By Laura Woodard
Real Estate Executive (Ret.)

Employee conflict is inevitable in the workplace. There’s always a touch of drama wherever humans congregate. But an overlooked source of workplace tension could be your seating strategy. Your layout can either foster team togetherness or breed frustration. An effective way to minimize discord is to measure space usage and optimize your chosen configuration with a workplace management platform.

Design Influences Behavior (and Stress Levels!)

Human beings are influenced by their surroundings. It’s why some employees thrive in exuberant environments while others flourish in tranquil ones. Finding the right balance between these workstyles, however, is a serious challenge. One type of workplace layout might work wonders for one group but create serious dissatisfaction for another.

Just look at the open office. Removing cubicles and bringing down walls is a great way to combat isolation and encourage collaboration. But what if employees feel compelled to wear headphones to block noise? Your layout is now a source of stress. All that lost momentum, productivity, and concentration will eventually affect your bottom line.

I’ve seen this first hand when a team of software engineers was placed across from a group of recruiters. The only thing separating these two departments were very low cubicle walls. The recruiters wanted a bullpen-style environment on their side because they wanted the noise and the “buzz” from being on the phone all day—it helped their team keep up the high energy needed for their work. But the software engineers couldn’t escape the raucous atmosphere. It was so bad, one of the software engineers had memorized a recruiter’s pitch!

Neighborhoods are another popular workplace environment because teams or departments can be grouped together with supporting amenities. This is really beneficial, for example, if you have an accounting department that works well in a quiet open floor surrounded by a handful of small conference rooms. Everyone has access to the right combination of resources: quiet areas, proximity to colleagues, and huddle spaces.

However, the neighborhood concept can cause discord if it doesn’t fulfill a team’s needs. If an agile team is placed in an area with limited conference rooms, its ability to have scrum meetings is hampered. Employees can then become exasperated when they have to constantly search for a free conference room or a private place for a phone call.

What’s more, all of this time spent hunting for the right work environment comes at a cost. According to a 2018 Steelcase Workplace Survey, 40% of workers waste up to 30 minutes a day looking for a place to collaborate. And the 2017 Office Workplace Survey 2017 by Senion found that “39% of office workers spend as much as 60 minutes every week searching for available desks, conference rooms, or colleagues.”

In all of these examples, space shortages are the primary source of workplace conflict.  When everyone is vying for the same conference rooms, quiet zones, or privacy spaces, congestion is bound to occur. How can employees do their best if they don’t have the right work environment?

Create a Flexibility Layout

It would be fantastic if there was a universal seating strategy that worked for all companies, across all industries, but that’s simply not realistic. Creating a flexible workplace environment starts with digging deep and assessing what your employees truly need. When it comes to space programming, employees actually know best. That requires talking to them, not just their managers.

Because employees are the ones in the proverbial trenches, they are the first to experience friction. It’s important to understand the nuances of their workflow in a given day or week. How many hours are they in meetings versus doing individual work? How many times do they have a spontaneous meeting but can’t find space to collaborate? Is noise welcomed in the background or seen as a major disruption?

Then pair these observations with space usage data—especially for conference rooms. Establish how many meetings were booked, but also how many actually took place. See if you can ascertain if the meetings went over or under the allotted time. It could also be helpful to determine how many times a conference room was booked on the fly rather than in advance.

Once you establish programming patterns, space planning technologies are your friend. A space planning tool allows employees to view available conference rooms and book them with ease. Some software includes a floor plan that shows the proximity of a conference room to all attendees, which is crucial for a workplace that is spread across several floors or an entire campus.

For real estate or human resource managers, a workplace management platform also provides the ability to digitally manipulate layouts. You can run scenarios that forecast the impact of moving individuals or entire departments to a new location. Dynamic planning allows you to evaluate where you have free space and if it will support a team’s workflow.

At the end of the day, flexible seating strategies help diffuse workplace conflict. Everyone can breathe a little easier when they have the right resources to do their work efficiently and effectively. A productive and happy workforce is just a new layout away.

Keep reading: 10 factors shaping office space planning guidelines.