Assigned Desk? What Assigned Desk?


What’s the most expensive office space in the U.S. today? The unused one, of course.

The Building Owners and Managers Association’s 2015 Experience Exchange Report noted that the average cost of unused U.S. office space is $25 per square foot or more. In the New York metropolitan commercial real estate market, I’d put my money on the “or more” option.

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One solution for making the most of available office space is an arrangement that takes the assignment off of individual desks or offices and instead provides a range of workspaces and breakout areas that employees can reserve on a daily, or even weekly, basis. A 2015 survey by the International Facility Management Association found that 58 percent of companies saw an increase in the number of people working in “unassigned” or “collective use” spaces and approximately half reported more offsite, coworking, satellite or work from home arrangements during the past two years.

How does a firm know if this kind of setup (called “free address” by people in the industry) is a right fit? We advise clients to study their needs and the desired culture before deciding. The workplace is no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Next, look at cost benefits and let AT&T or IBM, both of which were mentioned in a Harvard Business Review article for best practices, be your inspiration. These mega companies have realized significant savings by looking at alternative workplace programs, and it’s a strategy small to midsized firms can reap rewards from as well.

Other reasons to consider unassigned desks include recruitment and retention. Less rigid corporate structures tend to appeal to millennials, who currently comprise 25 percent of the American workforce, according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The firm has predicted that by 2020, millennials will make up more than 50 percent of the global workforce. This age group seems to prefer working in different settings and is more comfortable with choice. Designing a space that plans around varied work styles and lifestyles not only gets millennials through the door—it also aids in retention.

Technology makes choosing free address even more palpable, since laptops, smart phones, video conferencing, telecommuting support and more are an accepted part of the work world. Offices should be designed to support the current environment. After all, many technology companies have gone completely wireless, and desktops are no longer the office staple they were a decade ago.

When designing for this, it is important that the attention is paid not to what is lost, such as square footage and private space, but what is gained. The design needs to support and encourage employees to want to come to work, especially if it is optional. That’s where the architect and interior designer come into the picture. Creating amenities and support spaces that build and maintain a culture of collaboration make employees eager to head on in and to make the best use of the “free address” environment.

One client of ours recently made the leap. Three years ago, we designed their office space, and since then, they have reaching maximum employee capacity. Rather than looking for new space and expanding, they rethought and examined the current structure and how individual business groups within the firm function. After analyzing the quantitative data about the space usage, the company found that one of its groups was a perfect candidate for unassigned desks. The firm is changing one of its current floors to a fully unassigned model to better utilize the space and to maximize functionality. Workstations will have a smaller footprint, and there will be a wider variety of meeting spaces. The design calls for “neighborhoods” that appeal to the different type of work styles. For focus, employees can head to the library—for a brainstorming session, the café.

Underused space is expensive. Research from furniture dealer Herman Miller notes that private offices are left unoccupied 77 percent of the time and that 60 percent of the time workstations are left vacant. Conference room seating is rarely used to capacity. An unassigned desk model saves on square footage, allowing more people to occupy less space. It provides a more customized work environment that speaks to the growing younger generation, along with a more mobile, multigenerational one.

With proper training and a focus on change companies can start enjoying the freedoms that come with a more smartly used space and engaged workforce.