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Consider following seating arrangements:

A)

A

B)

B

C)

C

**Key:**

Red Circle: Person
Brown Rectangle: Table
Blue Line: Window
Black Protrusion: Door

For example, in the last office I worked we sit like in A. I liked it because it felt like you are working together as a team. Now I sit in a B office and it feels weird every time someone enters the door because I can not see who is entering the room. Also it feels strange not to see what others are doing or if they are looking at you.

Do seating arrangements affect the working performance of the employees? I.e. are there any studies about it? I would like to know if my current feeling is just something I will get used to or if they are eliglible and we would profit of changing the seating arrangements.

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    DIAGRAMS.. HOLY MOLY!! AWESOME!! – l46kok Mar 20 '13 at 16:18
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    This is far too hard to answer, its a case by case basis depending on the team dynamics and individual preferences. There is no one 'right' answer, any answer will be highly opinionated – Rhys Mar 20 '13 at 16:34
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    Related question: Is there evidence to suggest that certain office layouts are better than others for productivity?. I would vote to close this one as a duplicate, but I am not sure if you are asking about these 3 specific seating arrangements or about seating arrangements in general. Can you update your question to clarify if its not a duplicate of that question? – Rachel Mar 20 '13 at 16:51
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    Although my question is already answered, I think it should be reopened because it is not a duplicate of the linked question. I explained why. If you disagree, please explain me why these questions are the same. – Uooo Apr 11 '13 at 9:44
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    While this question and this other question are very similar, I'm not sure they're exact duplicates, as this one shows some specific scenarios as examples. I reopened this post, but I'm thinking that if it gets closed again as a dup, we might consider merging the answers from the older one into this post, as the visual aids and additional information could be helpful. – jmort253 Apr 12 '13 at 3:34
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Given how limitless the combinations of seating arrangements can be, I'm sure there are studies out there. There are certainly a number of theories proposed regarding the seating of knowledge workers, and my opinion is you have to pick and choose from your favorite theories based on the nature of the team, the nature of the work, and other factors in the environment.

Here's some of the theories I've seen most:

  • Open seating - proposed largely by agile software development practices, and high-interaction models of work - fits most closely with your Option A. The main idea being that you seat people in a way that will optimize for communication - staring at each other helps you figure out more easily that the other folks in the room need to (or are) communicating and in an environment where the team is the key ingredient, this is the favorite choice.

  • Context switch minimization - you'll see it a lot in the writings of Joel Spoelsky, and many others - the proposed perfection is something like offices for everyone, with doors that close and distration minimization efforts. The idea being that once an engineer hits a state of "flow", where he's uploaded all the key ingredients to solving the problem/creating the new thing - that he needs a minimum of distraction to keep that state of mind intact for as long as possible. That fits with your option B to a certain extent, particularly in a case where you can't have offices.

My reality-check based on a few too many management books

1 - Mixing and matching rarely works

You can't have a high interation/low context switch scenario. While they aren't mutually exclusive, necessarily, there is no perfect seating arrangement that does both perfectly. Once you arrange people so they are tuned in (option A), you will end up increasing context switches - some are good (hey, you're struggling... what's wrong? can I help?)... some are inane (what the heck was that face? Oh... my coffee is cold, I'm going to go heat it up... hey - great game on TV last night, huh?).

My first gut reaction as a middle manager is if that if you gave me option C, I'd say "what's the point?" - are you mixing and matching for the sake of it? I'd only propose this if there was some particular reason why two people (at the top of th picture) have a particular reason to stare at each other more than the other two. For some completely physical reason (the walls on that part of the room have no power outlets...)

2 - Space trumps all

Due to the cost and complexity of office rooms, you'll rarely see a corporate environment that doesn't include a factor of this. Where the power outlets are, where the heating/cooling blows, and how many people we have to pack in this space will trump idealistic team communication stuff every time. So, when you walk into a room and think "what on earth where they thinking?", figure that there's probably a physical aspect of the environment worth asking about.

3 - Equality and Rank are important

All of your systems seem to assume a reasonably similar rank of person. For example, there is no manager office, or need for any other specialized job function.

More subtle are things like access to windows... sometimes people love it, and crave it, other times, they avoid it. It's important to be aware of the tone set with stuff like premiere space - people can get really jumpy about it.

4 - No matter what you do, someone will find a way to hate it.

The corallary being - "do what you can and then let it go" - someone always wants something else. There's never a perfect case. If you set "everyone is happy" as your goal, you are bound to fail. My preferred goal is "most people can live with it, a few are happy about it, and it doesn't impede getting work done".

Also - with any new environment, there's a 1-2 month bake in time where people will be unhappy simply because change = bad.

5 - Corporate culture is an influencer

That doesn't mean that you need to avoid bucking the system. But realize that it's a factor. For example:

  • same old, same old - for this company will get less complaining, and an assumption of "that's how it is" conveyed to new people.

  • new and different - will usually wake people up to the fact that the world has change and something new is in the mix. This is a great thing for cases where you want a new process and for people to realize that it's more than just a fresh coat of paint over business as usual.

Putting the right people together matters more than the configuration

By this I mean - if your configuration is such that people are annoying the heck out of each other, or good people are getting left out unintentionally - then you have a bigger problem than anything a perfect theory will help you fix.

Where your managers go, where your great partners at doing awesome things, where your problem children go... it all factors in. It's amazing what can impact people.

1

Depending on how many people come in the door, it seems like it hinders your productivity.

It's going to boil down to:

  1. Does having your back to the door bother you? Avoid the seats with a blocked view.
  2. Does facing dirctly at another person distract you? I've never sat face to face in an office without a cube wall that I couldn't see over. Large monitors may be good enough.

It's probably an individual preference. And if your group prefers the isolation all the time, it may hinder the group productivity. Talk to your coworkers about the communication impedance. This is a good thing if interuptions are a problem, but it's bad if everyone is reluctant toa speak to the group when needed.

If you need to have a meeting, have everyone turn around in their chairs away from their computers. Make it quick. Four people talking to each other while working on their computers is good for chit-chat, but not important discussions. Multi-tasking is just a euphemism for not paying attention.

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    I can not see how this answers my question about how seating arrangements in an office affect performance of employees. What do you mean with "it seems like it hinders your productivity"? – Uooo Mar 20 '13 at 13:43
  • @w4rumy - I assumed the weird feelings you get when someone enters a room and your back is to them was enough of a distraction to hinder your work. Does it affect your performance or doesn't it? – user8365 Mar 20 '13 at 19:01
  • Oh, now I get the point! You were talking about the door. That makes sense. – Uooo Mar 21 '13 at 6:34
0

Excellent question, there has been discussion of this before in academia but my general feelings are:

  1. A is good but suffers if there's a lot of computers around because they block eye contact and also doesn't allow easy access to the desks nearest the window.

  2. B is poor, people are isolated, it's harder to get attention and tends to lead to a much quieter office (this might be preferable for some people).

  3. C is excellent in my view, it preserves sight lines away from the directly forward focus which will usually be blocked by computers but still gives an easy route to every desk from the main door.

It occurs to me that doesn't necessarily immediately answer the question. There is a section on office space and layout in "Peopleware" which is an excellent read if you haven't already read it.

I don't have any specific academic papers on it though.

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    B is also poor because it is unsafe. Having been attacked in the office, I would never allow anyone to have their desk set up so that they can't see who is coming. I certainly could not sit in set-up B under any circumstances. – HLGEM Mar 20 '13 at 14:14
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    @HLGEM short of armour plating each persons desk into a fortress of solitude no seating arrangement will defend against that. Nor is it relevant to the question which is related to performance – Rhys Mar 20 '13 at 15:33
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    I have never taken deflecting attacks from coworkers as a consideration in office space layout. Now that I look around where I sit, I find myself completely exposed to a sneak attack from behind. Luckily the big guy sitting there is on my team, and if we watch eachother's backs we might just stand a better chance against 'the others'. Shouldn't it be possible for everyone to find allies around where they sit, or else not work in a Battle Royale environment? – MrFox Mar 20 '13 at 17:05
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    @MrFox, I would guess that you are male. Women tend to think of these things more because we are the ones more likely to be attacked. My male co-workers(20 of whom observed the attack) all told me they would lie under oath if I had the guy who attacked me arrested and my boss told me it would mean I would never get another promotion. Yes working conditions for women are often that unsafe. – HLGEM Mar 20 '13 at 17:11
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    @HLGEM That is terrible. The gist of my comment though is that safety comes from the people you work with. A different seating arrangement would not affect your 20 co-workers lying under oath or your boss's threat of never promoting you. If you can trust the people you work with, you're safe. If you can't, then you're not. Also, this is not a gender-specific thing. The only assault that I have observed in the office was actually a woman assaulting a man. – MrFox Mar 20 '13 at 17:28
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The overarching consideration is maximizing concentration. This means that everybody needs some private space. In addition, there are valuable extra goodies:

  • being able to see the sky/skyline out of the window
  • having clear way of evacuation in case of fire or another emergency (you have to look up local building codes for more information)
  • fairness of distribution of all the above-mentioned goodies among co-workers (if there's a boss in there, she/he most likely needs a separate office anyway)

Now, back to the layouts you have drawn:

TL;DR - B is better than A, A is better than C

WHY?

Sitting face to face with each other (layout A) is not good for concentration if your vis-a-vis is texting, eating, drinking, drawing, or doing anything else.

As Jeff O said, if you need a quick conference in the B layout, people just turn around. Otherwise it is close to ideal. Everybody can see people who enter through the door with a slight turn of the head.

The C layout creates two kinds of inequality: folks sitting with their backs to the window (let's call them C3 and C4) cannot see the sky without a 180-deg turn, but can (or are made to) observe their colleagues. Of course C is a version of A, so you get less concentration as well. In C, evacuation routes for the C3 and C4 are worse than for C1 and C2.

Peopleware really is recommended reading here!

And a note: for office work you don't have to observe what the others are doing, for co-ordination you can and should communicate verbally instead (or, if concentration requirement is paramount, you can use e-mail and other non-intrusive methods).

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    People facing the window or side on, have the added disadvantage of light hitting them in the face during bright periods. Arguably being able to see outside and see the skyline is detrimental to concentration as its easy to be distracted. Given that there is only one door, as long as they are able to get to it (which all seating arrangements are) then the fire exit is evident. Concentration isnt the only thing to consider to increase performance, being able to look up and across the table at a team member for a quick question can increase performance and teamwork – Rhys Mar 20 '13 at 16:32

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