The new office floor plans: flexible or demoralizing?

Guest post by MARIA LAMAGNA, Marketwatch

Why assigned desks are out and flexibility is in…

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Do you recognize the person sitting next to you at the office?

In many workplaces, you’d be forgiven if not.

As employees have expressed a desire to move throughout office spaces during the day and choose how and where they work, experts in office design say they have seen a shift in traditional workplace designs in the last several years.

It’s a move away from a rigid structure, in which employees are assigned to individual desks and expected to stay there, and a push toward giving them options.

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The result: More employers are turning to practices known as “hoteling,” “hot desking” and “free address” that typically allow workers to choose their desks for a particular day, or even a portion of the day. Offices are characterized by “balanced” layouts, with various types of furniture, arranged similarly to hotel lounges or even homes.

“A decade ago, it was everybody in cubicles, then there was a movement toward the all-open office space that fosters collaboration,” said Noa Santos, the chief executive and co-founder of Homepolish, a design firm that has built out offices for such clients as the mobile-payment app company Venmo and the e-commerce companyGilt. “But then when you study people more, you find out that not everyone is an extrovert, and that’s a good thing,” Santos said. “The reality is, some people like to work in quieter areas, and, regardless of who you are, it’s important to have balance.”

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In 2015, 58% of companies said they had increased the number of people working in “unassigned” or “collective use” spaces, according to a survey of companies by the International Facility Management Association, a trade organization for those who operate office spaces. About half of companies reported increases over the past two years in the number of employees working off-site, whether in a co-working space, a satellite office or from home.

To accommodate these changes, new, “balanced” workspaces include a variety of settings; rather than designating specific furniture, such as a few benches, for individual work, offices are beginning to create spaces with a variety of furniture, such as a large farm-style table where individuals can choose to work if they want, said Alana Stevens, the chief marketing officer at Knoll KNL, +0.73%  , a top design and furnishings firm. And the function of different pieces of furniture or spaces where employees can work may change throughout the day.

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The U.S. is actually behind the curve in allowing employees to choose where in an office they prefer to work, based on the task at hand; a 2014 survey of more than 12,000 office workers in 17 countries by the office-furniture maker Steelcase and Ipsos, a market research firm, found that 48% of U.S. employeesreported having the freedom to choose where in the office they wanted to work, compared with a 51% global average.

The new and more relaxed workplace has become possible as the rise of mobile technology, including laptops and tablets, means office workers aren’t chained to a desktop computer, or even a desk, said Julia Cooper, a senior workplace specialist at HOK, a design and engineering firm.

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‘Hot desking’ promotes networking

In fact, many companies have already experimented with “hot desking.” This includes a provision of computers and desks that aren’t designed for particular workers, so that those traveling from other offices can use them easily. “Hoteling” is a similar concept and designates areas that employees can call ahead and reserve for a day of work, while a “free address” workplace comprises full-time employees within a business unit who do not require permanent desks at all.

Employees often appreciate the social aspects of being more flexible, and the opportunity to network more. New York–based Karen Orejuela, an audit senior assistant at Deloitte, the financial- and professional-services firm, “hotels” when she is not out of the office working with a client. Deloitte has used a hoteling system that allows employees to arrange a desk for a day of work in various locations in the office, rather than at an assigned desk, for more than 10 years. “You get to meet a lot of people, as long as you’re friendly,” Orejuela said.

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Samantha Morton, a graduate student and cook in Toronto who “hot desks” for her role as a volunteer at 10 Carden, an organization for nonprofits, said she feels hot desking allows her to run into like-minded creatives she wouldn’t meet otherwise. “I have had many occasions where small talk has turned into more meaningful conversations and connections,” she said in an email.

These new arrangements also help companies cut down on costs, said Jed Link, a spokesman for the International Facility Management Association. When companies decrease square footage, having more unassigned space helps put empty desks to use while employees are out of the office.

When workers can occasionally unplug during the workday and disengage, it improves their productivity and engagement when they are working, said Emma Seppälä, the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the author of “The Happiness Track.” Plus, workers can benefit from hanging out.

Still, longer hours don’t necessarily make workers more productive. And while the “balanced” workspace sounds great in theory, not everyone works in plush offices in cash-rich Silicon Valley or for a company with the luxury of rethinking and revamping its notion of the workplace.

But the shift away from a more structured work environment to one where workers can choose how to be most productive will have a positive effect on their happiness, said Jenn Lim, the chief executive and co-founder of Delivering Happiness, a consulting firm that works with companies on improving workplace culture. “At the end of the day, people want freedom and a sense of options,” she said. “That could be choice of hours, choice of what they do on a day-to-day basis, how they do it, and ultimately, the space in which they want to do it.”

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Options for different spaces where employees can work have been key at Bond Street, a startup that lends money to small businesses. The company, which is based in New York and has about 20 employees, worked with designers from Homepolish to design a “balanced” office. Much of the furniture in the office is on wheels, and all of it is movable, which is helpful because the company is growing quickly and also often hosts events in its office space, said Zachary Felsenstein, Bond Street’s community manager.

Employees at Bond Street have desks just for them (Felsenstein said he probably spends about 15% of a workday day at his desk), but everyone also has a company-issued laptop to move around to different spots in the office, including large picnic tables, couches and window seats.

“We wanted to make [the office] appealing to our employees, comfortable, relaxed and not so buttoned-up,” Felsenstein said.

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But there is one drawback that has created some conflict in the office: noise. Because the set-up lends itself to so much conversation, Felsenstein said the volume can get uncomfortable, especially when certain departments play music. That’s being working on, he added.

Still, the flexible setup has, overall, been a positive, he said. “We’re really understanding and treating each personality and each department in a way they want to be treated.”

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