Last week, we shared an article by BHDP Client Leader and Senior Workplace Strategist Brady Mick discussing the pros and cons of an entirely unassigned seat workplace. A reader responded with these inspiring questions: “Having always had a permanent seat at work, I’m curious how companies handle someone being at work and not finding a seat? How is that avoided? Do all companies that have unassigned seating have flexible work schedules in terms of time and location?”
A way of un-wrapping the complexity of these excellent questions is to move into an analogy; I prefer the analogy of a family home. First:
In our homes we have assigned and unassigned spaces. We assign eating to the dining areas and living to the living areas. Imagine you are having the family Thanksgiving at your house and it’s going to be a big turnout. When it comes time to eat, where does everyone go? If your family is small enough, you may simply bring a few extra chairs into the dining room. However, if your family is even remotely large, every seat becomes valuable; eating off your lap in the family room or standing in the kitchen is likely sufficient—and the norm! For one day a year, your family does what is needed to accommodate everyone.
Our culture informs us that when we go to a large family dinner, we expect to use every nook and cranny for every possible activity—cooking, serving, eating and sitting. We think nothing of eating on the piano bench in the living room or sitting on the floor in the foyer. Come dinner time, every space—the formal and the informal—becomes the dining room-at-large.
These cultural accommodations—using a space for activities different than originally planned (i.e. the living room as dining room) have not translated to our expectations for our work environment. Rather than using every space available for whatever task is at hand, our cultural expectations inform us that we should not expect to work at a space that’s not designated specifically for individual work, i.e a personally assigned desk.
Assigned desks and offices are equivalent to the bedrooms in a family home. The expectation for a custom workstation in the office creates expectation for self-identity and control but inherently ignores the availability of numerous other spaces within the traditional office, typically viewed strictly as collaboration spaces (i.e. conference rooms and open seating zones) and community spaces (i.e. a lobby, kitchenette and training room).
It’s interesting to note that in some companies, the cultural shift to open workplans (i.e. making it “normal” to work individually in co-working spaces) is already occurring. Across America, trends demonstrate that, at any given point in an open work environment, only half of the workers will be present in their “assigned seat.” The other half are seen in collaborative spaces (working individually and collectively) or working remotely. How this culture shift occurs can be examined, once again with an analogy of a family home:
Imagine the change in roles bedrooms play throughout the life cycle of a family home. With infants and young children in the family dynamic, bedrooms function as nurseries first and then, later, bedrooms. Both the nursery and bedrooms are identified with designs representing individual occupants: a pink room for a little girl, a blue one for a little boy. As the children grow into adolescents, rooms shift into havens of privacy, well-marked with key identifiers of individual taste and preference. The teen years change the patterns and use of the bedrooms once again, as school activities; sports and driving untether the kids from the family. As teens grow and move out of the home, parents “re-claim” the room to adjust space according to changes in family dynamics.
Just as a family’s dynamic shifts the roles of specific spaces within the home, should not a company’s space change as the culture of a company matures? If fifty percent of the people are not present in the workplace, perhaps the company is surrounding the so-called “college years” of company maturity? Would not “re-purposing” the unused “individual” space (i.e desks) and transferring it to agile working environments or collaborative space be a relevant question in support of the more true nature of working today?
I believe that the answer to our reader’s question lies in aligning cultural expectations at work with the physical environment at-hand. As one shifts, so must the other.
Brady Mick is a client leader and senior design strategist at BHDP in Cincinnati, Ohio where he provides design expertise creating work environments that align company culture with physical space. To learn about BHDP’s workplace consulting practice, visit www.bhdp.com/strategy.
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