to one another so that employees can seamlessly shift from one work mode to another. By creating distinct zones, activity-based planning restores some of the physical boundaries that help people compartmentalize and make sense of their environment. Activity-based design eliminates workplace stressors and provides ample opportunities for informal and formal interaction, improving productivity in the workplace.


Megan Garcia is an Architect with over ten years of experience in the Alexandria office of IBI Group. She specializes in workplace planning and design, with projects ranging from the space optimization of small offices to the large-scale programming and planning of entire headquarters. Her interest lies in behavioral responses to the built environment and how architecture can guide the interaction of people.

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