Take your seat!

June 14, 2017

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?

The Experiment

So when Corin and I got together to work on a seating plan, we had three goals in mind:

1. Self-preservation. We wanted to avoid politicking, blame and hard feelings among our friends and colleagues.

2. Choice and Equality. We wanted everyone to like where they end up, feel excited about the move and remove doubt and fear from the transition to the greatest degree possible.

3. Transparency. Most of the variables that go into picking a desk should be clear and visible when making a choice. We believed the key variables were:

  • Proximity to natural light (some people love it, some hate it)
  • Potential for noise (close to public areas or loud talkers or people who like to socialize)
  • Type of desk (sit-stand or sit only)
  • Work style (do you sit at your desk all day or do you need to collaborate in a teaming room, pin up concepts, go to the shop or lab, or pop into a quiet room for absolute focus)
  • And maybe most importantly, who you will be sitting next to

Corin created a color-coded floor plan and we posted it in a public spot with the following instructions:

How is this going to work?

  • We will give each person two sticky flags with a number and an A and B label. These will represent your anonymous first and second choices. Pick your favorite two locations OR put them in the “I don’t care that much” box
  • We will use the A & B priority flags to place people in their chosen positions OR facilitate discussions to come up with compromises if anyone can’t get their first or second choices
  • Anyone who “didn’t care that much” can choose from the remaining spots on the updated floor plan

Are there any other rules? Just a few:

  • While we thought of different areas as more appropriate for different teams, you can sit anywhere
  • If you want to coordinate with anyone, go for it
  • We reserve the right to change this plan at any time (this is usually in fine print)

The result? This email:

"Hi all,

Everyone got their 1st or 2nd choice seats! Thanks for being great about trying out our process.

IF you are unhappy about your spot here are your choices:

1.  Wait and see what it’s like in the space. Things will feel different once we are in there.
2.  Work with others to negotiate a swap.
3.  Choose one of the open desks. There are lots of them."

OK, so my arm is a little sore patting myself on the back. Obviously, this isn’t the “result.” We won’t know that until we move in and live in the new space for a while. I’m sure there will be a bunch of new lessons resulting from this prototype process. But we are thrilled to be moving forward with lots of excitement and not too much anxiety. 

We would love to hear what you think. Do you have any seating plan successes or epic fails?