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Given an open office layout with low-barrier cubicles setup in rows and a management assigned seating plan, how reasonable is it to request a seating change? The seating was assigned during a recent floorplan changing, and we're loosely clustered by team with our manager as well. About 30% of the seats are empty.

My seat is one of the smaller desks clustered right in the center of the floorplan. I feel distracted and socially-anxious, since the seating is so close together and I'm surrounded on all sides. I frequently am led to take walks or breaks to the pantry room to relax and find a little "space".

There are a few seats empty nearby closer to the periphery, but my manager dismissed any seating changes, not someone that questions norms. HR defers to managers on these issues. It felt a little bit like elementary school assigned-seating than a place of respected, professional adults.

Recently I moved my computer 3 seats over to an empty desk near the wall while working late one evening. It was admittedly a sly move, but the original seat was very uncomfortable, and I faced no help on request. My manager was annoyed the next morning, and we left it that way in stalemate.

How reasonable is changing assigned seating when requested? What should be done in the face of refusal, and how could I have better handled this without turning it into a major issue?

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Relevant: youtube.com/… –  Chloe Mar 11 at 1:45
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Sounds like you need to freshen up your resume and look for jobs without this type of uncomfortable working environment. –  Adam Davis Mar 11 at 2:03
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Have you mentioned that the current arrangement distracts you and that you feel claustrophobic? Your manager might not be able to guess that on his own, and just think that you are being annoying without good reason. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Mar 11 at 8:47

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The answer of HLGEM explains the background of sit games, the answer of Telastyn advices to use arguments connected with productivity. However:

I feel distracted and socially-anxious, since the seating is so close together and I'm surrounded on all sides. I frequently am led to take walks or breaks to the pantry room to relax and find a little "space"

I see a red light here. Some people adapt better to unhealthy working condition (such as you describe), some adapts worse, but for some people such persisten violation of private zone (people sitting so near) while doing creative work may lead to the symptoms you describe: anxiety, excessive stress and in future, possible burnout.

In some countries (USA to my knowledge also) there are extensive legal means to protect the rights of people with any disabilities, including such non-obvious ones like social anxiety disorder. So if you'd be diagnosed with something like that, you'd have right to demand separate workplace to fit your condition. However, doing that may have long-lasting consequences, so taking account, there are so many other companies where you can work as specialist, and most of them provide much healthier working conditions, if your company doesn't respect your needs, just like for the another.

Your health is the most precious asset you have. It applies to both physicial and mental health. Both can be broken by unhealthy working conditions!

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Key word here is diagnosed. A valid medical condition can get you seating prefernce, a personal preference probably cannot. –  HLGEM Mar 11 at 13:19

It is reasonable to request a change, citing the issues you brought up. It is also reasonable for management to refuse as seating is a highly political thing and there are many things beyond your personal comfort that go into how they determine who sits where.

The fact that your managers did not solicit input from the employees tells me they are less concerned about employee comfort and more concerned about political power. And I imagine they had many long, very heated discussions about who would go where. That your team got what seems to be one of the worst places indicates how little political power your boss has. That you got the worst spot on the team indicates how junior you are and how little political power you have.

For instance, in most offices you have certain cubicles or offices in high value spots such as near a window or that are larger with desks facing out. The chances of getting one of those cubicles (even if they are empty) if you are junior is effectively 0 in well over 90% of all companies with assigned seats because you are not entitled to the nicer cube based on your particular level in the organization.

The more junior you are, the worse your seating will be no matter what your profession. Seating in your company is by perceived seniority and team, moving out of that pattern is an act of rebellion. Seating is serious stuff in any bureaucratic organization and failure to toe the line automatically ensures that all managers above your boss (who often have a say in your performance evaluations whether you realize it or not) have marked you as a troublemaker in their heads. This is not a good thing. That your boss didn't immediately make you move back also marks him out as an ineffective manager and is not good for his career either.

Where the trouble comes in this sort of thing is that there are not good cubicles available for all employees. If others who are senior to you notice you have a better cube than they do, there may be an all out war as people try to get a better spot at everyone's expense. Probably a huge portion of the employees are not happy with their seating at this point (Who would be with low cubicles?), you are not a special snowflake who deserves better than anyone else. If people perceive you have received special treatment, they will be angry with you. You may find it harder to get cooperation, you may find that people say nasty things about you behind your back, you may find that, in general, your workplace reputation is shot.

At this point your best move is to go back to the original spot. If you can make a case for why this spot is bad for you based on medical evidence (frankly nobody wants to sit there, so you have no case unless you have a medical reason why you can't), you might (and I stress might) be able to get a better assignment. But after your act of rebellion, your chances of are severely reduced.

You have to understand that a company that would use low partitions does not care about worker productivity, they care more about the cost of seating (which is admittedly quite high). So your productivity argument does not resonate with them. You are expecting managers to be logical, but they are political. Always assume that your boss is not going to do the logical thing unless it also coincides with the politically smart thing to do. Further you are being illogical yourself because you are only looking at the issue from your personal perspective and not from the perspective of people who have to balance the needs of hundreds and possibly thousands of employees (many of whom are far more valuable to the organization than you are).

The best way to get better seating in an organization like the one you are in is to get more seniority and become so valuable as an employee that they don't want to lose you. This also involves playing the office politics game so that the senior managers who make these decisions know who you are and how valuable you are.

Also you personally need to learn to work with distractions around you. Most offices have continual distractions. You need to stop expecting a quiet private place to work and start to deal with reality. Cubicles are not the optimal work place for anyone, yet somehow most of us adjust to them and learn to do our work.

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Cost of seating is not high compared to what an employee gets paid and/or is expected to produce. In many areas you could give every employee a private office for $5k/person/year, which is clearly way too high for minimum wage but practically nothing for someone who makes $50k or more and is presumably expected to contribute more than twice that much in ROI terms. Cubicles are, of course, way cheaper, and those horrible low desks cheaper still, but companies willing to cut corners on something so basic are usually willing to cut corners just about everywhere else. –  Aaronaught Mar 11 at 2:31
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I would give you +1 for the explanation of politics behind sitting policy, but the last paragraph about need to learn with distractions make me want to -1. There is some reasonable level of distraction you must learn to live with, but those what that poor guy describes goes far beyond that, it's not a condition any highly skilled worked doing things requiring creativity should be forced to. –  Donaudampfschifffreizeitfahrt Mar 11 at 8:20
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@Łukasz웃Lツ, I have sat in much worse places than that and had to concentrate. Try sitting in a trailer on the flightline and concentrating while the airplanes fly low over you all day long. Or try sitting next to the guy whose voice carries through the entire warehouse-sized building and he talks continually all day long. You can learn to concentrate no matter what is going on around you and personally I find it is easier to concentrate with a lot of noise when you are doing interesting work. Quiet is a nice to have but not something you can expect to get at work. –  HLGEM Mar 11 at 13:12
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@HLGEM I got your point, it's generally fair, and it's nice for you you can adapt to noise so easily, but not everyone is so lucky. Generally people can adapt to noise, bad smell or cold, but some of them have problems that are beyond their possibilities to adapt. I can concentrate in noise, but I need silence to sleep. Bad smell makes migrenes by some, and cold make them cold (ill). Central heating also costs a lot, but we do than in offices, so that everyone could work them, also those sensitive to cold. –  Donaudampfschifffreizeitfahrt Mar 11 at 13:27
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And to HLGEM: I sympathize with your crappy experience, but have to disagree that acceptable working conditions are not something one should expect or demand. Low cubicles are not "the world", just some companies who unsurprisingly don't tend to attract top talent. Private offices may be a legitimate impossibility, but knowledge workers can still be sequestered in private areas, away from the call centers and caffeinated sales jocks. Teams tend to enter and exit flow states together anyway, so it's no big deal having a private room or isolated area for 4-10 members of a project team. –  Aaronaught Mar 12 at 0:49

How reasonable is changing assigned seating when requested?

As long as the employee is reasonable, management tends to be reasonable, because everyone's goal is (or should be) making the best company you can.

The employee has the desire to optimize their productivity by sitting in a place that is not distracting, has enough space to work, and so on. Management has the desire to optimize resources and team productivity by sitting you nearby people you'll need to work with, and to divvy out the space fairly.

It sounds as though you have plenty of space to go around, but as a more junior employee, your manager may assign you a smaller desk. In general, having a sit down with your manager to explain your social anxiety, and more importantly, how this makes you less productive is good. Ideally, your manager will listen and explain why this spot, while less than optimal for you, is more optimal for the team or a better use of resources.

Then you can negotiate ways to have a situation that works better for both of you.

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I think it is also important to ask why he thinks you should not move. Maybe he is just dead set on keeping the team together, but that's all he cares about. If that's the case, you could offer to find a teammate with a better seat who is willing to trade with you. –  David K Mar 10 at 19:03

Depending on the degree of impairment you have, the rigidity of your management, and the standard workspace available in your location and field, it may be time to circulate your resume.

That said, the 1950s typing pool layout is becoming very popular in computer related jobs in my area, and management seems to have forgotten what good productivity looked like before this change. Perhaps you are supposed to spend your work time chatting with your neighbours, sometimes about work, and overhearing their conversations, with little or no expectation of personal productivity.

Or there may be a standard workaround for the dysfunctional layout. My current employer pretty much expects people to work off hours (to avoid the crowding), work from home frequently, and routinely pick up their laptops and move to an empty conference room or office, far from the team, whenever they need to be individually productive. [We don't even have cubes, however.]

Staying where you moved to is unfortunately not a great idea. For most managers, intangibles involving "team work" and status are at least as important as is productivity, if not more important. And while the ADA (or other locally relevant disability protection) may apply, there's a risk of all kinds of bad effects on your reputation. (You could, for example, be seen as "too impaired to ever be promoted" - or simply non-ambitious.)

And getting back to my comment about finding a job with sane working conditions - no point if your dysfunctional office is locally standard, or if you are OK with doing lousy work (by objective standards) while being well within management's expectations.

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Your manager was annoyed. This tells you that your manager does not like you switching seats, for whatever reason behind it. Instead of visibly being annoyed, he should have taken action and told you to move back to the place you were originally assigned.

You say that your company set up assigned seating. This is intentional, probably to force people to collaborate, instead of isolating themselves to do work on their own. It seems your wanting to have some quiet time alone directly conflicts with the intentions of management to promote collaboration.

It seems clear that your working style is very different from what the company wants from its employees. It is my opinion that you should either adapt to company policy (accepting all of it's negative effects), or quit the job and search something else.

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This answer is needlessly aggressive... –  parasietje Mar 11 at 15:52

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