Researcher Chalmers

Maral Babapour is studying the interplay between users and technology in the office environment.

Photo: Marcus Folino

Why some activity-based offices work while others do not

Flexible activity-based offices offer workstations to be shared among employees and are designed so that one can choose a suitable location based on the ongoing activity. The reason for the increased occurrence of activity-based offices can be anything from the desire to increase productivity to achieve sustainability through reducing the number of products needed in an office or lowering energy consumption and housing costs. Research from Chalmers now shows that there are a number of factors that need to be addressed in order to get this type of workplaces to function properly.
Previous research has shown that the introduction of flexible activity-based offices is not always completely problem-free. Many people experience that there are difficulties in finding colleagues, that unofficial ownership of some workstations limit their choices, that a competition over the “good places” is created and that the need to change places is inconvinient and time-consuming. If poorly designed, it can also limit employees’ privacy and cause unwanted distractions. Some may even consider changing jobs due to dissatisfaction.

But there are also some research that show positive results are in terms of perceived efficiency, increased collaboration, increased privacy and decreased distractions. The experience can also shift over time, and early positive experiences can diminish when the first curiosity has settled.

Maral Babapour, researcher at the division of Design & Human Factors, has investigated how employees and organisations adopt and appropriate flexible activity-based offices over time. Based on two case studies, Maral found causes that can both confirm, but also explain, previously contradictory results of long-term consequences of flexible activity-based offices.

Collective customisations are crucial

- What came out most clearly, in a comparison between the two cases, was how crucial collectively created customisations of the office were. The collective customisations improveed the employees’ work environment and established a sense of ownership over the workplace. It was necessary to work continually and systematically with employee engagement in order to be able to solve work environment problems.
 
Flexible officeIn one case, there was no systematic way of gathering employees’ feedback and their suggestions post-reloaction. The staff felt that they had little or no opportunity to influence the design of the workplace. This led to a feeling of resignation and created long-term work environment problems for most of the participants.
 
- In contrast, we could see that in the second case where the staff had great influence over the design, the satisfaction also increased over time. Even the employees’ perceived performace had increased over time, says Maral Babapour.
 
In the case where satisfaction increased, line managers and process teams worked together to develop routines to improve the flexible activity-based office. They also initiated and engaged in evaluations and improvements in the working environment. A forum was set up with representatives from both management and staff who met monthly to discuss employees’ suggested improvements. There was also a help desk to deal with urgent problems such as missing equipment. Based on the input that was received, the workplace was modified and adapted to meet the needs of the staff.
 
- Flexible activity-based offices have advantages, but there are also risks. To succeed, it is necessary to establish a continuous, proactive and inclusive improvement process. Both when it comes to addressing work environment problems and creating a sense of shared ownership over the workplace, says Maral Babapour.

Journal article

Published: Tue 20 Aug 2019.