MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Space exploration: MIT experiments in open floor, unassigned seating

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education

MIT experiments in open floor, unassigned seating

In May, our team, along with five other groups at MIT Sloan School of Management, will move into a gorgeous space with amazing views, cool furniture, and a whole new outlook on how we work. There won’t be any offices, corner or otherwise, for anyone including the most senior managers, and our group, the Office of Executive Education, has gone even further and abandoned assigned seating altogether.

At this point, you might be picturing an industrial-chic cavernous expanse with rows of workers hunched over laptops, headphones permanently attached to avoid the constant din of voices. The truth is far from it! The new office wraps around an entire floor and is designed to facilitate the different types of work every one of us does throughout the day. There are collaborative spaces for ad-hoc conversations, café tables for quick chats and check-ins, huddle rooms for small-group work, and plenty of soft furniture where you can sit to do your own individual work. Phone calls are meant to be conducted in soundproof booths, giving you more privacy and not distracting others. Personal belongings like backpacks, handbags, or extra shoes can be stored safely in a locker, and books and any necessary paper documents can go on shelves throughout the space. Sounds great, right? And also like something you would expect to see on a corporate campus of a high-tech company, not in academia. So, why us and why now?

Good timing and careful planning

Our existing lease was ending in a few months’ time and we had to decide whether to renew or consider other options. Truth be told, no one on our team was especially attached to our old office, both literally and figuratively. A few years ago, we had to move offices to make way for campus renovations, and our new location was less than ideal. It was far from the main campus where we hold most of our executive education programs and attend meetings with other MIT colleagues. Plus, the unending city construction projects made the notoriously frustrating Boston commute even more of a pain. To ameliorate these inconveniences, our team had implemented an extensive flexible working policy, which, while hugely successful, brought even fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

The MIT Sloan Executive Education team is 37-strong, but many of us are frequently away from our physical desks. We deliver over 40 short public courses for executives and senior managers multiple times a year, and over 50 customized courses a year for our corporate clients, both on and off campus, and online. In addition, we travel to meetings and conferences, sometimes across campus and sometimes around the world. So, yes, we are away a lot!

For those who did come in, however, the space felt empty, lonely, and downright depressing. Here was our chance to find a way to bring the team closer together, while still accommodating everyone’s work needs and enjoying the benefits of flexible working.

In contrast with our previous move, where we were simply told where we’d be going, this time around, the Office of Facilities and Space Planning at MIT Sloan brought us into the decision-making process on day one. “We had a sense that we weren’t using the current space well,” recalls Lucinda Hill, Director of Sloan Facilities and Space Planning. “The work culture for a lot of the teams in that rental space had shifted because they were about a 15-minute walk away from main campus. And with flexible working, folks were stepping away from their workstations more and more, which made the place feel empty. So, we had all of that in mind when we started the planning process.”

With the help of a firm called brightspot strategy, which specializes in organizational, operational, and space planning for universities, the Facilities and Space Planning Office gave us an opportunity to voice our opinions about an ideal work space well before choosing a new location. Brightspot conducted a thorough survey of everyone on each team, held workshops, and met regularly with department heads and delegates from each group, whose job it was to represent the interests of their teams and communicate back on the process and next steps. Executive Education was represented by our Associate Director of Administration, Finance, and Planning Cyndi Chan; Amy Davagian, Assistant Director, Program Management; Sophie Weintraub, Program Manager; and myself. We wanted to make absolutely sure that everyone felt included in the process, that people’s needs would be met, and that—together as a team—we could find an optimal solution that addressed everyone’s concerns.

Building consensus

One of the key survey insights was a universal desire to be closer to the main campus. That fact guided the search for available rental spaces in the given timeframe. The optimal space that met the proximity requirement was not only smaller than our old office, but it would also bring groups from two floors to one. Looking at the floor plan and the number of people in each team made it clear that building out a traditional combination of offices, cubicles, and meeting rooms would make for crammed quarters.

With guidance from brightspot, the move committee agreed on an open-floor, office-less layout, with a variety of spaces designated for particular types of work.

The decision was not an easy one, but it offered the only way for everyone to be close to campus. “This was our first major milestone: getting all six departments together and reaching general consensus on what kind of floor we are going to be,” says Davagian. “We only have a certain amount of square footage; only have a certain number of conference rooms and huddle room spaces. How do we all want to share our own piece of this larger pie?”

The next big decision was for our team to do away with a one-person, one-desk setup. We’ve known for a while, and the survey data validated our assumption, that more and more of us don’t necessarily need a dedicated office or desk. What we do need, however, is to see each other more, to be closer together in our physical space, even if people only come into the office a couple times a week or for specific in-person meetings. We felt that the open, fluid nature of unassigned seating would give us those opportunities, create a generally more energizing environment, and give people a choice in where, when, and how to work, while in the office. However, at that point, no one on our team had had any first-hand experience with open floor workspaces and, especially, with unassigned seating.

Collaborative co-working and intentional space design

With this being a great unknown, we decided to sign up for a membership at a Boston-based shared workspace called Workbar. We wanted to give people some experience of what it’s like to work in those kind of unassigned seating environments in a variety of different spaces, in time for us to get some more data about how we may want to look at our space and have a bit of an on-ramp to try that out. What we found exceeded our expectations: people were surprised by how much they enjoyed the co-working space, being able to move around more, and to choose a place to work based on the task at hand. Workbar office spaces are designed to accommodate a variety of work styles, with different types of spaces or “neighborhoods,” as they call them, reserved for different tasks one person may have throughout the day or week.

Based on what we learned from brightspot and Workbar, our new space is designed in a similar fashion. While it’s definitely very modern and cool (thanks to our architect partner Stantec), it is built purposefully for the work we do. We are not putting in any gimmicks or frills, like pool tables. We do have a cafeteria, a sort of a refectory area for people to prepare food and interact and meet each other, as well, in a flexible way. We don’t have nap pods, but, if the insurers allow us, we might try to add walking desks, so that people will be able to get some exercise and blood circulation while doing the deskwork.

The new office is built for the purpose of this team getting work done in a way that makes the most sense to us. It helps us solve a combination of issues particular to us: a more energized, collaborative space close to campus that people want to come to. The team is excited to give it a go! Weintraub put it well, “Just the excitement of having the space that we like is going to change the way we work.”

Leaving room (and funds) for adjustment

With all the excitement, it’s important to remember that this is very much an experiment. And as with any experiment, the outcome is uncertain. With that in mind, we have set up two sub-committees to help make for a smoother transition. One will be to monitor and resolve any cultural issues that might surface in the coming months among the groups on the open floor and among our own team members. The other—the AV committee—will be responsible for making sure that the technology we use supports everyone’s work needs. In my opinion, the move committee has done an excellent job of making sure that everyone was heard, informed, and included, every step of the way. I have no doubt that the new committees will do a stellar job, as well.

This type of office is a first-time experience for Hill at Sloan Facilities and Space Planning, as well. Instead of just giving us the key, so to speak, and wishing us luck for the next five years, she is setting funds aside to help us make adjustments as we settle in. It won’t be anything dramatic like tearing down walls (although there aren’t many), but we may need some additional support with small tweaks here and there.

At the moment, we are excited about our new space and will be sure to report back in a few months on how it’s going.

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