What’s the Best Practice for Assigning Desks?

Written by Jim Meredith, guest blogger for the Business Relocation Resource Center.


Apple Computer’s new headquarters.
Source: City of Cupertino

Considering how “light” the workplace is getting these days, I approach the seating issue first by asking why we’re assigning seats in the first place. I expect it won’t be long before our “phones” have the technology to locate people in the workplace anywhere, allowing us to sit where we will work best.

Typical seating charts are, of course, organizationally defined – business units, departments, and disciplines define clusters and adjacencies. Hierarchies and associated physical standards further define these groupings. In some cases, departmental charge-back systems reinforce this, but mostly it’s about insecure management and systems we accept without challenge.

Another interesting concept was implemented with a large consumer-products company we worked with where we defined the workplace by the characteristics of the job role. That is, we found some roles required fixed or “tethered” locations while others were more “mobile” (in and out of the organization) or “agile” (highly interactive or frequently changing inside of the organization). The workstations were designed to support these roles. “Tethered” folk got assigned seating, but “mobile” and “agile” people self-selected their locations.

Similarly, in some earlier work, we advanced the notion of “time-based adjacencies.” That is, as team projects become the dominant mode of work, how do we accommodate quicker reconfiguration of settings and locations based on project duration? We began to develop a seating chart based on durable versus temporary organizational designs. Corporate functions seem to be slower to change, while forward-facing roles seem more temporary.

I’ve experimented with creating seating charts around network maps, but have never researched it in depth. For example, Karen Stephenson, a famed workplace anthropologist, describes people and their interactions in three categories – hubs, pulsetakers and gatekeepers. The seating chart takes advantage of these roles in organizational communication, enhancing access to, and distribution of, knowledge.

I have noticed in our own plans that people seated along main aisles seem to have the greatest frequency of interactions with others. People seated deeper in the cluster do not have the same level of interaction. Perhaps this is a resolution of the introvert/extrovert issue (so long as interaction is deemed “social” or “distraction”). Perhaps this is also a model – seat people who collect and disperse information closest to the most active circulation paths.

There are some simple and practical considerations as well. Sales and marketing in some organizations are frequent in-and-out roles, so locations on the first floor are better. Some roles need access to equipment more frequently than others, and since equipment is often a fixed point, seating charts should begin there.

A good case study to watch will be Apple Computer’s new headquarters. The big ring looks uniform in its layout. It’ll be interesting to see how a creative organization like Apple will fill out its seating chart. How will people find each other in a form without coordinates or even external landmarks?


JimMeredithJim Meredith is Studio Leader, Corporate & Commercial Studio at Harley Ellis Devereaux, an architecture and engineering firm based in Southfield, Michigan with offices in Michigan, Illinois and California.

The firm was founded in 1908 by architects Alvin E. Harley and Norman S. Atcheson and is one of the 150 largest design firms in the United States. It specializes in multiple practices including health care, science and research, corporate and commercial, mixed use and residential, K-12 schools, higher education, civic and cultural and industrial and automotive.


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