Hot Desking & Desk Booking

The free address workplace: Benefits and best practices

Chelsea Ingber
January 20th, 2022

The free address workplace is becoming more and more popular. In fact, free addressing may soon be the most popular office strategy. By optimizing flexible seating arrangements, it can help boost employee engagement and productivity, while also helping maintain health and safety. 

In this article, we explore the concept of a free address workplace, along with its benefits and best practices.  

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What does “free address” mean?

In the workplace, free addressing refers to a flexible seating arrangement where no one has assigned seats or desks. Assigned desks (or assigned ‘addresses’) are replaced with a pool of ‘free’ workspaces (or ‘addresses’). 

These free address workspaces pair with occupancy IoT sensors which track their availability in real time. Workers can simply log on to space management software to see which spaces are currently available, and go from there. 

The term ‘free addressing’ is often synonymous with ‘hot desking,’ but this is a misnomer. 

Hot desking refers to a flexible working arrangement in which workers check in to desks on a first-come-first-serve basis. As such, hot desking can be part of a free addressing system, but only when IoT sensors are involved. This is kind of like how a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t always a square. 

Free addressing can also work with hoteling seating arrangements, in which employees can reserve workstations in advance.

In either case, in free address environments, desks, meeting rooms, and other workstations are tracked and used with both sensors and workplace software. 

Flexible seating

Note that the term ‘free addressing’ can also refer to physical address lookup and reverse phone lookup. For example, searches to find people and/or public records). 

But in the world of work, free address specifically refers to this flexible seating arrangement which incorporates sensors. And free address offices are becoming increasingly popular.  

In fact, one survey found that 52% of corporate real estate execs plan to implement some form of unassigned seating. And the number of workers in the US without an assigned space has doubled since 2019. That’s not including the number of workers who were forced into remote work by the pandemic. 

The need for better collaboration in the workplace is driving this pivot to free addressing in a big way. In fact, 86% of both employees and business leaders say a lack of collaboration is the biggest reason for workplace failures. Allowing employees the space to work with the right people, in the right environment, with easy ways to manage it, is therefore one of the best ways to improve collaboration on all levels. 

free address neighborhood

Free address and neighborhood work

Free address working environments work well with many emerging flexible working arrangements, particularly with neighborhood work

In this type of work environment, workers group into smaller ‘neighborhoods’ based on things like their department, project, or preferred working style. Their exact desks may change from day to day, but they’ll always be sitting with their neighborhood in some capacity.

In other words, assigned desks are replaced with assigned neighborhoods and/or areas for working. 

Pairing neighborhood work with free address offices offers the best of both systems. It nicely blends flexibility with the technology necessary to use it simply.  

“People today are becoming untethered to their desk and can work anytime, anywhere. So we need space that supports that freedom of movement and is designed to operate without direct human control. Smart-tech can help create a truly intelligent, autonomous workplace designed to support users.” —Kay Sargent

free address benefits

Benefits of a free address workplace

There are many reasons for the rising popularity of the free address workplace.

Even before the pandemic, companies were starting to realize more benefits of both flexible and hybrid working. Giving employees more flexibility and autonomy is a sure-fire path to greater employee experience and satisfaction. This is critically important in this time of the Great Resignation.  

While some might lament losing ‘their’ desk, ultimately, free addressing frees up workers to change things up and easily find spaces that work best for their current task or mood. 

Beyond optimizing flexible working, a free address workplace offers the following benefits:

Better health and safety

It’s easier to maintain social distancing in a free address workplace, where people shoehorned into assigned seats. 

A higher level of productivity

Gone are the days of employees wandering around the office or wasting time trying to find a workspace. With the right free addressing software, they can find the exact space they need to be most productive, right away. 

More diverse workspaces

Gone too are the days of endless cubicles. Without being constrained to assigned seating, companies can provide a variety of optimized workspaces. This can include meeting rooms, quiet areas, huddle rooms, phone booths, shared spaces, traditional desks, cubicles, couches, lounges, and more. This makes it particularly ideal for accommodating activity based work (ABW). 

Less departmental silos

By letting people work beside anyone, free address workplaces encourage cross-functional collaboration. 

Better space utilization

Offices only use 60% of their office space on average, and sometimes a lot less. Assuming it is managed well and optimizes seating capacity, a free address office can reduce the number of desks needed. This is especially true when coupled with hybrid working. Given that real estate costs are typically a company’s second biggest expense after salaries, using less space can lead to major cost savings, as well as a reduced carbon footprint. 

Easier hybrid working

Finally, free addressing can help accommodate the hybrid workforce. Since hybrid team members aren’t using the office on a regular basis, flexible work areas usually serve them better

free address software

Benefits of free addressing software

Many of the benefits of free address strategies will only be realized when companies and facility managers (FMs) also implement robust software in the form of an Integrated Workplace Management System (IWMS).

The right software allows for a higher level of control over free address strategies. It’s this software that allows them to track how workers are actually engaging with their free seats. Then, they can make data-driven decisions based on workable occupancy reports. 

For example, these reports answer important questions:

  • Who is actually using the office?
  • Is there wasted office space, or not enough?
  • How are people actually using the different spaces in the office?
  • Are your office neighborhoods working as intended?

Assuming it offers workable stack planning and scenario planning, good software can also help FMs easily adapt and update the office for best results—preferably based on the previously mentioned occupancy reports. 

Finally, embracing better tools and software to support free addressing can introduce cutting-edge technology to the office. This can allow for a higher level of collaborative work and innovation overall. 

For example, cloud-based technologies, messaging, video conference, and project sharing can all be part of an IWMS that also manages free addressing.

workplace strategies

Workplace strategies and best practices

Like any workplace strategy, free addressing needs proper implementation and management to work well. 

There are two major considerations when implementing free addressing.

First, while free addressing can improve health and safety by helping ensure social distancing, shared desks present their own unique safety challenges. 

Namely, each worker will always require a clean desk. This means having strict guidelines around cleanliness, as well as offering hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial spray, and a log to note when a space is cleaned at every workstation. 

FMs might also opt to have desks remain unavailable for a certain amount of time after use, to allow for cleaning. 

Second, while unassigned desks offer many benefits, this is still a new concept for many, and some may be reluctant to give up ‘their’ workspace.

Guidelines and expectations

For this reason, FMs may want to collaborate with HR to create guidelines and expectations that are in line with existing company culture, as well as to communicate them clearly.

Offering lockers or cubbies for personal items can help give employees a safe space they can still call their own. 

Leadership and project managers should also be on board, so that they model the behavior they want to see from workers. Unless their main daily duties focus around private meetings, the management team shouldn’t have assigned desks or private offices either, taking part in the free address system like everyone else. 

Finally, it’s important to note that the free address workplace is not one-size-fits-all. Not every office, position, or employee suits this type of work environment. For some companies, it may make sense to maintain some amount of assigned seating, even in an open office. 

For example, the Ministry of Finance Tax Audition Department for the Government of British Columbia is an example of activity-based workspace design that maintained a small number of assigned desks as part of an incremental roll-out of flexible seating.

They did this to accommodate employees with special needs, as well as to increase employee buy-in.

Implementation tips

Beyond these best practices, offices may want to consider the following tips when implementing a free address system:

  • Provide enough spaces for privacy
  • Start with more spaces than you think you’ll need, using occupancy reports to make informed adjustments over time
  • Create neighborhoods with distinct design styles and adjustable seating, emphasizing comfort and employee preferences in your interior design
  • Ensure the IT department is on board, and provide individual headsets and laptops to each each employee so they have their own equipment to safely use from any desk
  • Ultimately, each employee should have access to a digital workspace and mobile app that makes it easy to access work settings from any location, whether that’s somewhere in the office or somewhere remote; they can even personalize this workspace with personal photos on their desktop background to make it feel a bit more homey 
  • IT can also help ensure digital security—for example, by helping shore up security in the building automation system (BAS), which is more important with more people plugging in in irregular spaces 

“As a leader, when you eliminate the structure and distractions of a traditional office, you’re left with what’s truly important: How are people spending their time, how are they feeling, how can you help them succeed? And agility – the energy, tools and culture to react immediately.” —Detected’s CEO Liam Chennells

Wayfinding

What is wayfinding? It’s all the tools and systems that help people navigate the office, and it’s even more critical in a free address environment. Without assigned desks, all workers may need more help finding their workspace for the day.

Like we’ve covered, free address offices tend to have more hybrid workers, who may also require extra wayfinding support when they’re actually in the office. 

The more offices are able to implement wayfinding best practices, the better all workers will be able to use the free address system. This will typically look like good meeting room signage, as well as other signs, perhaps a digital kiosk, and an easily accessible Visual Directory that helps everyone locate the people and resources they need in an instant.

free-for-all

Free addressing isn’t a free-for-all 

We once thought that simple open offices were the way of the future, but we now know that it’s not modern design that improves work—it’s modern modern workplace strategies like free addressing. 

Free addressing is not an excuse to get loose with the office. If anything, it requires a more comprehensive office strategy and more robust office software, to ensure the lack of assigned seats doesn’t lead to seating chaos. 

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Photos: XPS, Ubiq, AllGo, Israel Andrade, Jason Goodman