The main purpose of designing an optimum office space is to ensure seamless workflow and increased productivity. This is something I experienced recently for real when I went to another office for some PR work. There seemed to have been a lot of thought put behind how a particular department’s personnel were seated in relation to another. ‘Seamless’ was the word that immediately struck me on seeing the hum and buzz of workflow and positive energy about the whole space. I decided to do some serious study in this matter and give related inputs to my design team back at work.
So, who sits where at work? Personnel from the same department must sit together. Additionally interlinked departments must be seated together for ease of interaction. Support personnel like HR, Accounts and Administration need to be seated in close proximity for efficiency.
According to research done at Harvard Business School, effective seating plans can boost the profit margins of companies by as much as $1 million per year. Those certainly are mind-boggling numbers. All of this just with effective and optimum seating arrangements, one might wonder. No wonder companies are increasingly working towards perfecting this aspect. They are going all out to ensure they get it right. From shuffling around people regularly to using technology based solutions, every trick in the book is being tried to achieve the perfect balance.
Each office space has its own culture, ethics and hierarchy. Some are rigid about these and stick to age-old practices, which is also a part of their culture. While it is a good idea to uphold certain values, sticking to some practices might not be the right thing to do when it comes to modern offices and work ethics. So much has changed in the space of a few years in the whole concept of office spaces. Technology has impacted work and the nature of office spaces in multiple ways. Incorporating these new technological systems means making changes in the basic design of every workplace.
Technology and its pluses and minuses also mean the very nature of work and the manners in which personnel interact within themselves have changed. New departments have found places of importance in offices that were not there even a decade back. There are different sets of personnel manning these jobs and an entirely new hierarchy in place depending upon how central they are to operations of a business. New ways to work are creating new requirements of personnel as well as technology, and these requirements need to be housed in the office as well.
All of these factors contribute to how an office plans to design its seating arrangements. The bottom line remains easy interaction and synergy between different units of the office to boost productivity. Needless to say, increasing attention and thought is being directed towards this aspect of managing office spaces. The goal is to seat people in a manner that they can feed positively off the energy of each other and work towards the greater good of the organization.
From personal experience I have learnt that effective office space allotment and management goes a long way in creating smooth workflow. A more in-depth study of real offices and interacting with satisfied employees has led to the following pointers in office seating:
The easiest and most practical manner of seating would be to group together people working in the same department and make them sit together. The benefits of these are obvious. People working in the same department will have to confer and consult amongst themselves frequently. They are working towards common goals as a group and share responsibilities to fulfil these goals. It is naturally easier for them to be seated close to each other. Any hurdle to planning or execution can be discussed easily and sorted out amongst them when they are close by. Nothing like a ‘departmental huddle’ at times really!
The next plan should be to position interlinked departments in close proximity. For example, Technology, Projects and Engineering teams should sit close by since they interact frequently on projects. Similarly Proposal, Estimation and Sales teams should be bunched together in offices that have these departments working actively. Design and Copywriting teams benefit from such seating as well. These are synergic departments and adjacent seating helps to up the synergy quotient of their output as well.
Human Resources and Administration work in coordination with each other and should ideally be in proximal spaces to work efficiently. Similarly, Accounts and HR are interlinked departments as well who provide crucial support services to any company. It is easier for them to work efficiently when they are seated close to each other. This ensures smooth workflow between them and benefits the organization. It also improves the services of these departments in processing claims and issues much faster.
The upper echelons of management have different space requirements since their job descriptions and roles are completely different. Normally they are assigned bigger and often closed spaces in an office setup, strictly in keeping with office hierarchy and culture. They need to present theirs and the company’s viewpoint to the global audience as part of their job role. In addition, they receive and entertain company heads of various organizations. Their space has to reflect the company policy as well as carry their own mark to make an impression on the competition.
The first impression that a person gets when they walk into any office setup is the kind of reception area that greets them. This goes a long way in forming a lasting impression on any visitor. Even a regular employee would like to be greeted with a cheerful reception desk in terms of the decor as well as the personnel. The reception area and the receptionist therefore have a very niche area in any organization. In a way, the receptionist sets the tone for the vibes of the office for any visitor.
Seating of workers also needs to keep in sight the practicalities of the office structure. Offices have air-conditioning and heating vents at certain points through the office. You cannot possibly expect anyone to work in such extreme positions the whole day. Demarcation of such spaces for non-seating purposes has to be done right at the interior designing stage. This does not mean wastage of space. Storage space of various kinds is of prime importance in any office and such uncomfortable spaces can be utilized for that purpose.
Another factor to be taken into consideration is lighting. While adequate lighting is a must in closed air-conditioned spaces, having uncomfortable glare on computer screens where a person is seated cannot be good for long term work. This can be addressed right at the construction and designing stage to eliminate such situations. Flexible office spaces help in dealing with such problems by moving around furniture and partitions effectively instead of trying to uproot and redo lighting fixtures.
All of this while, we have been talking about grouping people of the same departments or dispositions together for better results - something along the lines of ‘birds of a feather flock together’. This is done under the assumption that similar deportments and departments will always gel well. While it is true about departments, it is not always so with dispositions. In many instances it has been noted that more voluble and energetic employees of a company can charge up and energize an entire group of quiet and non-performing employees to greater success. These people can act as a catalyst to the rest of the group by showing the way.
The trick lies in spotting such people and picking them to be seated strategically with certain groups that could do with a boost. Constant monitoring about the success of such moves is also essential. Not everything that works for one setup will necessarily work for another. We are dealing with humans after all. How someone will react and respond to someone else cannot be predicted by any algorithm. It has to be reviewed and seating plans shuffled around until the right combination is achieved. After all, symbiotic relationships can thrive and immensely benefit both the company as well as the employees, when it clicks.
Open office cubicles have long been in place in most offices now. Along with flexible partitions and similar electronic hubs and ports everywhere, shuffling employees around has become easier in offices. This means most offices can easily get sorted and settled with minimum hassle when seating arrangements are changed. It is up to the management to decide how frequently and in what manner these changes will be effected. Having mobility in movement helps things settle down faster and work can go on as usual. Thankfully most offices these days are equipped to handle changed seating arrangements in a jiffy.
In fact hot desking is a term that is a byword in modern offices. This is especially true in offices which are flexible with their seating plans and any person can sit anywhere, almost. Having said that, too much flexibility might not be a good idea in the long term, where your employees begin to feel rootless or unsettled; or when some employees find it a deterrent to right focus and concentration. Many offices have been known to succumb to chaos with too much flexibility. It is upon the management to take a call on how much order/chaos they are okay with.
It is quite a science to achieve the perfect seating arrangement in an office. Some companies are also using technology to perfect this algorithm. This has happened because there is perception that right seating helps boost morale and productivity. There are multiple studies to show how beneficial an optimum seating arrangement can be. A case in point is Sociometric Solutions, a company based in Boston. This company employs sensors to study and analyze communications amongst employees in the workplace. There can be patterns derived and predicted from such studies to achieve an optimum seating pattern. Which group of employees works better in tandem with which other group, who are the people who interact more, etc are few such examples. These data can be used by the management to seat people accordingly and work towards achieving better returns for the company. Of course there are some ethical issues that can be raised from this kind of technology usage as well. The onus lies on the company to assure people on the positive effects of such technology and ensure there is no invasion of privacy at any point.
Another way to solve the office seating conundrum can be through software like P.O.C. This is an interactive tool that has been designed to help companies achieve optimal seating solutions. Smaller offices can work out seating solutions easily. This is not so for large organizations where logistics become a challenge to achieve right balance. This software can be used from any browser and it can export and import data easily to aid in planning. Variables like churn rates and space constraints are worked into the software so that it is more effective. Solutions provided by P.O.C are finding wide acceptance with companies dealing in large numbers of employees. These are practical and implementable at most times.
Since there is maximum interaction with immediate neighbours through a workday, being seated around the right people ups their efficiency by reasonable amounts. Different kinds of companies have used this fact to achieve better results. Each company has its own targets and ways to achieve the same. The profile of a travel company will be entirely different from say, an advertising company. What this means is that what works for one would not necessarily work for another. It is up to each company to try out different combinations and frequency of seating change to hit upon the most viable solution.
Every company worth its size and scope understands the importance of optimum seating. Studies directed specifically towards this aspect of office ambience have created lots of data on the importance of correct seating. Companies are aware how balance sheets and overall employee satisfaction are affected with the right seating arrangements.
However, the larger the employee base of a company, the more challenging it is to seat everyone satisfactorily, for themselves as well as for the company.
1. Space constraints - Real estate prices and lack of available office space, even given vertical growth (in both directions) is not always enough to fit in every one satisfactorily and provide the right seating arrangements. This reduces the space a company can ideally allocate to all of its employees. There is less room, literally and figuratively, to play around with different options.
2. Churn rates - Employees come, go, fall ill, relocate or go on sabbaticals. These are real challenges that any company handles. More the number of employees, more complex the challenge for companies to handle. New people coming in might not be comfortable with the seating provided to them that their immediate predecessor was using. Being too accommodating towards a newbie might not go down well with veteran employees. It is a delicate balance at all times for companies to achieve.
3. More disgruntlement - Seating arrangements and frequent shuffling is a means adopted by the management to keep productivity levels soaring. How they do this and how frequently it is carried out is up to the management. However, this leaves scope for some disgruntlement amongst workers at times. Needless to say, larger the office more will be the number of such people. After all one cannot please all people all the time. This has to be managed and solved by the management.
4. Wrong tools - As demands and work types have evolved, tools and applications need to evolve as well. It no longer works to stick to Excel sheets or AutoCAD to plan effective seating in an office space. Adopt newer tools like P.O.C which is an interactive software designed exclusively to deal with this problem. This is a seating allocation system that has been providing optimum seating within space and employee constraints and boosting the profits of companies for some time now.
1. Work timings - Keep work timings and habits in mind when seating people together. Some people come in early to work while others prefer later hours. Having hordes of people walking in to work and settling down while the early morning crowd is already onto serious work can be very unsettling. It is better to seat people with similar preferences in a bunch and away from people with different timings and habits. This enhances work ambience to a large extent.
2. Conceptual grouping - Departments working on similar concepts can learn and feed off each other’s ideas. Making them sit together is practical office policy. It is obvious that people who work on similar jobs prefer similar company. It is also believed that a symbiotic relationship takes shape amongst such groups; they end up producing better results. The company has to pinpoint such people and try bunching them together.
3. Resource usage - Groups using similar resources can work better if they are seated together. Use of common spaces and resources can be more efficiently managed when this kind of seating is in place. Providing easier access by seating them in close proximity to themselves as well as to resources is a big factor in planning seating.
4. Constant review - As office configurations change, so does space utilization. A constant review of optimal utilization helps change around the established order in a more effective manner. Lesser used spaces and resources can then be juggled around or re-thought for better usage.
When an office space is being designed, it keeps in mind the kind of business that will be conducted within its walls. Needless to say, different businesses have different requirements when it comes to office space. Keeping in mind particular requirements, numbers of departments, and numbers of employees, it is wise to draw up a floor plan first. What this does is allows one to visualize from a birds’ eye view how the final office might shape up to be. It is often easier to finalize or shift around structures when you have something tangible to visualize. Not all of us have the gift of spatial visualization in the planning stage.
With a floor plan to play around with, one can actually chop and change a few things without actually heaving around furniture. This not only saves money but also time and inconvenience as opposed to dragging around real people and real furniture once the office has been built. Following some steps helps perfect the floor plan:
1. Add immovable structures like walls, doors and windows. This helps set a boundary to your plan. You know now the space available to you to move stuff around.
2. Place office equipment, seating, lighting, vents, and decor of different types to this floor plan. This helps to visualize how it all will actually look like in real life.
3. Keep in mind the outdoor areas too when making a plan. Everything including which way the doors are likely to open help in planning office space and seating. You cannot have your seat rammed into every time someone has to open the door next to you to go in or out.
4. Move around partitions and furniture in the floor plan to see how different configurations look like and what changes would suit your vision more.
5. Flexibility in your vision and planning helps flow of ideas. What one starts out with is just that – an idea. Execution often leads to problems though. There are practicalities to be considered in any setup. It is a good idea to be flexible in one’s mind and be ready to go with the flow in order to achieve the desired results.
A lot of study and ongoing research is happening when it comes to optimum seating arrangements in an office. Is it something so important for the final balance sheets? It is actually a surprise that there are large numbers of people who still think this is a needless aspect of office design. To many employers it is still the belief that people who are committed enough and know their job will get the work done, no matter how or with whom they are bunched up. This is a myth that needs to be busted urgently.
Positive workplace. Having the right kind of people around or the right environment for work creates a positive atmosphere for the worker. Not only a common goal but also similar tastes and a conducive environment help people perform better. For example, jobs that require quiet surroundings cannot be done well next to a bunch of people who might be loud and noisy in their office work as a matter of job description. Such situations can be extremely distractive and create negative impact on workers.
Feeding off ideas. When employees across different departments are placed strategically, it is often seen that there is a wonderful exchange of ideas and work ethics across the board. Similar job descriptions lead to bouncing ideas off each other and feeding off workable solutions. This only helps the office achieve its projected goals with ease.
Cost cutting. Optimized seating as per office dictates is also a good way to cut costs. If this can be visualized and incorporated in the design stage and projected onto the planning and construction, it will help the management to cut costs effectively while achieving efficient working solutions. Such arrangements help cut down maintenance and operational costs as well.
Freedom of expression is all very well; so is employee involvement in certain areas. It is a fact that employees are the ones who will be sitting next to each other and executing company plans. They need to be happy and satisfied with their physical positions. Providing optimum seating is one of the ways to improve work environment.
However, when it comes to seating arrangements, many CEOs are of the idea that they should have the final say in these matters. Things might very soon turn chaotic and unruly if every employee thought it their right to choose their own seating. Imagine the ruckus first thing in the morning with dozens vying for a particular seat while disrupting the entire workflow as well as vibes of the office! This could be a very real scenario if things are left to themselves.
The reins of office seating should therefore be solely with the CEO; or any person directly made responsible for this aspect. It should be up to them to gauge the capability of each employee and make an educated estimate where they will fit in best. Passing on this message to the HR department to execute is the next step in the office seating conundrum. After all it is up to the CEO to provide the best environment for an employee to function to their best ability.
As can be gleaned from the points above, office seating balance is tricky to achieve. And that is an understatement. Opposite points of view regarding every aspect of seating tends to confuse most people. Experienced CEOs go by instinct, gut feel and track records more than anything else.
Keeping everything flexible as far as office seating goes is not recommended, nor is being too rigid about it. Being open to suggestions from all quarters is the way to go. Chopping and changing seating ever so often can leave a lot of disgruntled employees in the wake, besides wasting time and man hours on moving stuff and settling in, only to be uprooted in some time.
For large offices, use of technology and interactive software is highly recommended these days. They do prove effective in laying down the basic blueprint. However, only a human can judge the human factor in any office. Ultimately it all comes down to a personal touch aided by software in deciding the final setup.
In all of this, the best results are achieved by constantly reviewing performances, study interpersonal vibes, tabulate results of seating shuffles, and keep a track of unused spaces in an office. This will help keep an eye on what is going on and make plans to effectively change and shuffle seating in order to maximize performance. This is a delicate balance than can be achieved with a bit of trial and error and an empathetic attitude towards employees.
Is seating as relevant in the digital era as earlier? With multiple communication tools these days, do we need effective seating for efficiency? The assumption is that everyone works in their own virtual bubble. This is not true at all. One might not get to chat up their neighbour at work but the human presence in itself is very comforting.
How open are employees to frequent shuffling of seating arrangements? While change of seating arrangements is looked upon positively in most offices, it can disturb employee focus if done too frequently. The management needs to be in touch with the pulse and vibe of the office to make sure they can feel disenchantment among workers.
Which other factors help boost productivity? Adequate lighting, proper ventilation and good ergonomics go a long way in creating the perfect ambience for efficiency. Easy access to shared spaces while keeping privacy intact is a boost to workers. Hints of greenery and open spaces within the office help create a good working balance.
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