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  • Writer's pictureDavid George

The Art Of Successfully Introducing Unassigned Desking

Office space with period features and unassigned desks

This is what I call a coffee and cookie article, you'll need both as it will take some time to read as we dive into important details on this one.


There is no magic wand to wave to successfully introduce unassigned desking, we have set out below our proven process we first adopted in 2006. There are plenty of nuances and no real short-cuts to success.


Keys to implementing unassigned desking-

  1. Engaging employees from early in the process

  2. Clear vision for the organization and purpose behind the change

  3. Studying current employee activity and interaction patterns

  4. Designing with evidence gained from internal review, not based on trends

  5. Dedicated change management support.

 

 

The Challenge

We all know the challenges of proposing a change from traditional 1:1 desk assignments to flexible free address desking. Whether the biggest concerns are hygiene, storage, hierarchy and statis, or territoriality, whenever a change is introduced you’ll always have early adopters and advocates, as well as antagonists and change resisters. Change needn’t be a conflict and in the case of introducing unassigned desking it’s all about careful negotiations and supporting behavioral changes.


The resonance of unassigned desking will depend on the nature of the individual, role, team, and organization. Without rehearsing fully here the mantra that ‘one size rarely fits all’, process for introducing unassigned desks should to be considered, discussed, and agreed.  While each team will have differing needs based on their activities and interactions, it is possible to adopt a set of principles that can be applied across an organization.


Having led the debate, discussion, negotiation, and implementation of unassigned worksettings (and I use the term ‘worksettings’ here deliberately) for over 20 years we have a neat process that I can share here. 


Please note, this is a route map for change that will need to be tweaked depending on where you are in the process, the existing arrangements, and the culture of the organization.


In the words of Chris Voss, lead CIA hostage negotiator, “It’s all about building trust and actively listening.” In this case, it’s important to listen to what employees need. We don’t recommend leading with, “you’re not having your own desk/cube/office going forwards.” As you can imagine, this shows a lack of empathy and immediately gives the impression that you haven’t listened to or understood employees’ needs and concerns. Beginning the conversation with what they and their colleagues are gaining will always yield better results than dwelling on what they will no longer have.


Context

Technology has provided universal connectivity between people and data, untethering and altering the relationship between process, people, and place for most “office workers”. This was possible 20 years ago but was tested at full scale during the COVID-19 pandemic, when to the surprise of many, productivity was not really impacted, if at all. This experience has manifested itself in an expectation by employees that flexibility in both their location and timing of work should morph into permanent flexible working arrangements.


While many employment contracts do not specifically state that flexibility is available, the sheer volume of resistance to returning full time to an office has led many employers to think carefully about how they attract and retain their employees.  In companies that have introduced mandates about time spent in office, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is resistance from employees to comply.


If you buy into the myth of perfect attendance in the office prior to the pandemic, the results of pre-pandemic occupancy or utilization surveys may surprise you. I can recall countless times over the past two decades where we have been commissioned to carry this out for clients (often because they felt they were running out of space as all desks/cubes were fully assigned) only for the average occupation to be in the region of 45-55%, with peaks ~65-75%.


On producing these figures to leadership, the typical responses would be “But where are they?” or “we don’t have a flexible working policy.” Yet on average, their employees were using their office for just over half of the working week.  


Does that sound familiar? 


I cannot remember a single case where we were brought in because managers and leaders were concerned about work being done, that was never the topic of conversation, it was always about the quantity and configuration of space.


Post pandemic, unresolved decision-making surrounding formalizing flexible working arrangements has clouded the process of providing high performance workplaces – despite the evidence above that pre-pandemic many employees and organizations functioned well with some flexibility.


Once we can accept that there are elements of most ‘office workers'’ roles that can be completed remotely, we are freed up to provide high performance workplaces that focus on the activities and interactions employees will be doing when they are in the office space. It’s important to note that the activities employees preferred to do in the office have changed from the pre-pandemic days. With the focus/concentration work being largely completed outside of a traditional office, that leaves the interactions with others as being the primary driver for being in the workplace.


Where employees have flexibility, the currency of office design needs to change, reducing the proportion of focus/concentration spaces (but not eradicating) and increasing the spaces configured to support person to person interaction. In traditionally designed offices, it is common for 80% of the space to be allocated to focus/concentration work (desks and cubes) and only 20% designed for spaces where people interact with one another. The precedent of sharing interaction spaces amongst teams, departments, and the overall company can form the basis of understanding the inclusion of individual focus spaces within a “shared space” category.


 

The Process – The Three Pillars of Success

The process for introducing a change like unassigned desking is similar to a three legged stool – very secure but take one leg away and it no longer serves its purpose. Your role may well be about managing these three legs! Firstly, you’ll need a sponsor or advocate who represents the core business (not HR, Real estate/FM or Technology leads). It is important that this sponsor publicly walks the talk of listening to employee insights and is dedicated to creating incredible workplaces that attract and retain employees, enables employee performance, and aligns with the business’ vision.


  1. Communication is your best friend. Setting out a clear comms plan, one that provides comprehensive information about the process, shares updates, and creates feedback loops is essential.  The internal comms team will need to adapt from the usual corporate comms approach, adopting a project mentality. This involves significantly more engagement and interaction than they are likely used to providing. Comprehensive project related communication is one of our three pillars of success.

  2. Data is the next pillar of success. Understanding how employees work, including their daily activities, interactions, and collaborations is foundational for beginning this process. Whatever methodology you use, the entire workforce needs to be engaged and the information received must be able to be collated and analyzed at the team level. We use our bespoke WEX Engagement Platform for this purpose paired with leader interviews to contextualize and supplement our findings. The result is a comprehensive database of evidence which is more informative and powerful than opinion alone.

  3. Engaging employees in the process at this early stage and again later as the layouts are being developed ensures the space you are designing will work for them based on their responses and provides data that can be referred to in employee negotiations. Analyzing the data and quantifying activities and interactions allows the workplace design team to understand the full range of worksettings that employees need. This analysis will reveal which teams spend a higher ratio of time coming together and their frequency, which will inform the worksettings needed – including desks and cubes.


 

Producing Concepts

I’ll paraphrase our workplace zoning and planning methodology here as it is too detailed to spell out in this format.


  • It is possible to calculate how many people will be in the office at any one time for each team using the data collated from employee engagement. We typically start with desk/workstation assignments for those who are in the office four or more days a week (either by the activity need or by preference).  These employees become the neighborhood anchors, positioned at the core of their team space; those who are going to be in two to three days (based on activity analysis) will have a shared desk/workstation in immediate proximity to the anchor individuals. The ratio is worked out by team numbers/presence. 


  • All others have shared desks or access to touchdown desking in the wider team area. You can think of each of these groups occupying rings of the full range of worksettings emanating from the team core.  Avoid the use of the terms “hot desking” or “hoteling” as they tend to have negative connotations due to poor implementation.


  • We use the team neighborhoods concept as these enable people to sit together in teams, there is virtually no in-person benefit for teams who are dispersed across the floor, building or campus as they will not achieve the benefits of interaction from being in the workplace – they might as well work remotely. 


The key to success here is that the design team are using activity-based data from the employees and are not imposing configurations that are not relevant to the employees’ needs.


It is important to relate that the proposed workplace isn’t pandering to a “latest trend”; by auditing the activities of your organization the resultant design will radically improve the effectiveness of the workplace providing a range of worksettings that best support employee and business needs.   
Aesthetics come later, for now it’s all about the functionality of the space.

In these articles I talk about the importance of employee engagement and Team Agreements, which are also key to successful implementation of the working arrangements that these kinds of workplaces enable.


Making it Relatable

While the design team are creating initial exploratory concept layouts, they can begin to work with the change management team to create “a day in the life of” personas for a few, typical employees, based on the evidential data collated from the employee engagement exercise. This data may even be illustrated through imagery or videos. We start this process with four typical personas based on how much time they need to be in the office (activity driven) and then develop them for each client. This helps the design and change team to understand how people work, their preferences, and how the space should support them.


The concept floor plan needs to be well illustrated and easily understood by non-workplace or real estate people, think photo realistic/CGI’s.  A rich range of worksettings and amenities (gained from analysis of the employee engagement) should be clearly illustrated in this concept plan to entice and inform employees. These new features, amenities, and benefits employees are gaining to enable them to do their best work are the outcome of engagement data, it’s important that employees see the result of their being heard. Miss this step at your peril!


To ensure all teams feel connected to the concept plan, we recommend that you do not design for a particular team in the concept plan at this stage.

This is not a nice to have, this stage is essential; nearly 20 years of learning lessons developing this methodology proves it to be the case.

The Change Team can now start to engage with Change Champions, representatives from each team/department who act as a conduit for information to and from teams, to share the analysis from the employee engagement, how the personas represent typical employees, and relate these to the concept layout.


Support employees and listen for clues on design interventions that may reduce barriers or acceptance. (i.e. They are concerned about personalization, how might we include that feature, or they work better when they have more privacy, how can we accommodate that?)


Engaging employees in workplace change
The goal is to help them do their best work, not to insist they fit into a design that doesn't fit their work.

Provide access to features, storage, and privacy that are appropriate to their role or are supportive of them doing their best work. You'll want to highlight the features of the entire office allowing them to understand how they'll meet their needs better in the new space than in their current assigned desk arrangement - focus on how the new worksettings match the activities gathered during the engagement process.


This is an iterative exercise gaining feedback from the champions around the practicalities of the space and how they might use it. Enlisting Change Managers in a project of this nature helps teams make the shift at an individual level through supportive facilitation and awareness.


Making the Change

The conversations will develop naturally about how the worksettings are used and the activities they support and this will turn to desking – but not before the Change Champions have seen the personas and recommendations for using the wider range of new worksettings, features and amenities first-hand during their time in the new office space.


It is inevitable that the conversation will turn to the trade-off around assigned workstations/desks/cubes, and how in return employees enjoy the benefits of the other worksettings and amenities, and flexibility in time and location of work.  In our experience at this stage the resistance to change is low, there will always be those who take longer to accept that the way the office works has changed.


The briefing produced for the Change Champions and output once refined, needs to be extended to a wider audience through manager briefings and eventually team briefings to review their actual team neighborhood floor plans.  The Manager briefings are completed with the Change Champion, Change and Design leads present to provide comprehensive support and information for when the Change Champion and Manager later brief their teams.


After implementation allow time for the dust to settle; technology and establishing routines take a little while to be resolved, so consider pulling the change champions together around two months after implementation to identify any trends or success of challenge and adapt accordingly.

 

Conclusion

If you are introducing unassigned desking or other settings into your workplace, here are some areas to focus before, during, and after.

  • Before - engage employees to understand the appropriateness of unassigned desking and worksettings for their activities.

  • During - communication clearly providing adequate information throughout the change and support from change managers during the transition.

  • After - follow up with teams and employees in post project meetings to review the success of the change and identify areas for improvement.



Well done if you've read this far! As always, if you'd like some fresh insights and ideas for your company or project, the team here are available to support you.


You can also find a time on my calendar for a no obligation chat, using the button below.



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