Are dedicated desks the key to a better return-to-office?

Are dedicated desks the key to a better return-to-office?
June 21, 2023
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  • Data from Gensler reveals that 50% of employees want their desks back, and even employees who like unassigned seating report lower productivity.
  • Studies show that people naturally choose to sit in the same place each day when given the choice because it provides security through predictability.
  • A dedicated desk removes the stress and anxiety that comes with finding and settling into a new workspace every day.

Return-to-work initiatives are in full swing. Workplace teams in charge of creating a successful RTO may be surprised to discover that the key to a successful workplace experience may be through assigned seating.

A dedicated desk can ease the transition from working at home to working in the office by giving employees ownership over their personal space. This is especially true for employees returning to the office only because it's mandated.

Unassigned seating has become a fixture of the hybrid workplace, with benefits ranging from flexible office layouts to lower square footage needs. But these benefits may come at the expense of productivity and the employee experience.

Many employees aren't happy with a hoteling model and want their desks back.

“Our data suggests unassigned seating has a negative impact on performance and experience.” — Gensler

Gensler reports that 50% of employees in unassigned seating models don't like it, citing a lack of privacy, storage, cleanliness, and overall noise as their primary complaints. Even the 50% of workers who like unassigned seating report lower productivity, though their workplace experience is slightly higher.

"Taken as a whole, our data suggests unassigned seating has a negative impact on performance and experience," the Gensler report concludes.

The psychological impact of dedicated desks

On the surface, the assigned versus unassigned seat debate may seem to be nothing more than personal preference. But it's tied into powerful instincts associated with territoriality.

By understanding these tendencies and making workplace policies that suit them, you can create a better return-to-work experience.

Research shows that people have natural tendencies when it comes to choosing where to sit. While many studies have explored this behavior in the context of students selecting seats in classrooms, the same principles can be applied to employees as well.

Overwhelmingly, people choose the same space day after day. Why?

  • It takes mental resources to negotiate the office environment every day, and a dedicated desk means workers don’t have to waste brain power on finding a desk.
  • An assigned space helps people feel less vulnerable. They’re in their space, and this ownership makes them feel safe and confident.
  • With established personal territories, there’s no worry about potential conflicts between colleagues over preferred desks or perceived ownership of a space.
  • Research shows that “environmental uncertainty” triggers a stress response in people — a dedicated desk eliminates this by providing the comfort of predictability.

In some cases, assigned seating may be inevitable, even if 1:1 seating isn’t company policy. Alison Hirst, an organizational studies expert, has found that people are naturally drawn to the desks that suit their preferences, such as a spot that’s warmer, more private, or has a view, and they’ll choose that desk whenever possible.

Eventually, colleagues recognize and respect these preferences, creating de facto assigned seating.

Inspiration from other companies

While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to workplace seating, seeing how other companies approach this challenge can be helpful.

  • Knud Erik Hansen, CEO of Carl Hansen & Søn, doesn’t support hot desking models. “[A dedicated desk is] a sign of belonging to a company,” he says. “It’s part of our culture that you have a chair, a table, and an area where you can develop your work. When that disappears, I wonder if your loyalty to the company might disappear too.”
  • At DocuSign, employees have a hybrid work model and unassigned seating, and the company provides lockers for employees to store their belongings.
  • EisnerAmper has 100% unassigned seating and provides, essentially, a desk-in-a-bag. Each employee gets a technology kit with all the necessities, such as a laptop, keyboard, and mobile monitor, and a backpack to carry it all in.
  • Google has a unique approach, where employees share a desk with another person and work in the office on alternate days. For example, Jamie uses the desk on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Alex uses the desk on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This gives employees the benefits of a dedicated desk while the company gets the cost-and-space-saving benefits of shared workspaces.

Takeaway: every workplace is different — adapt to your use case

The Gensler data may be discouraging for hot desking proponents, but keep in mind that many variables affect how workers experience seating models, including how the company handles the transition to a particular seating model, how well-designed and comfortable the office is, and the company culture.

It’s possible to have unassigned seating with high office utilization and employee satisfaction; however, if through utilization data you find people aren’t coming to the office, and through employee surveys you discover a dissatisfaction with the workplace experience, satisfying the psychological desire for a personal, dedicated space may be worth exploring.