Do Offices Without Assigned Desks Work?
By Nai Kanell
Director of Marketing
Offices without assigned desks can be a jarring experience for employees. Assigned seating is ingrained in almost everything we do. Think about buying tickets to the theater or a sporting event. Assigned seating creates structure and order. Many people are uneasy about picking a random seat.
Anxiety and discomfort over picking a random seat happen for several reasons. For some, it’s the paradox of choice—What if I don’t pick the best seat? For others, it’s a mindfulness of peers—What if someone else needs this seat more than I do? Given an assigned seat, there’s no anxiety—This is the seat I’m given; this is where I sit. Taking this structure and certainty away disorients the people who rely on it.
Offices without assigned desks can work, but they need to be mindful of employees’ need for structure, order, and clarity. Before diving into desk sharing, get familiar with how to make the transition easier on employees.
Understand the role of desks
Before you take away assigned seating, it’s important to understand why they are important to the workplace:
- They create a record for each person (where to find them)
- They maintain organization within a business unit
- They anchor employees to a familiar space
- They offer a comfort zone of personal space
To avoid instability from the top-down, you’ll need to find ways to “brace” your workforce. For example, if you remove assigned seating, how will people know where to find each other? How can you give people privacy and comfort in an ever-changing environment?
Before any change, offer alternatives to employees. For example, build a desk-booking system that gives them the power to create their personal space for the day, while also making it easy to find them. Or, create collaborative open spaces that provide ways to work how, when, and where they want.
Analyze workplace functions
One of the reasons people hold so dearly to assigned desks is because that’s how they’ve learned to work. But that’s not necessarily how we still work. Depending on the function of their job, a person may need any of a handful of different workspaces to accomplish their tasks. Helping them see the benefits of flexible seating can reacquaint them with the many facets of their job.
For example, an employee spends 50% of their time doing heads-down individual work, 30% collaborating with peers, and 20% meeting with clients. Their individual desk can’t (and shouldn’t) account for 100% of their workspace. They need the freedom to move from place to place into environments that meet their needs.
With such variety, there’s less need for an assigned desk. And technology makes it even easier to work just about anywhere. Laptops, cloud computing, and meeting apps don’t require an assigned seat to be effective. Many employees have all but given up assigned seating without realizing it.
Space management is paramount
The quickest way unassigned desking may fail is to let it fall into chaos. Flexible office space design needs a system of order—one that includes desk booking, move management, and space allocation tools. It’s one thing to give people freedom of mobility; it’s another to encourage a free-for-all.
Introducing a framework for space management is a nice way to soften the blow of unassigned seating. It assures employees that you’re not removing the system of order they’re used to, rather changing the oversight. It’s not abandoning them to uncertainty—it’s more like letting go of their hand and letting them explore new work habits for themselves.
From an administrative side, space management tools are a must-have. Understanding your workplace’s capacity for agile working can make or break the transition to unassigned seating.
Set a precedent for etiquette
Don’t make etiquette and rules afterthoughts in an agile workplace concept—put them front and center. Rescinding assigned seating may make people edgy, which can turn even simple disagreements into powder kegs. Hold everyone to the same set of standards and rules, and you’ll reduce incendiary incidents that might spoil unassigned seating for those willing to try it.
Discuss privacy, noise, hygiene, distractions, and general etiquette. Create a way for people to file complaints and ask questions. It’s also good to offer private workstations that employees can use to transition themselves into the greater open-seating concept.
Don’t focus on the desking concept itself so much as how it affects your team. Make sure shared desking is conducive to operations and the work your people do. Check its benefits against your space utilization metrics and goals. Set the standard for etiquette. The better you prepare your workplace for unassigned seating, the less jarring it’ll be for employees to adapt.
Keep reading: Space Planning Software Guide