Snowballing complaints about the deficiencies and annoyances of open-plan office spaces have pushed employers and designers to experiment with alternative workplace solutions. One model gaining in popularity is the activity-based workplace, which provides a greater variety of spaces to accommodate different types of tasks and work styles.

While this approach has received favorable acceptance from employees, recent studies show additional factors need to be considered in order for these spaces to live up to their promised performance.

Intended to promote employee interaction, communication and knowledge-sharing to foster greater innovation and efficiency, open office plans (OOPs) have been criticized by employees for their lack of privacy, high level of background noise, and constant distractions.

An activity-based workspace (AWB) seeks to correct these problems by providing employees with a variety of options — workstations, collaborative work areas, quiet rooms, meeting rooms, socializing spaces. Employees are free to move around to different areas throughout the day or workweek as needed depending on the tasks they need to complete and their preferred work styles.

In theory, AWBs offer employers and employees the best of both worlds. They encourage employee interaction, yet equally support both collaborative and solo work on an ad hoc basis.

Because they provide more choice and are more employee-friendly, AWBs often are promoted as improving employee satisfaction and performance.

Moreover, because employees must move around more to choose a suitable work location or engage with others involved in their projects, sitting time and environmental stress are claimed to be reduced, thus creating a more healthful space for employees.

However, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. Recent studies have found that AWBs have yet to fulfill their full potential for lack of attention to the limits of organizational cultures or the particular needs of specific workers.

Two of the main reasons, notes an article in Business Insider, is that employers often treat it as an off-the-shelf solution and do not want to invest in quality design and furnishings. To cut costs, they omit some areas, like quiet spaces and meeting rooms. In effect, they are merely implementing hoteling stations, not a true AWB.

But even in well-designed AWBs, elements can be overlooked that diminish their functionality. A literature review of research on AWBs conducted by a team of researchers with the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, in Australia, found that overall employees in AWBs reported better communication, better control of time and space, and a higher level of job satisfaction.

Contrary to expectations, many spaces did not perform well for concentration and privacy. This may be due to a lack of adequate number of spaces for quiet work, and/or employees having to situate themselves in an unfamiliar area when other spaces are already occupied.

A pre- and post-occupancy study of employees moved from an OOP environment to an AWB environment carried out by researchers with the School of Technology and Health in Stockholm, Sweden, resulted in similar findings. Employees reported higher satisfaction with air quality, outdoor view, aesthetics, and, in this case, auditory privacy and background noise. Performance, though, showed no significant improvement.

The authors observe that some factors were overlooked in the implementation of the new spaces that may have affected performance, including a failure to account for the number and diversity of employees who used laptops for their job, the lack of rules as to the use of spaces, and an insufficient amount of proximate space to accommodate all the members of a team who need to be working collaboratively.

In regards to improving health, the findings of both studies were inconclusive. As yet, there is no clear evidence that AWBs reduce sitting time, reduce environmental stress, or alleviate work-related fatigue.

Both studies pointed out that because of the time and inconvenience involved in moving one’s belongings from space to space, employees tend to “nest” in one place for days at a time, rather than move around the space as intended.

Another study performed by faculty in the Department of Occupational and Public Health at the University of Gävle, Sweden, on sitting patterns of employees in four different offices who had transitioned from an OOP to an AWB, found that sitting and standing times did not change significantly, but that walking times increased notably.

Factors that may account for these results include employees’ job responsibilities, the size and layout of the office space, and the number of available seats for different types of tasks. Employees were more likely to spend more time walking when they were forced to move about the building rather than remain in one location for a long period of time.

These and other studies suggest that in general AWBs are improvement over OOPs. However, to reach their full potential, attention needs to be given to the work and relationships of specific workers in specific locales.

In addition, management needs to encourage employees to be more mobile and provide clear rules for the use of various spaces. Technologies for room scheduling and management also can improve their allocation and employee performance.