By Calvin Williams, Sales Director, Area

The design of the workplace is a reflection of the social, commercial, technological, economic and cultural forces that shape it. But primarily it is about the animal at the centre of them all. That is why there are a number of eternal truths about the workplace that we must always address, not least how it helps to nurture our wellbeing and relationships with other people.

The underlying aims may endure, but the debate moves on and is framed in new ways. In the past, the focus on workplace ergonomics and health and safety was largely about how to prevent people coming to harm while at work. In recent years, this has developed into a much more sophisticated and broad approach that addresses wider and more holistic approaches to wellbeing. 

Encouraging workplace wellness

This isn’t surprising. In part because of the nature of work, the UK population is about 20 percent less active than it was 50 years ago, according to Public Health England. With this figure predicted to rise to 35 percent by 2030, a growing number of people and employers are aware of the need to increase our general levels of activity.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of a new approach is the sit/stand workstation which has become a common sight in offices as the new approach takes hold. Firms are looking to encourage staff to become more active in other ways too. They include the use of apps like StepJockey and the propensity of employers to offer staff Fitbits and increase access to cycle parks, on-site gyms and washroom facilities.

Activity can also be built into the very fabric of the workplace. Activity-based working (ABW) is based on the idea that no employee has a permanently assigned workstation. Rather, the workspace provides employees with a variety of spaces that are designed to facilitate specific tasks including quiet work, breakout, learning, focusing, collaborating and socialising.

A study published in the journal Occupational Medicine suggests that buildings designed to promote active workstyles in this way have a positive effect on the health of occupants. The research, led by Dr Lina Engelen of the University of Sydney, set out to explore whether an ‘active design’ office increased the physical activity, productivity and mindset of occupants. The results suggested that people responded to the active design of the spaces by spending less time sitting and more time standing and consequently reported lower levels of back pain.

What's new about activity-based working?

But such workplaces are not solely about wellness. They are also perfectly aligned to mainstream modern working practices such as agile and flexible working and collaborative work. They can also foster greater workforce engagement and empowerment.

Although these are all very contemporary issues, the ideas that address them are not new. In the 1980s and 1990s, workplace writers such as Frank Duffy and Franklin Becker first crystallised the idea that the office could become a series of spaces in which people could work depending on what they needed to do.

But even back then there was nothing really new to all this. In fact, most of us are introduced to this idea at a very early age. It is school and higher education that provides the archetype of the building for learning, sharing, working quietly, interacting and taking breaks. Students, lecturers and teachers alike move constantly to the best space for what they need to do; classrooms, labs, break areas, gyms, computer rooms, workshops, seminar rooms, media spaces, assembly halls and whatever, each fitted out with the right furniture, materials, resources and equipment. Schools embody activity-based working and it would be madness to suggest any alternative. 

We can see the same intuitive adoption of activity-based working throughout history. The commentators of the 1990s, for example, habitually compared the idea of activity-based work to a private members club, or the cloisters of medieval monks. In both cases, people did not sit still but moved through the building to the most appropriate space.     

Even the way we talk about the tech palaces of giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook is not new. The use of the campus as a blueprint for activity-based office design was adopted a long time ago by organisations engaged in research and laboratory work and they did so for very practical reasons that are now very familiar. Research is an endeavour that requires both collaboration and focussed work and the distinct spaces that can allow them to take place. In addition, the spaces must be flexible enough to allow them to adapt to new projects.

A 2006 feature in Science Direct offers up a potted history of lab design from the second half of the 20th Century onwards and it is striking how often the issues raised mirror our own preoccupations, including the provision of different types of space, flexibility, environmental design and access to fresh air and daylight. Larger pharmaceutical organisations such as Astra Zeneca took this to the extremes we now see with Apple’s much talked about new campus building in California. At its Alderley Edge campus, now sold, it developed activity-based working in landscaped grounds for essentially the same practical reasons we see adopted across a wider range of industries. The firm's new £330 million development just South of Cambridge city centre designed by Herzog & de Meuron also employs a campus structure.

These ideas weren’t even new in the 20th Century. This illustration of a 19th Century lab belonging to the Wellcome Trust depicts a working environment that directly foreshadows our current approach to activity-based working. In the sketch, no two people are working on the same task. The space itself consists of a number of different settings to match those tasks. And perhaps most tellingly, not only is nobody sitting down, there aren’t even any chairs.

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