Seating Chart Design: How to Create a Flexible Open Office

Devon Bohm
December 18, 2019

It’s been almost half a century since open office plans became a mainstay in America, and since then the concept has barely evolved. Though the modern office may have become more organic in its layout than the original rigid lines desks or dreary cubicle walls, the idea that drives the open plan office remains unchanged: the majority of the office’s square footage is relegated to one, open space. Open office plans are probably not going anywhere soon, but as the world of business becomes more focused on branding and culture, the office is becoming more than a place for employees to sit and type on a computer and have meetings, but an advertisement to both prospective clients and future talent.

As the office becomes a second home for most employees and Americans work longer hours, office teams are responsible for creating a great work environment that supports employee productivity, accommodates different working styles, and is flexible enough to support a range of activities. To help you approach office layout and seating chart design, we explore a range of strategies to use that can make your office work better for you.

Creating collaborative space in the open office

It isn’t hard to find a study or article that denounces open offices. Take, for instance, The New Yorker report that states “In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that open offices were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.” Most studies will link this dissatisfaction to issues with noise levels, a lack of privacy, and a lack of control and choice when it comes to environment—the open office has become a reason for increased stress in the everyday lives of many.

But there are reasons beyond cost (though it’s certainly a factor) that has kept the open office plan in the forefront of American office design. That same article in The New Yorker reported that even with all the subsequent issues, open offices “fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise.” Even while The Huffington Post muses about the “office of the future,” they admit to the inability to completely do away with the open office as working in complete isolation “can stifle collaboration.”

Collaboration is the key to your seating chart redesign. With collaboration in mind, assess the needs of your office on the basis of teamwork and compatibility. When you begin to rearrange your space, consider:

  • Which teams need to be seated together for more interaction opportunities.
  • Which individuals need to be able to move between teams.
  • Which individuals need a quieter space for their day-to-day work.
  • Which teams will work well near each other, and which teams need less interaction and thus a quieter space.
  • Features of your space such as door swings, outlets (rewiring can become costly), placement of the kitchen and bathrooms.
  • The bird’s eye schematic of your space that takes all design features into account.
  • If it’s possible to add more employees to your new set up with ease—factor in potential growth as you buy new workstations or cluster desks.
  • But the most important factor to take into consideration?

Harvard Business Review (HBR) insists that “place identity,” as in the employees’ sense of belonging, is paramount and that “when leaders encouraged adaptation and teams felt comfortable claiming the space as their own, they reported more place identity and generally felt better about the objective features of the space, like privacy, noise, and lighting.” Letting your employees provide feedback and help plan both their personal and communal spaces will encourage a sense of wellbeing and belonging in the office.


Alternative approaches to seating chart design

Hot desking,” or the idea that employees pick a new work station each day, is a concept that has gained its adherents and critics. Without going completely freeform, you can explore approaches to your seating chart design that straddle the line between the traditional open office and new concepts. Increasingly, companies are embracing the trend of office spaces that are tailored to the work, rather than the position that worker holds. The site, Retail Touch Points, sees this concept as one of the main trends to look out for in 2018 as finding a way to create the correct space for each job, and each team, is a way of both making each employee feel seen and valued, while also allowing for them to work at peak performance.

But the idea of the work leading the design goes beyond that—many offices are playing with the even more practical idea of creating different kinds of space beyond the individual workspace. While the idea of simply creating new spaces can seem to lack direction, there are plenty of examples of alternative strategies for organizing your space available. In addition, Adam Felson, founder of officemorph laid out the types of space he sees as necessary for every office with Entrepreneur:

  • The Living Room: a space with comfortable furniture that can be used for collaborative meetings for a few hours at a time.
  • Phone Booths: smaller rooms specifically for people to take and make calls
  • The Library: a no talking, completely quiet space—consider utilizing white noise or soft music.
  • The Lounge: perhaps your reception or coffee area, a place for non-private conversation.
  • Home Base: a personal area designated to each employee, preferably tailored to their job function.

And perhaps consider “Touchdown Stations” that can be used by anyone to make a call, check e-mail, charge a laptop—these decrease the need for the personalized workstation and accommodate visitors or remote employees who are in the office for the day. Having these alternative options day-to-day allow employees to find what works best for them.

Another HBR report confirms that having options is what’s working in 2018: “When employees can choose where and how they work, they have more capacity to draw energy and ideas from others and be re-energized by moments of solitude. Providing the ability to move easily between group time and individual private time creates a rhythm—coming together to think about a problem and then going away to let ideas gestate—that is essential to the modern organization.” And not only do these varied spaces create that rhythm, they help create a culture where the individual’s needs are recognized and respected by their coworkers by creating areas that help signal and communicate those needs. This type of office culture is one that allows for all personality types to work in harmony, dispelling the long-standing issues of the open office.

As you change

A great advantage of a flexible workspace is the ability to adjust it as your office changes. Since no company is immune to a myriad of fluctuations in both number of employees and types of employees needed, the best type office is an adaptable one. When personal workspaces are smaller and less utilized in exchange for newer, communal spaces, your office can create a culture that recognizes the employees’ need for a “place identity” while allowing you to transform your space in accordance to fluctuations of your staff.

Beyond the office space as a whole, you can also implement budget-friendly design changes to personalized workspaces in order to create a more flexible office:

  • Make your office as wireless and paperless as possible, using wireless phones, laptops, and digital filing systems in order to let people be more mobile within the spaces you create.
  • Trade up to transportable workspaces—smaller desks with wheels allow for daily reconfiguration, as well as easier adjustments as your office numbers fluctuate. 
  • Standardize individual workspaces in order to buy pieces in bulk (and more easily add wheels) as well as be able to add or remove desks without having to redesign the entire space (and allow people to easily borrow or switch stations as needs change).
  • Look for storage solutions that can double as furniture (i.e. an ottoman that can both store files and become an extra seat in a specific team’s area when need be).
  • Create boundaries that feel natural and are easily moved with plants, collapsible screens, or everyday objects like books.
  • Look into reusing your space and what pieces you already have—for example; a rarely used conference room may be your new “living room” or “library space” (and moving that couch off the main floor makes more room for new employees).

These changes will help a growing office from feeling too cluttered or packed, and also allow for future adaptability. For more insight into office design, download Managed by Q's free guide to office design. For help remodeling or reorganizing the office, you can work with Managed by Q to find interior designers, contractors, helpers and handymen for any project you need.

By keeping the best aspects of the open office plan, but adapting them to what your employees need as individuals (and, above all, letting them choose for themselves what that means) the modern office is in the position to strike a balance that allows for the most creative, efficient worker. While the office will always be a place to work, rethinking your seating chart and workspaces may be a way to help your open office become a place people want to work, and above all, can.

Photography by Melissa Morgan Walbridge

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