Take your seat!

Many friends of Design Concepts have probably already heard that we are moving our Madison office from the suburban office park that has been our home for the last 15 years to a new building in the heart of a redeveloping corridor downtown.

Any move is both thrilling and terrifying. This move will let a bunch of people walk to work but will also double the commute time for others.

Our move team has prioritized change management as much as possible, engaging and informing everyone about the design, build and move process. And we’ve enjoyed the process a ton. That is, until we had to figure out where everyone was going to sit. I mean, who doesn’t freak out about their desk location?

We have figured out seating plans a couple of times in recent memory. My partner on the move team, Corin, and I tried to understand what worked and what didn’t in those two cases. Here’s a bit of what we learned.

The Lottery

When we moved into our current location and picked seats, each person’s name was placed in a hat. When your name was drawn, you chose your seat from the remaining open desks. The prime real estate went quickly. Not too many people complained since it was a democratic process. No one was to blame (except luck) if you didn’t like your seat. Each person had some amount of choice depending on their position in the lottery. But there were a few interesting outcomes to the lottery:

  • The main criteria for choosing a desk was “real estate value.” In other words, when your name was drawn, you picked the best available spot most likely near a corner or at least near a window. It is kind of like the NFL draft when teams take the best available player even if you already have someone great in that position.
  • A few people were left with desk locations that didn’t support their workstyle. The location was either too bright or the neighbors were too noisy or there wasn’t an easy way to shift from heads-down work to collaboration to hands-on building and sketching.
  • Departments (industrial design, mechanical engineering, etc.) ended up distributed throughout the office.
  • Over time, people swapped desks to get to places that supported their work style or to get closer to friends and others with whom they liked to collaborate. And departments started to regroup.

The Orchestrator

About five years ago, we replaced our tired cubes with newer lower-walled desks — some sit-stand, some sit only. The person in charge of the refresh was also responsible for the seating chart. She bravely attempted to devise the optimal arrangement by interviewing each person, asking them what their criteria was and then trying to fit all of these pieces together. It was basically the world’s hairiest SAT logic puzzle.

Some people talked about location (away from the bathroom, near natural light). Others about who they had to be near. Others about who they had to be as far away from as possible. Some only cared that they had a sit-stand desk. Some department heads made it clear that they wanted their teams together while others didn’t care. What was the result?

  • The orchestrator came up with the best compromise possible. Many people were disappointed, though, and she was barraged by folks lobbying for a location change. In the end, she was frazzled, exhausted and felt like her efforts were punished.
  • Because so much work went into the seating plan, we were encouraged to stay put, at least for a while.
  • In addition to new desk locations, we were adjusting to the lower walls and the visual and auditory distractions that resulted. Noisy or fun-loving neighbors had a greater impact now.
  • Our clients could see across the open office and observe how busy or empty the office was. One unforeseen result of the initial seating plan was the most public portion of the open office belonged to the group that was never at their desks – the Research and Strategy team. This group is often on the road and when they are in the office, they primarily work in teaming rooms (we call them Project Bays). Eventually, we did a large reshuffle to move the engineering team into this area.
Who doesn’t freak out about their desk location?
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