Wellness Implications of the Activity-Based Workspace

The following is a guest post written by Melissa Marsh and Rachel Smith of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm dedicated to shifting the metrics associated with workplace from ‘square feet and inches’, to ‘occupant satisfaction and performance.’

Wellness Implications of the Activity-based Workspace | health and exercise at work

As the proliferation of fitness trackers, meditation apps, and mindfulness training courses attest to, the preoccupation with employee wellbeing is now decidedly mainstream. Expectations in the workplace have changed accordingly, as employees increasingly hold wellbeing—a composite of physical, emotional, and mental states—as an undisputed right, and one that should be supported by the workplace.

Not surprisingly, this shift has run parallel to an increasing awareness of alarmingly upward trends in chronic diseases. These have been attributed, at least in part, to the increase in sedentary behavior ushered in by reliance on auto transport, the continued engineering of homes, public spaces and schools to require the least amount of physical exertion possible, and the high number of hours the average person spends on the computer and in front of the TV.

The traditional workplace—where desk-bound workers sit for hours on end (an activity now hailed as “the new smoking”)—has also been fingered as a culprit, and thus a prime site for both inquiry and intervention. In line with employee expectations, and no doubt reflective of employers’ desired alleviation of health insurance costs, workplaces have responded through strategies like biophilic design, implementation of active design guidelines, and providing activity-based workspace.

But how does an environment suited to both productivity and employee wellbeing—a state understandably associated with relaxation and comfort—work? In the carefully conceived activity-based workspace, the latter can give way to the former.

The activity-based workspace, wherein employees forego dedicated seats in favor of diverse activity areas suited for different tasks, is one typology where this is especially evident. And as workspace technologies make activity-based working increasingly practicable, it is primed to be widely implemented by employers concerned with a healthy, happy workforce. At present, its greatest obstacle is conventional company culture.

Outlined below are some key principles of activity-based workspace that contribute to its success in improving employee wellbeing.

The Activity-Based Workspace (ABW) Can Be Comfy For Everyone

Flexibility is the hallmark of the activity-based workspace; here, employees are able to choose workspace suited to their moods and personalities. While the traditional workplace is built as one-size-fits-all, the workforce is inevitably a tapestry of varying personalities, associations, and habits, meaning workers will respond to the same environment in different ways.

In the workplace this is significant in regards to both productivity and happiness—some individuals require peace and quiet for activities like reading, writing, and analysis, while others find the stimulation of adjacent activity valuable to such work. The freedom to choose or alter one’s environment, offered through activity-based workspace elements such as manipulable furnishings, flexibility of work location and schedule, and technologies that extend control, has been linked to feelings of agency. This is particularly crucial for sustaining mental health in what can often be stressful and anxiety-rich spaces.

Flexibility and employee agency were some of the principles that encouraged software company Mozilla to choose an activity-based workspace for their Toronto office. As an organization placing high value on employee freedom and corporate transparency, Mozilla sought to empower “a more productive and fulfilled open-source community,” allowing people to be where they feel they are most effective, without top-down seating and space allocation. The activity-based workspace’s “zones,” including a research library with low ambient noise and a music-filled coffee shop ideal for phone calls and staff breaks, all offer employees of varying moods, persuasions and preferences a space that suits them.

Areas in the activity-based workspace dedicated to specific tasks, particularly those allowing employees to screen out external stimuli as needed, are also useful for encouraging focused concentration as opposed to incessant task switching. While the status quo mode of working for many, the latter has been associated with feeling overwhelmed and cognitively exhausted, making areas for deep focus, in supplement to those for collaboration, vital to a healthy and happy workplace.

Movement is Embedded in the Activity-Based Workspace

Regular physical movement is built into the script of the activity-based workspace. By nature of its distributed arrangement, it aligns with active design recommendations for constructing environments that nudge occupants towards health promoting choices by requiring employees to travel frequently between activity areas. As such, the activity-based workspace can not only offer employees improved physical fitness, but also stimulate cognition and brain function: according to studies in neuropsychiatry, when the body starts moving almost all regions of the brain “light up,” making for improved creativity and problem-solving.

The push towards regular, though not strenuous, movement in the workplace will prove particularly critical in the coming years, as the demographic of workers 55 and older moves to comprise a projected 20% by 2020 (versus 13% in 2000). These workers have higher rates of chronic health issues like diabetes and depression, which benefit from increased physical movement throughout the day.

Current research maintains that while the popular target of 10,000 steps is likely out of reach for your average American, and particularly those already suffering from poor health, more steps are better than less. Ultimately, experts say, “you want to spend as little time not moving as possible within reason.” While the non-activity-based workspace can still successfully implement active design strategies like the open and highly visible staircase, the activity-based workspace contains tacit and unavoidable catalysts for exertion that all employees, regardless of age or ability, can benefit from.

Related article: Workforce Health: Is Your Workplace Helping or Hurting?

ABW Fosters Diverse Connections

Task routes encouraging improved physical and mental fitness also encourage valuable social interaction and communication amongst workers. Traditional corporate work environments tend to cluster workers by department, meaning the expertise, perspectives and backgrounds of adjacent workers can often be homogenous.

In the activity-based workspace offering freedom of movement and unassigned workspace, diverse individuals find themselves engaging one another with much higher frequency, allowing for the type of interdisciplinary and cultural cross-pollination that has proven to increase risk-taking and innovation, and ultimately drive business. Additionally, increasing familiarity between a higher percentage of co-workers also heightens the sense of communal and social responsibility within the workplace, making for increased emotional comfort.

PLASTARC’s study of a trading floor environment bore out the value of increasing interaction in the workplace through distributed and open work spaces. Building on previous research supporting the effective use of sight lines and circulation routes to promote bonds between teams, PLASTARC’s study of occupant behavior and satisfaction on a trading floor identified the need to foster a freer flow of ideas and access to more individuals within the organization. PLASTARC proposed that building in multiple paths of interaction in the workspace would allow for more casual, unscripted engagements between employees, and stressed the importance of weaving together spaces that promoted collaboration while allowing for quieter and more focused work when it was called for.

For organizations placing high value on employee wellness and wellbeing, whether seeking reduced healthcare costs, absenteeism and turnover, or merely seeking to boost morale, activity-based working offers a strategy for improving employee wellbeing on multiple levels, without the implementation of external or opt-in employee wellness programs. And as empirical data continues to diminish doubt about the wellness benefits of the activity-based workspace, the hurdle of corporate culture will likely fall away, as well.

Melissa Marsh

Melissa Marsh

Founder & Executive Director at PLASTARC
Melissa Marsh leads the Occupant Experience discipline at Savills Studley, which leverages the tools of social science and business strategy to help organizations make more informed, data-driven, and people-centric real estate decisions. Savills Studley is the nation's leading commercial real estate services firm specializing in tenant representation. Melissa is also Founder and Executive Director of PLASTARC, a workplace innovation and organizational strategy firm that helps clients leverage their spaces for optimal experience and performance through the power of social research and design analytics. Melissa brings her passion for the user experience of design to all her work, and has dedicated her career to to shifting the metrics associated with workplace from 'square feet and inches' to 'occupant satisfaction and performance.’
Melissa Marsh

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