Change management when shifting to unassigned seating

How to manage the shift to unassigned seating in your flexible workplace
March 25, 2021
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Returning to the office is a hard transition. It becomes even harder when you change how and where employees work.

A 1:1 desk-to-employee ratio isn’t likely a part of the new workplace. Employees won’t spend all day at the office, let alone at one specific workstation.

Unassigned seating is the logical answer, even for companies that had historically preferred a 1:1 ratio. Twilio’s 27 offices worldwide, for example, were 100% assigned seating before the pandemic. Not anymore.

“We are moving to a 100% hoteling model where every desk is a reserved desk, so you have a space that is yours, for the days that you go in.” — Devorah Rosner, Twilio

While unassigned seating likely makes business sense, change is hard to endure. Humans, by nature, like a sense of ownership. We come to associate our desks as an extension of our identity.

So, how do you help your employees manage this change?

Understand (and respect) the employee perspective

Employees expect a certain level of predictability when they come to the office. They prefer reliable (or even boring) managers (1). And they prefer a similar experience with their environment. We crave predictability because the alternative (uncertainty) leads to stress. Arch O. de Berker's research discovered that uncertainty is more stressful than knowing for sure a predictable outcome (2).

In other words, it's more stressful not knowing if you'll be late to a meeting than knowing you will be. Now imagine coming to the office — after a year-long pandemic, only to barely recognize where (or even how) you work. This drastic change can make it hard for employees to adapt. It might encourage them to spend more time at home than in the office.

Nida Mehtab, Bay Area Lead for Workplace Strategy, Experience Transformation and Change Management at Advanced Workplace Associates (3), says change management is about leading employees gradually to your desired result.

"It's really important to think 'how do I bring my employees along this curve?' Frustration occurs when you don't respect that certain expectation of predictability. — Nida Mehtab, AWA

Offer a variety of seating (and meeting) options

CBRE has had flexible seating for nearly a decade. Their flex offices (called Workplace 360s) span the globe. Recently, Peter Van Emburgh, CBRE’s Global Head of Corporate Real Estate, surveyed employees working in these flex offices.

“Shockingly, across 90 offices, 93% of our people said they would not go back to the old model [of assigned seating].” — Peter Van Emburgh, CBRE.

Variety is a big reason why employees would rather have flex seating than personal desks. Yes, CBRE offers standard seating options like soft-seating, meeting rooms, and workstations. But they also give teammates the choice to collaborate in neighborhoods. On days you don’t want to work alongside your teammates, you don’t have to.

It’s also not uncommon to find unique seating options, like unenclosed collaboration spaces in the middle of an office. “It’s like a gazebo sitting in your workplace,” Van Emburgh recently told Density CEO Andrew Farah. “It’s just about a variety of spaces, and visually, we like to break it up.”

Let individual offices and departments manage this change

Twilio’s Sr. Manager of Global Workplace Operations, Devorah Rosner, didn’t ask employees whether they wanted to switch to unassigned seating. That decision came from the top.

However, she’s also not dictating how each of Twilio’s 27 global offices should manage this transition. Instead, she’s leaving it up to each office:

Returning to the office is a big transition on its own. It becomes even harder to cope with when you change how and where employees work.

But by not micromanaging this change, you’re giving your team some autonomy over their workplace experience.

Help employees see how little time they spend at their desks

Twitch began shifting toward unassigned seating before the pandemic. Izzy Sanchez, Head of Global Workplace and Real Estate, remembers getting pushback when implementing the transition.

He found it useful to help employees realize how little time they spend at their desks.

“If you walk around your office, most of the space is always empty,” Sanchez says. “But if you look at the occupancy, we’re at like 65% of the people, so where were they? They’re all in meetings or in other spaces.”

Data is a powerful tool to use when managing change. If you can physically show people where they spend most of their time, then your decisions become more about data, less about politics.

This is why we’re so excited about Open Area, which detects movement in open spaces. Teams can now make decisions based on real-time data — which is critical in this dynamic, unpredictable workplace era.

"In order to be flexible, we ought to measure the space that we have so that we can figure out how to design better space in the future." — Andrew Farah, Density CEO


(1) HBR. (2015). The Best Managers Are Boring Managers.

(2) Nature. (2016). Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans.

(3) Advanced Workplace Associates.