Monthly Archives: October 2015

Seat taken? Finding a Place to Work in the Open Office

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“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.

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Image Sources: Lambert/Getty Images; http://blog.styleestate.com

A Seat to Call “Home”—The Pros and Cons of Unassigned Seating in the Workplace

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There are so many questions around taking the plunge to a 100 percent unassigned workplace, and for good reason: research in this area is lacking, in large part due to the fact that most organizations do not want to share their experiments openly. On top of that, many design firms have NDAs with organizations that have made the change, which means conversation in the industry isn’t really flowing, either.

Stories are shared at conferences like CoreNet Global and WORKTECH, and touring an existing workplace is a good avenue for open data gathering. But if you want to get to the bottom of the difference between “alternative workplace strategy” and “hoteling”; if you want the lessons learned from another company that has tried a 100 percent unassigned workplace and it has failed; or if you want to know how an unassigned space will affect collaboration, quantity, and density, where do you turn? Broad-based public data to answer these questions currently lies in deep consideration between strategic design firms and their workplace customers.huddle-room-office-design-unassigned-seating-workplace-design

Hoteling, for its part, is an older term coined in the ‘90s. By definition, it refers to unassigned, reservable office space that’s indistinguishable from the cube farm environments full of assigned seats. It has become a less favorable term in recent years because of the lack of identity associated with it. Like a hotel that people prefer to not call a home, a hotel desk is utilitarian, and doesn’t promote a personal connection to either the place or the people for the worker. Hoteling environments do not function well without the additional service of a concierge to manage the reservable function, as well as the equipment needed (stealing of cords is common), the hookup lessons, log on training, etc. Most companies prefer not to create this infrastructure.

Hot desking is different in that it does not have the reservable function and is used on a first-come, first-served basis. A few years ago, a Louisville-based client of mine created a 100 percent unassigned space. They furnished and equipped it with high degrees of different activity settings intended to allow for choice and user control. Then they set the IT group free in the space to self-regulate themselves into the new space. An interesting phenomenon began when some team members began to arrive earlier in the mornings to “claim” their seat, and no surprise these individuals went for the same seat each day. Since the strategy was to let the team facilitate their own use of the space, squatting, and other behaviors for “dedicated” space became something of a common occurrence, and a source of humor within the team.agile-work-strategy-office-design

Alternative workplace strategy (or AWS) is a much broader idea that expands definable work zones beyond the individual assigned or unassigned workspace (cubes and offices), creating a combination of elements like cubes, benches, open collaboration, closed collaboration (huddle or conference rooms), and so on. All of it contributes to the final tally of seats where people can work in the space.

For example, instead of counting 80 cubes and 20 offices for 100 people (traditional conference room-type seats not included), AWS may count 50 workstations, 10 offices, 20 open collaboration seats, and 20 closed collaboration seats for the same 100 people. Half of the workstations and all of the offices are often assigned. The remaining half of unassigned workstations are considered agile.

AWS can be 100 percent unassigned, but in a sense, it is not the key consideration. The core value of a workplace strategy delivered as AWS is to create a workplace that is a stronger tool for people to create business results. Designing such an environment into smaller social units by differentiating the furniture, technology, and behavioral clues (i.e., team identity, branding, flexibility, and activity levels) provides important behavioral clues for people to choose their best-suited work environment. The belief is that such variation may create stronger social groups capable of producing greater business results.

Microsoft is leading the field in aligning space as a tool for their people to create results, which is well-illustrated in this video.

This article originally appeared in Work Design Magazine; republished with permission.