- Today’s office work puts our bodies into physical situations for which we were not adapted. One of the key drivers of poor worker health is office sedentism: sitting in one place for long periods of time.
- In activity-based working (ABW) offices, employees don’t have fixed desks or offices, and choose among a wide range of spaces to perform the specific activity they are working on at the time.
- While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the modern (hybrid) workplace, the basic principles of ABW provide a template for addressing the physical and mental health epidemic that the corporate world currently faces.
We are in a prolonged corporate health crisis. According to research reported in Forbes, each year American companies lose around $500B in productivity because of poor worker health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) puts the number at $225B. The range of ailments that leads to lost productivity is quite broad, but among those often cited are:
- Type-2 diabetes
- Heart problems
- Depression & anxiety
- Certain forms of cancer
Presentism, which occurs when people show up at work (physically) but are operating at partial capacity because of their ill health, is also a huge issue. One of the key drivers of poor worker health is office sedentism: sitting in one place for long periods of time. The connection between health issues due to sedentism and sitting all day at office desks prompted office furniture manufacturer Vari to run an ad campaign claiming that “sitting is the new smoking.”
The science behind the health effects of office sedentism is clear. As a species, we developed our full biological and genetic profiles between 2 million years ago and 150,000 years ago. We emerged as modern Homo Sapiens on the Savannah plains of East Africa, and then transitioned to other parts of the world as human groups migrated to and colonized every corner of the world. Put simply, our bodies are designed for motion — physical mobility. Today’s office work puts our bodies into physical situations for which we were not adapted.
Evolutionary Science & Office Work
In their article, “What Moves Us? How Mobility and Movement Are at the Center of Human Evolution,” evolutionary anthropologists Steven Kuhn, David Raichlen, and Amy Clark provide some important context for understanding why office sedentism runs against the needs of human physiology.
“Movement is central to the survival of all free-living organisms,” according to the article. “Consequently, movement and what anthropologists often refer to as mobility, which is the sum of small-scale movement tracked across larger geographic and temporal scales, are key targets of evolution.”
Most of us are not trekking across larger geographic scales today, but our bodies still require movement that, for many, remains elusive.
In another article that cites research by David Reichlen and his team’s research among the Hadza nomadic hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, “Are Humans Born to Move?,” Kimerer La Mothe discusses the mismatch even more directly: “Are we fighting thousands of years of evolutionary history and the best interests of our bodies when we sit all day?” Continuing, she answers her own question. There is a “fundamental mismatch between the conditions that molded our bodies and those that we inhabit,” where “the health consequences are well established: we easily gain weight and develop related problems.”
Summarizing her thesis, La Mothe finishes by saying that “Westernized humans are not home in the society we have created for ourselves. We are like alien creatures in a foreign land who must fight tenaciously, constantly vigilant in order to maintain our health in the face of societal pressures that conspire against us.”
Activity-Based Working: Officing for Humans
Since the mid-1990s, companies in Europe, Australia, and Asia have been embracing the principles of Activity-Based Working (ABW), pioneered by the Dutch-based consultancy Veldhoen. Long before Covid, ABW offices were supporting the human need for flexibility, mobility and variability throughout the workday and work week.
In ABW offices, employees don’t have fixed desks or offices, and choose among a wide range of spaces to perform the specific activity they are working on at the time. The different spaces we see today in many offices in the hybrid era — open areas with hot desks, breakout rooms, huddle rooms, private offices, café spaces, libraries, outdoor spaces, learning spaces, etc. — have been commonplace in ABW offices for over thirty years. Movement between different areas throughout the day and week allows for more natural human mobility, countering the harmful effects of corporate sedentism.
For most companies that embrace ABW offices, working from home has always been part of the mix as well. ABW is about more than office design. It is about choice, and about empowering employees to shape their work around their lives and not the other way around. This also creates opportunities for more regular exercise, either at home or at the gym, during regular working hours.
A More Natural Way of Working
Plastarc’s Melissa Marsh echoes Raichlen and La Mothe in her brilliant Work Design article, “Activity-Based Working and Wellness: The Human/Nature Side of the Popular Design Typology.” Marsh suggests that ABW supports employee wellness “better than other design typologies (the sea of cubicles, for one, or rows of trading desks) in part because it more closely resembles the natural environment: the place our species grew up.”
She suggests that while today many people have a goal of walking 10,000 steps a day, our ancestors probably walked much more than that — perhaps as many as 50,000 steps per day.
For employees of companies that have embraced ABW, physical mobility is already built into the workday and work week. When also empowered with choice regarding when and where they are going to work, these workers can also build in regular routines for exercising.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the modern (hybrid) workplace, the basic principles of ABW provide a template for addressing the physical and mental health epidemic that the corporate world currently faces. Put simply, both employees and employers would greatly benefit from a more comprehensive embrace of ABW.