11/02/2021 • 4 min read

Find Success in a Complex Workforce

The science behind activity-based working

by Felice Cheung

Activity-based working (ABW) is on the rise in popularity. Although the concept originated in the 1980s, companies today are adopting this way of working in their offices. Why? ABW empowers employees with the freedom to choose from a variety of work settings that best suit their needs and work tasks. How did this way of working come to be? The answer can be found in science.

Organizational Culture and Work

Traditional workspaces—what some may refer to as “cubicle farms”—make for an efficient use of space, but they are often the cause of stress, a lack of creativity, and a roadblock to building genuine connections at work.

Historically, the office was not considered a place of choice and empowerment. Instead, people came to work in the same setting they left the day before. With very little variety, employees shuffled between meeting rooms and cubicles.

The standard cubicle is often accompanied by a partition of low, medium, or high privacy settings. The height of a cubicle partition can be viewed as a direct reflection of a company’s culture. Companies with more of a collaborative culture tend to use lower partitions, while the opposite is true for companies with a high control culture. A previous Spark article highlights how culture drives the transformation of the workplace and breaks down the different organizational culture characteristics.

Today, more companies are changing their built environment and shifting to new ways of working. They are finally moving away from the traditional office and instead opting for workspaces with variety and choice.

The Research Behind ABW

In the 1960s, Marian C. Diamond, a researcher from UC Berkeley, studied the impact that different physical environments may have on the structural plasticity, or the adult brain’s ability to grow and change. Results suggest the possibility that brain cells and neurons are capable of change or regeneration even in adulthood.

The basis of the experiment focused on enriching the environment of lab rats by using bigger living enclosures, as well as providing the rats access to items like running wheels and toys. When compared to the control group of other lab rats raised in a standard laboratory setting with normal cages and no access to exercise, researchers discovered the brains of those in an enriched environment were larger, the neurons were larger, and the brains had longer extensions of dendritic branches on the nerve cells, which are responsible for electrochemical stimulation.
How does this research study relate to people at work and ABW? In humans, low levels of stress, healthy eating, physical exercise, and a rewarding lifestyle promote the regeneration of nerve cells and neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change due to a variety of experiences. Giving people and employees a complex, diverse environment and rewarding them for their work is good for supporting brain cell growth.

Variety keeps the brain stimulated—leading to neurogenesis, or the creation of neurons. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Even in the workplace, we must account for individual differences. That is why most traditional offices of the past do not work.

Routine and the mundane are hardly the same as creativity and collaboration. Different people have different preferences and needs. Not everyone will find a cubicle or work bench to be a stimulating experience.

In a time when we often hear words such as collaboration, coworking, innovation, or future of work, a successful organization creates a diverse and dynamic environment—including a stimulating work experience for employees. A people-centric environment ultimately supports important work factors including innovation, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

Rewarding Experiences

Scientifically speaking, in a work environment that is unrewarding—high-stress and non-stimulating—people often have a net decrease in the number of neurons as their brain cells die or become injured. Under the right conditions, the brain is capable of self-repair—which is why it is important to factor in individual preferences and needs in the workplace.

No environment is the perfect environment for everyone. Take the workout gym for example; while we know physical exercise is good for our body and brain development, some people are addicted to exercise. On the other hand, if an individual finds exercise aversive, the brain is not going to find it positive or stimulating regardless of whether it is physically beneficial. Ultimately, what has a positive effect on one individual really depends on their own preference and what stimulates them.

For an organization to create a diverse and dynamic experience or environment for all employees—with positive stimulating effects on the brain—time, care, and thought must go into the strategy employed to optimize the workplace and overall work experience.

Humans are complex beings and there will never be an environment or solution that stimulates everyone. However, being able to achieve a comfortable level of variety and choice for most employees is an incredible improvement for any organization.   

Workplaces Designed for People

See how these organizations designed successful workplaces with employee preferences and needs in mind.


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