When it comes to office design, few topics create as much debate as open seating. Companies realized that getting rid of dedicated desks could make offices much more efficient and flexible. But allowing people to sit where they want came with trade-offs. Employees would have to give up their personal space. No longer would they be able to have the chair at the height they like or pictures of their kids on the desk. This was predictably met with resistance by some employees. Now, offices are finding ways to provide the best of both worlds: open seating for some, dedicated desks for others, and even ways to easily personalize workspace no matter where people choose to sit.
The first step towards making an office more personalized is understanding if it needs to be personalized at all. Studying the usage of the workplace can reveal a lot, but only if the data can be analyzed by job type, team, and even individual. These insights can help companies divide their workers into different camps, some of which prefer to have their own dedicated desks. “There will always be people that need a dedicated space,” said Margaret Gilchrist Serrato, workplace strategist at AreaLogic Workplace Strategy. These could be office managers, admin, or just workers who choose to spend the majority of their working hours in the office.
Many workers are completely fine with open seating. For them, all they need is a place to put a laptop. To appease these roaming employees, it is often more important to provide a wide variety of seating, working, and congregating arrangements. “The ultimate amenity for many is the ability to make choices for themselves,” Serrato said. But, providing options for these roaming workers can be tricky. Offices need to have options like standing desks, ergonomic keyboards, and external monitors in order to give the options that many people are used to at home. Offices are also experimenting with things like phone booths and quiet, focus rooms to provide a better atmosphere for those doing heads down work.
The majority of the modern workforce tends to fall into the roaming category. But just because these workers don’t mind sitting at different locations depending on the time, day, or task doesn’t mean they don’t want a space for their personal belongings. Office designers are using things like lockers and cubbies to give people a safe place to put their things. Even something as small as a purse hook or coat rack can make people feel more welcome and make an office feel more personalized.
One of the things that makes it difficult to know how to personalize an office is that asking workers if they want a desk might not reveal their preferences. “People sometimes need to be pushed a bit; I have had admins that wanted a dedicated desk come back later and ask if they could have more choice in their seating,” Serrato said. This means that while surveys are certainly important when it comes to personalizing the office, they should also be weighed against actual space utilization data to give the best picture of what office users want and need. Sensors on doors, chairs, and desks can help monitor which areas are being used and which are not. Office managers are using these sensors, along with flexible furniture arrangements, to do much more experimentation when it comes to office layout. By trying new seating arrangements in different areas and observing the changes in usage behavior, offices are finding ways to perform much better for the people who use them.
Giving office workers a choice of whether they want a dedicated space or not is the first step in creating a more personalized office, but it is far from the last. Eventually, offices will be able to automatically change things like the brightness of the lights or the height of the chairs for a worker before they even get to their workspace. Technology will unlock a whole new world of personalization when it comes to the office, but that will only happen if we can find ways to make offices relevant to the needs of today’s office workers, whatever those needs may be.