Geography is deckchair destiny?

Almost two years ago, I engaged in - indeed was one of the planners of  - the Great Cube Shuffle, in which nearly 100 employees moved their workspaces around in an effort to support the company's latest reorganization, spanning two floors and several different types of offices and cubicles.

This week, at a very different company, I received an email asking if I'd be willing to move my desk to allow members of a team to sit in a particular configuration.  In a company of 18 people all sitting at rows of  nearly identical desks in one big room.  Perhaps I've gotten old(er) and grumpy(er) but I just didn't feel it was worth doing.

At first I just didn't feel like moving, it's a drag.  Then I decided I didn't like being moved away from my current neighbors whom I like to work with more closely.  Then I came all the way around to rejecting the very premise of the moves: that it really matters that much with whom you sit in a small, agile, loosely structured company.  I came up with several flaws in the idea that seating geography is work destiny:

  • you can only sit next to two people at a time, plus maybe across from a few more, means a working unit’s size is quite limited
  • teamwork more often happens away from the desk, such as in conference rooms or shared work areas or even out at lunch
  • we have phones, IM, skype, videoconferencing, and legs, after all, and exercise is good for you (I firmly believe walking stimulates the brain)
  • most companies are multilocal, and even those that are not have at least occasional work-at-home and work-from-the-road members
  • segregating teams from one another reinforces silo thinking and actually reduces collaboration. (although this paradoxically validates that you work more closely with your close neighbors)
  • in small (and even large) offices, slavish localism means rearranging everybody more often as new people are added to teams
  • even if you don't directly collaborate with your immediate neighbors, having neighbors from different departments or parts of the business could spark creativity and uncover connections and solutions previously unknown (if you don’t believe this one, try sitting in the customer service or tech support area of your company for a day and tell me you didn’t learn anything)

So what’s the right answer, just randomly sit people at the first desk that you see, and never let them move?  Certainly not. If anything, I’m in favor of occasional shuffling of seating to shake up the order of things and get people thinking differently.  Hoteling is an extreme version, but I think it has some wasteful overhead and cuts down on people personalizing or customizing their workspaces.

I’d advocate one or two big shuffles per year, or as needed by growth, but when determining the new order, I’d suggest paying more attention to mixing senior and junior people and different departments than to grouping similar people.

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