Flexible seating 101: Everything you need to know
Flexible seating is the work environment of choice for a growing number of employees and employers alike. With the new need for social distancing in the office, this trend is only picking up.
Empowering workers with how they use the office is changing what it means to be flexible at work. Options like ergonomic chairs with adjustable height, yoga balls, and other alternative seating options are great. But what workers really want is the ability to choose how and where they work best.
By using the latest workspace software, facility managers (FMs) can effectively create multiple configurations of flexible seating, depending on the unique needs of their organizations and the way in which they’re adopting a flexible work environment.
In this article, we explore flexible seating in the modern office, along with how it can create happier employees and more productive, flexible working spaces.
What does it mean to be flexible at work?
Flexible workplace seating has become the ‘new normal’ for the modern office.
You might associate a flexible workspace with the mainstays of ‘start-up’ culture. This would typically include modular seating, bean bag chairs, ball chairs, exercise balls, wobble chairs and wobble stools, or standing desks. Educators will also use the term ‘flexible seating’ to describe active seating strategies designed to create a more flexible learning environment for better student engagement. This kind of classroom management can be beneficial for students in all levels (from pre-k and kindergarten, elementary school and middle school, all the way up to high school and beyond); educators can provide a ‘flexible seating’ classroom for the school year that not only includes appropriate classroom furniture like soft seating and lap desks in learning spaces, but also includes tools like fidget toys, balance balls, school desks with seat height options, and more.
However, in the world of work, flexible or alternative seating describes how desks and workspaces are being used. It’s not about the desks themselves—it’s about who sits at them, and when.
At its most basic level, flexible seating replaces assigned desks, cubicles, and offices with a system that lets employees move and share workspaces as makes most sense. Often used to optimize hybrid work, the advantage of having flexible seating is that it can increase employee productivity, improve the quality of their work, decrease absenteeism, and raise employee happiness.
In short, offering more seating choices to employees helps create a better employee experience.
Given the post-pandemic ‘Great Resignation’ we’re already experiencing, we can expect the demand for more flexible options in the office to continue. While almost any office can benefit from a flexible workplace, there are several work environment types that demand it, as we’ll cover below.
Like the name suggests, desk booking lets employees share bookable desks. This works well for many organizations, including those with a largely mobile workforce, offices in multiple cities, and/or flexible office floor plans.
Desk booking and sharing can help trim down on square footage and therefore rental costs. It can also help improve cross-departmental collaboration. As such, desk sharing is a common feature of modern, adaptable offices. It can be implemented in a variety of ways.
Of course, employees don’t just need desks. Room booking is a form of flexible seating that considers their entire flexible workspace needs.
With room booking options, employees have the ability to book private offices, meeting rooms, and conference rooms when needed. They can also reserve quiet spaces or collaborative ones, as their current tasks dictate.
Desk booking and room booking best serve an organization when they are used in tandem with a global booking system that is available to employees via a mobile app, and FMs can easily manage it.
Activity-based working (ABW) is rising in popularity. This is because it’s an easy and effective way to introduce desk and room booking, increase employee satisfaction and productivity, and cut down on real estate costs.
This is a working environment in which the type of work (i.e.: the activity) dictates the location. ABW recognizes that there are certain activities that demand certain workspaces. This can include face-to-face collaboration and ad-hoc meetings, letting team members decide where they work accordingly.
A British study found that ABW can significantly reduce operational costs. This is because it can cut down on the number of desks and the amount of office real estate needed.
Plus, on a human level, workers usually appreciate the freedom to move around the office. They also appreciate the greater power their employers are offering them with ABW.
Agile working takes this flexibility of ABW one step further. In this workplace model, employees still get to choose where they work. They also get to choose how and when.
By definition, agile work creates a truly responsive work environment. This is where employees get to define what being flexible means to them. Whether they want traditional seating choices or stability balls, traditional hours, working weekends, or anything in between, their office will support them.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of agile work comes from its impact on employees. A study from Zenefits finding that 73% of employees report feeling more satisfied with flexible work arrangements.
Meanwhile, the biggest potential drawback is the potential organizational nightmare it can present FMs. That’s why, as we’ll cover further below, agile work requires cutting edge software solutions to fulfill its promises.
Finally, office neighborhoods present a unique way to blend open and flexible floor plans with more traditional styles of working. In this model, workers are typically put into ‘neighborhoods,’ grouped according to their job titles, departments, projects, and/or work personality.
In other words, instead of having assigned seats, a worker would have an assigned group or groups. The seating arrangements of that group would change along with their needs. This is whether that be open, collaborative spaces, conference rooms, quiet desks, or something more casual.
As countless office neighborhood examples illustrate, their greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness. Neighborhoods are fully customizable. As such, will only boost productivity, save space, and improve employee happiness when FMs manage them well.
Just like with agile working, the right software solutions can make or break this form of flexible seating. For example, Office Neighborhoods provides flexibility to configure whatever arrangement fits your office. Whether that means you want a team or department to sit together in dedicated seating, you want to offer bookable desks, or you want to set up an area as a tailor-made zone.
How to make flexible seating work
As these hybrid workplace models demonstrate, flexible seating can have incredible benefits for an organization. But only when FMs have the tools to manage it seamlessly.
By visibility, Luke means that both employees and FMs need an easy way to see how everyone else is interacting with the office on a daily basis.
“Our idea is that people need both,” he says. “They need better visibility from a workplace side of how space is being used. They also need flexibility, because everyone organizes their workplaces and hybrid office layouts a lot differently.”
Assuming they have the needed tools to do so, organizations typically offer flexible seating options in the following ways:
Hot desking is a first-come-first serve approach to flexible seating. This is where employees check-in to whichever workspace is available to them on any given day.
While this may sound simple, the reality is that finding an available space can cut into an employee’s time and productivity. That’s why, as discussed, organizations need software that offers both flexibility and visibility to make hot desks work successfully.
What is hoteling in the workplace?
In contrast to hot desking, office hoteling (also known as desk hoteling) lets employees book a desk or workspace in advance, just like they might reserve a hotel room.
Hoteling is often the preferred way to manage flexible seating, because booking ahead of time can give employees more peace of mind, along with letting them reserve the space that’s most conducive to their planned activity. It is also beneficial to FMs from an occupancy planning perspective.
What is the best way to use flexible seating?
While there are many ways to use flexible seating, transparency and communication are key. FMs need to be able to understand and modify how their space is being used in a detailed yet simple way, all in real time.
Similarly, if flexible seating isn’t easy for employees to book and use, then it can do more harm than good.
Adapting to new ways of work can be challenging. So making a smooth transition to flexible seating can help improve uptake while still helping build a sense of community in the workplace.