Hot Desking vs. Activity-Based Working

Activity-based working is an office setup that allows employees to choose their work settings per job or activity. Each employee still has their own desk though, which makes it different compared to hot desking.

Curious to learn more about activity-based working? Want to contrast it to hot desking further? In this article, we’ll do just that. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have a good idea of whether activity-based working is the best choice for your company.

What Is Activity-Based Working?


If your office uses the activity-based working model, then you’re giving your employees the freedom to choose the settings that best match the activities they’re engaging in. For example, you might have a room in your office dedicated to formal meetings. Since this room is intended for planned, dressed-up affairs, it would be upscale, decorative, and refined.

Compare that to an informal meeting space, which you may also add as part of activity-based working model. These meetings would be more off-the-cuff and sometimes even unplanned. The room may be decorated more casually then, with attention paid to color and décor to inspire the most productivity.

That’s the goal of activity-based working, after all—an increase in productivity. It’s believed that in putting employees in environments that match the activities or jobs they’re doing that they’ll focus better and get more work done.

Employees still have their own desks, but they can gravitate into and out of the spaces that inspire them most throughout the day.

History of Activity-Based Working

Activity-based workplaces first came into being sometime towards the end of the 1970s. It was then that Robert Luchetti, an architect from the United States, dissected office work modes and discussed the earliest activity-based model.

By 1983, Luchetti had sharpened the concept, referring to activity-based working as “activity settings” at that point. The same concept applied, which was providing settings throughout an office for employees to use.

Erik Veldhoen was actually the one to coin the term “activity-based working.” Veldhoen is a consultant from Denmark whose known for two books: The Demise of the Office and Art of Working. It’s the latter in which activity-based working first appeared.  (Check out a video interview we did with Luc KampermanOpens in a new tab. Managing Partner at Veldhoen)

Main Elements of Activity-Based Working

To successfully introduce an activity-based working model to your office, you need to have several main elements present. These are iterative learning, behavioral reinforcement, sensory experiences, and design. Let’s talk more about each of these now.

1. Iterative Learning

The first must-have element of your activity-based workplace is iterative learning. No matter which workplace model you use going forward, be it activity-based working, agile working, or even hot desking, there is a certain amount of learning that must go into it.

When employees have only ever worked at their desk day in and day out, having the freedom to change up that recipe does take some adjustments. Not just for staff by the way, but for you, the owner of the company as well.

Through iterative learning, everyone can adapt to the activity-based working mindset. Even still, there’s an understanding that this office setup is a continually evolving one. Changes will occur and tweaks will be made until your staff overall feels confident proceeding with the activity-based working model.

2. Behavioral Reinforcement

Like we’ve discussed with hot desking, when changing how a workplace operates, there are some behavioral changes that will have to come with that. For example, should your office use hot desking, employees are now sharing a desk. You have to go over personal space rules, hygiene, and which information can and can’t be shared (such as proprietary data).

With activity-based working, you also have to rework the company handbook. If you have a space in your office dedicated solely to phone calls, for instance, then this would have to be a designated quiet zone where the door must always be closed while people are talking. This prevents other employees from getting distracted by incessant chattering.

You should also have rules about using the various spaces. For example, the formal meeting room would be for planned meetings only, whereas the informal meeting room would be first come, first served. You might add to the rule that if the door to a meeting space is closed, that means the room is being used.

3. Sensory Experiences

One of the biggest perks of activity-based working by far is the opportunity for sensory experiences. For instance, you may create spaces based on energy levels. A low-energy space could be painted and decorated in neutral colors with plush surfaces. A higher-energy room would be in a bright color that triggers productivity, with décor that motivates the employee to do their best.

Even a kitchen can have different energy depending on if you fill it with a coffeemaker or several, the type of music you play, and the décor. Those would all be trademarks of a higher-energy kitchen. A lower-energy space may have tea over coffee, Muzak or softer background music, and gentler lighting.

4. Design

Above all else, the careful design of your activity-based workplace is quite crucial. Remember, per room, the design can differ very much. You have to anticipate that you won’t have uniform décor across the whole office.

Besides just the décor, you also have to think about the purposes of the rooms. You might have a larger meeting space for when a lot of clients or customers come through and smaller meeting spaces for just a few key employees. A phone booth area or room lends itself well to quick communications while a restaurant-like space could inspire more employees to want to stay in and eat rather than go out.

Downsides of Activity-Based Working

Of course, every office model has its downsides, and activity-based working is no different. Now that employees have the option to scatter to so many different places on any given workday, that’s often just what they’re going to do.

Instead of reliably knowing where an employee is to ask them a question or check in with them on a deadline or project, they can be anywhere. Sure, they’re still in the building, but you probably don’t have the time or inclination to go on a goose chase each time you want to track someone down.

That’s why The EconomistOpens in a new tab. and other resources have noted that activity-based workplaces and related working models decrease in-person interactions. You’re more likely to get a response if you email the colleague, so you’ll probably do that. As a result, activity-based working is also associated with an increase of interoffice email traffic. 

The Differences Between Activity-Based Working and Hot Desking

Now that we’ve discussed activity-based working at length, let’s contrast it against hot desking. While similarities certainly do exist between the two working models, they have less in common than they share.

Here’s an overview.

Activity-Based Working Does Have Desks

The key difference between hot desking and activity-based working is the desk situation. While both office models offer somewhat more freedom in terms of where you spend your day, employees in an activity-based office do have their own desks. They don’t share these desks with anyone else, either.

Having a reliable place in which to come into work every day may make employees more likely to explore and take advantage of the other spaces offered in activity-based working. With hot desking, everything is kind of up in the air, which causes stress and employee unhappiness.

Hot Desking Is Less about Décor and Energy

While hot desking and activity-based working both strive to increase productivity, the ways they go about this goal are different. With hot desking, it’s believed that combining employees in one workstation will increase collaboration and productivity, even if this doesn’t always happen.

With activity-based working, it’s all about tailoring the various office spaces to employee needs and moods. Higher-energy spaces can get employees jazzed to tackle that big project while lower-energy ones allow them to decompress between tasks. Hot desking pays far less attention to décor.

Which Is Better for Your Office: Hot Desking or Activity-Based Working?

By this point, you may wonder which workplace model to use going forward for your company, activity-based working or hot desking. There’s also agile working to consider as well.

No matter which of these workplace models best suits your business where it is now, you have to keep employee satisfaction at the forefront. One reason why hot desking fails so often is because employees don’t love being cooped up with their coworkers. Some might have a hard time with remote work if they’ve only ever been in an office their whole careers. With little versatility offered through hot desking, these employees feel stuck.

If your employees are better-suited for activity-based working than hot desking, then great! Perhaps they even like agile working better. It all depends on your office and the personality and needs of your staff. By letting your employees know of a change before it occurs, asking for their feedback during and after the changes are rolled out, and continually requesting their opinions, your efforts go a long way towards boosting morale.

Do keep in mind that not every employee will love the new changes, but if most are alright with it, then that’s what matters. Without happy employees though, productivity will tank and the whole reason for using hot desking or activity-based working will have been for naught.

Related Questions

Does activity-based working really work?

Before you jump right into activity-based working, you’d like some quantifiable evidence that this is a good choice for your company. According to a 2019 article from facility management software company iOFFICEOpens in a new tab., data proves that activity-based working may be effective for some businesses.

Here are some stats to illustrate:

·      In one study, more than half of respondents (60 percent) mentioned that having creative and relaxing spaces makes them feel more productive.

·      Other data shows that the happiest employees have one thing in common. Almost all, or 98 percent, aren’t confined to one room or desk the entire day.

·      In one survey from a Dutch company, more than half of the participants, 60 percent, noted how their energy increased once their office changed to an activity-based workplace.

How can I make my desk more efficient?

Want to boost your own productivity, even if you’re not necessarily following an activity-based model? Try these tips:

·      Use noise-canceling headphones to banish outdoor sounds if your office allows it.

·      Focus on ergonomics with your seating, computer height, and desk height. If you’re uncomfortable or in pain, your work quality can suffer.

·      Let in light, be that artificial or natural, although the latter is better.

·      Check that the temperature is comfortable. If you’re too cold, your focus may be affected; the same goes for being too warm.

Check out other topics:

CoworkingOpens in a new tab.

– Health & Safety,

– Office DesignOpens in a new tab.

– TechnologyOpens in a new tab.

– StressOpens in a new tab.

– WellnessOpens in a new tab.

– SustainabilityOpens in a new tab.

– WorkplaceOpens in a new tab.,

– ProductivityOpens in a new tab.

– Employee ExperienceOpens in a new tab.

 Hot DeskingOpens in a new tab.

– Employee EngagementOpens in a new tab..

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