Workplace Design – Flexible working & Activity-Based Working

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Many professional services firms are wrestling with innovation in workplace design, in particular, flexible working and activity-based working.

Flexible working involves staff working part of their week from a remote location, classically from home but it can include co-working spaces, the local café or overseas. It may also include working non-traditional hours e.g. facilitating school pickups and drop-offs.

An activity-based working environment is predominantly open plan office with a number of different work-spaces or environments. The employee selects the work area best suited to the task at hand.

The implementation of flexible working and Activity Based Working are often combined with employees being mandated to work flexibly for a minimum number of days per week.

Pro’s & Con’s of Activity Based working

Research indicates that Activity-based working when well-designed is advantageous. Pro’s and Con’s include:


  • More opportunities for communication & collaboration
  • Natural light & vista
  • Cost savings on rent
  • Role modelling opportunities for leaders
  • Learning opportunities for young professionals
  • More options as easily scalable

  • Potential reduction in productivity due to noise, interruptions and lack of privacy
  • Confidentiality
  • Stressful for some people
    • Intimidating if sitting next to a Partner
    • Over hear one-sided conversations
    • Invasive degree of visibility
    • Finding a new desk everyday
  • Smells – food, perfume
  • Loss of “hard-won” office

Pro’s & Con’s of Flexible working

Demand for flexible working is on the increase. Notwithstanding this, Yahoo’s CEO famously banned flexible working. The pro’s and con’s of flexible working include:


  • Flexible schedules & remote working reduce parenting/carers stress
  • Increased productivity due to reduced interruptions and relaxed environment n.b. some tasks are better suited to flexible/remote working e.g. writing/editing
  • Greater mobility enabled by technology facilitates working from a client’s premises and combining work with travel
  • Hours matched to staff members body clock

  • Not suitable for junior staff in need of regular supervision
  • Reduces collaboration
  • Leadership
  • Engagement – lack of social interaction
  • Some employees aren’t suited to remote work i.e. not self-starters

How to get it right – Design, change management, technology, staff selection & leadership

Parkins Lane Principal, Rob Patterson has been involved in a very effective and award-winning Activity Based office fit-out. He has also experienced flexible working first hand in a virtual law firm. Set out below are the key element to the successful implementation of these changes in workplace design.

Activity Workplace Design

People have different work patterns & preferences. The key is getting the balance right between spaces that promote collaboration and spaces that enable head-down concentration. The main type of work areas are:

  • Pods – 4-6 workstations clustered. Often the areas that these pods occupy are also designated as “quiet areas”.
  • Sit/stand Desks. Research indicates that a sitting desks are unhealthy as the encourage lengthy sedentary behaviour.
  • Break out/community areas – for informal discussion/meetings/collaboration
  • Quiet rooms – for focused, detailed work
  • Café (often open) – creating a social environment where staff bump into one another, informal client meetings
  • Meeting rooms – for formal meetings
  • Phone booths- small rooms specifically for private phone calls
  • Benches – very open

The use of sound deadening finishes, white noise and plants are also prevalent.


Practices, policies & procedures

can also significantly improve the productivity of the ABW spaces.

  • Training staff in the selection of the work space best suited to the task they are undertaking
  • Providing lockers for staff to store personal items and limited files
  • Sanctioning the use of headphones
  • Designating Pods/open plan desk areas as quite zones i.e. no talk, no phone policy at desks

Mobile Technology

is critical for both flexible working and ABW. A move away from static technology to mobile technology (laptops, soft phones, wireless connectivity, video conferencing) enables staff to move seamlessly through the different work environments e.g. from desk to meeting room to café or work effectively in remote locations.

Change Management

Change management is a must for both innovations in workplace design. Best practice includes:

  • Steering Committee to aid in design decision making
  • Design and implement a program to ensure all staff are comfortable and on-board with the change
  • Two-way communications between steering committee and employees
  • It is recommended that the firm retain a professional in change management

Leadership Behaviors

Firms that offer remote working are seen as fun, progressive and innovative. The flip side to this picture however, is that for remote working to be effective these same firms must exhibit tough, less easy to like behaviours, such as:

  • No tolerance for incompetence – with the freedom of working remotely comes a higher performance standard. Bad work habits and poor management are only exacerbated by remote working.
  • Discipline – dealing with underperformance quickly, it is important that workers not in immediate proximity are not “out of sight, out of mind”.
  • Candor – frank and respectful communications, no matter what the medium.
  • Creating opportunities for engagement – commonly firms will mandate a day or weekly meeting where all staff are present. Staff in very remote locations are expected to video conference in.
  • Individual Accountability & self-drive – remote working isn’t necessarily a right. It needs to make sense in the context of the persons role and the specific individual must display a high level of individual accountability and self-motivation.
  • Strong leadership – leader of staff working remotely must clearly communicate priorities and firm direction. The should also enunciate work principals that are not to be compromised by remote working.

Parkins Lane

Parkins lane consulting services to assist firms in the implementation of change to workplace design includes:

  • Facilitation and development of the firm’s workplace design strategy with the leadership group; including agreement on the leadership behaviours and policies necessary to support the strategy.
  • Establishing and chairing the steering committee that project manages the workplace strategy’s implementation
  • Identifying and securing appropriate external expertise e.g. Workplace Design Consultants and Architects (ABW), Change Managers (ABW & Flexible working), Leasing Agents etc.
  • Ensuring regular communication back to staff of the projects progress
  • Regular reporting back to the leadership group on the progress of the project