Office space, how the rooms and desks are arranged, has a huge impact on whether and how collaboration can take place.
It seems to be in vogue to have open space offices. Companies like Facebook seem to be proud of having “The World’s Largest Open Work Space”.
Open Space Offices
I see a couple of benefits of open space offices, e.g.
- Osmotic communication: you get to know a lot of things even without actively participating in conversations.
- Easier collaboration: fewer walls also mean fewer obstacles to collaborate. One challenge remains: to get “the right” people to sit close to each other – and you cannot sit close to everybody.
- Flexible usage: if company culture, the furniture and the cabling allow, the work space could be rearranged to fit the current requirements. However, I haven’t seen desks being moved frequently.
I see many more disadvantages of open space offices, e.g.
- More disruptions and distraction: it’s much easier to get distracted in an open space office rather than in an individual office. Places near the entrance, the hallway, close to the kitchen, the bathroom, the coffee machine or the water cooler are the most disadvantaged from this point of view.
- Less privacy: you may feel monitored if a lot of people can easily watch your screen, all day long.
- Noise pollution, especially through phone calls: some colleagues (e.g. from the sales department) happen to 1.) have a hot temper and 2.) a loud voice. If you have to concentrate on your own task, it’s a catastrophe to have them around.
- Fewer personal or confidential conversations: if you always have arbitrary people around you, you don’t chat about personal topics, not even with your close friends sitting next to you.
- Less comfortable for introverts: open space offices can make introvert people feel uncomfortable.
- Bad for hearing-impaired people: the higher the average noise level, the harder it gets for them to follow a conversation.
- Easier disease transmission: sickness is more easily spread due to proximity.
Considering the pros and cons, I’m not a big fan of open space offices.
But what about “Desk Sharing”? I used to work in a desk sharing office for a couple of years. Desk sharing typically means that a company has fewer desks than employees.
The advantages of desk sharing are:
- Lower costs from the company perspective
- Daily chance to choose your seat – that could also mean getting to know new people every day, hence …
- Chance contacts – you never know what they can be good for in the future
- Desks are clean at the end of each day (“clean desk policy”)
- Automatic tendency to “less paper – more digital”, which leads to …
- Easier mobile working
The disadvantages of desk sharing are (among others):
- There is less structure and routine
- You don’t easily find people, i.e. you need an IT system to reserve a seat, to locate people, etc.
- You typically have fewer personal belongings at your workplace (due to the clean desk policy)
- Even though you could choose your seat daily, often times some colleagues take the same place all the time. Younger employees or interns often don’t really have the right to choose their seat.
Many years ago, I’ve come up with the idea of “desk rotation”, basically out of dissatisfaction with other models: every person in the organization changes his/her seat on a weekly basis.
This model has at least the following advantages:
- An algorithm decides about the arrangement considering, e.g.
- There should be several people from the same team in a room.
- The coach and his/her coachee should sit next to each other.
- Interns should be commingled with all other employees.
- A pinch of chance.
- Clean desks on a weekly basis – that’s slightly more relaxed than cleaning your desk every day.
- Over time everybody has taken place at every seat.
- Over time everybody has spent enough common time in a room with every other person: that should allow for enough opportunities to share personal stories with each other.
- Flexibility in your head: you don’t feel hierarchy anymore if your team leaders and managers sit on the same chairs right next to you.
- Better understanding of each other: you learn about what the other person’s day looks like. You may stop to look down on some and start to look up on others.
During the 10 years that we’ve been practicing Desk Rotation at Catalysts, we have only found one disadvantage: you can’t expect a cost reduction like with Desk Sharing. Actually, we strive to have 1-2 empty desks in each room and some spare chairs just in case that a co-worker passes by and wants to pair-work with you.
As of today, I strongly believe that Desk Rotation with moderate room sizes (6 to 12 people per room) leads to a more productive workspace for knowledge workers than the above-mentioned models.
As I’ve motivated in “7.2 Our Different Formats for Information Sharing”, it is important to “bring people in contact”. Desk Rotation does exactly that. It helps to foster an environment where hierarchy steps to the background and where collaboration and cooperation can actively take place.