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The Changing World of Work: Activity Based Working

Jan Zimmermann
Jan Zimmermann
Editor of mapolis architecture magazine

“Activity based working” is a trend that is transforming our working environments and creating a new set of challenges to be overcome by building planners.


There always used to be a distinction between people and resources, even if it only really came down to the name. For some time now, however, they have come to be considered one and the same (in the German-speaking world, too). And, as with any other kind of resource, a great deal of thought goes into how our “human resources” can be put to use most efficiently. For a while, we have been seeing the focus of these kinds of discussions increasingly turn towards working conditions, often leaving those considering how best to deploy their human resources looking for quick answers in the design of their buildings.

The biggest trend right now seems to be leaning toward “activity based working” (ABW). Multinational corporations, such as the likes of Google and Microsoft, have been putting this approach into practice for a number of years now, with Microsoft’s new German headquarters in Schwabing having been designed along the same lines. The concept involves the old fundamental principle of assigned workstations going out the window and being replaced by open structures with a variety of working possibilities. At the Microsoft headquarters in Schwabing, for example, the “Microsofties” have the choice between four different zones that each offer distinct working conditions.

Everyone is equal–go with the flow

There is a clear sense of openness and of everything being accessible to everyone–the only place you might experience closed doors is in the conference rooms (which are not obsolete yet). Not even Head of Microsoft Germany, Sabine Bendiek, has her own office or her own desk. With the design of its new headquarters, Microsoft is making a clear statement of its belief in the concept behind ABW and at the same time delivering a beautifully egalitarian message: Everyone is considered equal in the face of optimization.

What’s more, Microsoft is keen to highlight that we should no longer tolerate the duality entrenched in the idea of the work-life balance, but rather aim for a singular “work-life flow.” One should have a fluid transition between their work and their private lives, with no fixed times or places tying us down. Gone are the days of clocking in with cards and supervisors keeping tabs on us. The only thing that matters is productivity at the individual level.

The challenges posed by ABW

The global conglomerates may be leading the way, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s going to stay this way forever. As the digitization of work shows no signs of stopping, ABW is going to have to keep up. Planning office buildings is only going to get more complex. Bands of desks in straight lines need a more ergonomic, more open, more functional, and–dare we say–more attractive design, which in an ideal world will feel just like home. Whether the work-life flow that is being made available to us will ultimately be good for us remains to be seen, however. Don’t worry, though, we’ve always got “health based working” (HBW) as a backup… But more on that another time!


The concept of activity based working is the brainchild of Dutch business consultant Erik Veldhoen. Under activity based working, employees no longer have their own assigned workstations, and instead they are free to carry their work equipment (cell phone, laptop, etc.) around with them all the time. Lockers are available for anything employees don’t want to be constantly carting back and forth between work and home.


Links to further information on ABW: (German) (German)

Further information on Microsoft’s headquarters in Germany: (German)

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