two workers in open office

The Office Experiment: Who Took My Desk?

With San Francisco office space tough to find and pricey, Segment found ways to get more out of its existing office space. The hardest part? The psychology of change.

In San Francisco, office space is not only expensive, it’s hard to come by. Then comes selecting your headquarters, building out the space and moving your 300-plus employees every 18 months as you expand.

Cloud software company Segment took a different approach. Growing at a healthy clip, the firm expanded to 245 employees housed inside its 60,000-square-foot San Francisco office. But when executives looked around the market, they found inventory was low; it could take months to find new digs. The company’s top execs went back and forth for months about whether to pack up and move to a new, larger headquarters. It would involve searching for the space, dealing with landlords and attorneys, building out and customizing, furnishing the space and moving.

Ultimately, Segment’s executive team decided to stay put and instead, performed a massive cultural experiment.

Adriana Roche, Vice President of People and Places, calls it “neighborhood mobility,” and ultimately, she says it could save the company millions of dollars.

One entire floor would house 200 people. But instead of dedicating 100 square feet to each employee, Segment would shrink that space per person to 80 square feet.

Sounds brutal? Not really.

Segment made an entire floor a “mobile office.” No employee has his or her own desk.

No desk, now what?

The idea of “hot desking” is not necessarily new. As work becomes more mobile and distributed employees make up more of the workforce, companies are embracing the idea of offices with no assigned seats. New apps like Zerista, MeetingRoomApp and Robin even let people reserve seats ahead of time.

But what happens when you suddenly switch to this new mode of work? How do employees respond when they’ve each held their own fiefdom for years, even decades? After all, research shows that people tend to be more productive and creative when they have control over their space — and they’re able to decorate it as they choose.  

When you suddenly have no desk, what then?

This question didn’t escape the team at Segment, which approached the change carefully and meticulously. For months, execs studied how Segment employees like to work. Do they collaborate with quick standup team meetings? How much furniture do they need for heads-down quiet work?

Segment identified which teams would work well in this environment. Engineers weren’t the best choice, given they really need their own desks. But sales and customer support teams? They aren’t always in the office, leaving plenty of desks empty throughout the week.

Outside of planning for the renovation, most of the challenge for the company was preparing employees psychologically for a new kind of work environment.

“There’s an emotional component,” said Jeff Goldman, who had managed the transition as the former head of real estate and workplace operations at Segment. “Everyone was anxious. So we wanted to get in front of it.”

Easing anxiety with change ambassadors

To deal with this, Segment created “change ambassadors” or volunteer employees who coached those who were nervous about the shift and to chime in on what the space would look like, what it would have and what it wouldn’t. They’d track the emotional highs and lows that came about from the shift.

“They only see what you’re taking away, so there’s an emotional rollercoaster that is close to the grief chart,” says Goldman. In the first few months of the year, Segment’s staff entered the ninth floor. The hope? That the rollercoaster will level out.

Because introverted workers seem to be most affected by the idea of no personalized desk, employers can also consider “warm desking,” in which instead of a large pool of desks that people compete for, there are four or five desks in a particular location in a building. It allows for interaction without being too uncomfortable.

It’s up to management to steady the ride, says Lina Engelen, a public health professor at the University of Sydney who studies office culture.

“Without support from management, it’s hard for staff to understand it’s a good idea,” she says. “The places with the best success enjoy a level playing field. Everybody is mobile, and that includes management.”

The approach revolves around three things: people, place and technology, says Engelen. Without the technology that allows seamless roaming through the office, it won’t work. If the office culture is not 100 percent supportive — as in, management has private offices but nobody else does — it will likely fail. And people need to correctly navigate and adhere to the guidelines of the new arrangement.

“If people are talking loudly when that part of the office is reserved for quiet work, it all falls apart,” she says.

“Change is scary,” she says. “If management just says we are moving, here is what it looks like and you’ll have to get used to it, instead of prepping people for the fact that they won’t have a fixed desk with filing cabinets and drawers, it won’t work.”

Jamie Feuerborn, director of workplace strategy at office design firm Ted Moudis Associates, says if done properly, the new environment is empowering.

“The great thing is it says we aren’t going to tell you where to sit every day. We want you to pick where you are going to sit based on what you need to get done that day,” she says. “It’s not just a real estate decision; it’s something that is a change in how a business operates. If it’s just rolled out as real estate, it won’t be successful.”

According to real estate services firm CBRE, demand for office space will likely slow this year, but agile workspaces will remain. That undoubtedly means more change down the road, and it’s up to employers to ensure it’s a smooth ride for their workers.