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The evidence is in on activity based working

Many (some unproven) claims have been made about the benefits of agile/activity based working (ABW) on workers’ health and work performance, but the jury is no longer out: In a recently published systematic review, we report that there is consensus that ABW is good for interaction, work performance and control, but unfavourable for concentration and privacy.

Mindful office design

Office designs (open-plan, agile, cell) evoke mixed and sometimes strong feelings. These design decisions are often based on tradition or trends followed enthusiastically, but without evidence to back them.

For millions of office workers, having workspaces that support our needs could greatly improve the quality of work life. New, well-intended strategies such as activity based working (ABW/agile) need scientific evidence demonstrating effectiveness and justifying their expense.

Agile working or ABW is all the rage now. It has almost become the default when redesigning or building new offices. While open-plan offices have quite a bad reputation, often due to noisy and perhaps nosy co-workers, ABW is more than just open-plan. Instead it has stepped away from the cubicle as the only space to work. It aims to support the multitude of different tasks we perform on a daily basis by providing the freedom to choose the setting (such as meeting or quiet room, collaborative space or café) that is most appropriate for the task at hand, all while saving on valuable office space.

Evidence-based design

When you go to the doctor, you expect the medical treatment to be based on best practice – hence that it is evidence-based – and you’d be outraged at the suggestion of snake oil and the application of leeches. However, it seems like the same is not expected of design. There is however a movement working towards increasing evidence-based decisions in design. But how do we know what best practice for office design is, and what the evidence actually says about ABW?

Well, to find that out, we do what we do in the medical field – a systematic review of the available scientific literature on the topic. Hence, we set afield to do that for ABW.

We searched all literature from a range of databases on any health and wellbeing, work performance outcomes, or aspects of the perceptions of the work environment in relation to ABW/agile working in comparison to other types of offices.

The initial search generated 1403 studies. After screening by title and abstract and then further full-text screening using the set inclusion and exclusion criteria, 17 studies involving 36,039 participants were included. We scrutinised these 17 articles in detail to find out what they had done and what their findings were.

The study designs varied in rigorousness from qualitative studies to pre–post-trials and in sample size ranging from 12 to 11,799. The settings were offices with some kind of ABW/agile work office environments, mainly corporate, but also universities and the public sector. The studies originated from Australia, Sweden, UK and the Netherlands.

What does the evidence say?

The good

A strong positive for ABW is the opportunity for communication, interaction and collaboration. The ABW work style can support employees to work more collaboratively, with efficient and effective communication methods, through increased opportunities for formal and informal knowledge exchange and networking.

Seventy per cent of studies investigating the impact on work performance/productivityin ABW environments relative to standard offices (cell or open-plan) found a positive effect.

The perception of control (where and when work is done) was higher in ABW environments than in other office typologies.

The bad

Many of the studies found that the office workers find it hard to concentrate in the ABW environment due to increased interruptions and distractions, such as high noise levels (particularly in comparison to cell offices). But ABW environments often perform better than standard open-plan offices. Workplaces that provide sufficient and well-designed workspaces for quiet/concentrated work seem to perform better.

Many studies also reported privacyissues, where people feel uncomfortable when other people can hear their conversations and see their computer screens.

The undecided

We cannot say with certainty if ABW has positive effects on health (physical and mental), based on the data from the 17 studies. We need further research before those claims can be made.

Summary of the number of studies that found a positive, negative or no effect on an outcome in the activity-based working (ABW) environment. Sample size or the quality of the study have not been taken into consideration. Credit: BRI

What about the public sector?

We don’t yet really know what the public sector thinks about this. It has been slightly later to jump on the Activity Band Wagon, hence fewer studies are available. In spite of the limited research, it seems like the public and educational sectors seem less positive about ABW. What is the reason for this? Strong resistance from some groups, in particular academics. As an academic myself, I can say that I have some insider intelligence. Some concerns are related to not being able to do the job without a cell office. Also, I have a hunch that it might be related to a sense of achievement or status, in a sector where career advancement and monetary remuneration is scarce and hard to get by; where a private office and number of bookshelves is a measure of status.

Recommendations

One-size does not fit all

A recurring theme in the papers we reviewed was that it is important to tailor the design to each organisation, because the needs vary depending on type of work performed and personalities. Work can vary from high concentration to high interactions. Talking to the end users (the actual people on the floor, rather than the managers or one or two people in a steering committee) about their workstyle, types of tasks and needs will enable a design and fitout that is suitable for that population.

Specifically, in terms of physical solutions, more rooms for concentrated work were requested across the board; and provisions for sensitive conversations and protection of computer screens should be considered. The issue of noise could be mitigated by cultural solutions, such as a policy of no talking on the phone in the open-plan space.

Another oft-mentioned issue; the “you must come in early to get the seat you want” can also be managed through tailored solutions. This would reduce the reported stress around finding an appropriate place to sit unless you arrive really early in the morning.

Flexibility and support

The physical space needs to be flexible and easily respond to changing needs of an organisation, and the majority of the studies report that an appropriate management style, modelling and support is vital for successful implementation of ABW.

Tread slowly

Some sectors, such as academia, have been working in a traditional way with traditional offices with lineal metres of books and reports for many generations. For them it is traumatic, almost, to give that up and change the way they work. Perhaps going from that way of working to a full-blown ABW is too big a jump, too fast. I recommend a hybrid solution as an interim, where everyone has a fixed desk, where they can keep student theses and journal articles, but still have all the other options of ABW available to them.

Evidence-based-ish

We are now building the evidence for agile working. ABW is good for interaction and communication, but unfavourable for concentration and privacy. By capitalising on the good and fixing or mitigating the bad, we can improve staff experience and contribute to retention of staff. With sufficient concentration spaces, a considerate office culture and privacy provisions and strong support, ABW is a promising concept.

Dr Lina Engelen is a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health.

The ABW systematic review team also included Sarah Young, Josephine Chau, Martin Mackey, Dheepa Jay and Adrian Bauman.

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