Seating

On a very crowded train the other day I watched a short story unfold. A woman with two small children, each with their own seat took one of the children onto her knee to free up a seat, ignoring his protests of 'that's my seat'. Instantly a young suited man sat himself down in it. Almost at the moment the 'closing train doors' announcement was made a much older man with a small girl leapt in the closing gap and onto the train both breathing hard having run to get it. Seeing no seat he and the child sat on the train floor. The woman saw this and asked the young man to give up the seat (the one she'd freed up) to the older man and the girl. He said he wouldn't as it was 'his seat'. (So two seat 'owners' within a few minutes). To her credit, the woman persisted and the young man finally gave in – but not with good grace -and gave up the seat to the older man with – as it turned out – his grand-daughter.

I'm often struck by people's attachment to 'their' seating. Watch people at a conference after a break – they'll usually return to the seat they took when they first walked in rather than seek out a different seat. In an office if hot-desking is suggested the first outcry (of the many that follow) is about 'my seat'. Look around most offices and you'll see seating with dire warnings stuck on the back. 'This is xxx's chair. Do not adjust it.' I haven't seen the same on monitors though they too are adjustable.

I know there are workstation layout recommendations to avoid ergonomic issues, but they are not a concern in short duration training or conference seating. Even so, a form of possessiveness about 'my' seat seems to take over regardless of the event. I don't know why this is. I've tried some experiments in sessions that I've run asking people to change seats after the coffee break. For the most part a handful are happy to do so, the bulk are not too happy about it and some point-blank refuse. It seems to me to be a great replication of people's reactions to any change process. We usually have a fun discussion about the bell curve range of responses on the lines of – how can we change a whole organisation if we can't even change our seats (and what's stopping us from doing so?)

I was on train where I watched the seating story, coming back from a couple of meetings I'd been to. The first was a workshop I ran on organisation design with about ten people. Because I'd forgotten to specify my preferred room layout, which is cabaret style, I found it was pre-set up with chairs arranged in an open circle. They were not writing chairs (the ones with an integral flap up surface). I know that 'open circles are fashioned in such a way that interconnectedness, interdependence, and equality within the community are highlighted. Participants are encouraged to share a sense of mutual responsibility for the well-being of the community and the individuals within it, and an understanding that what happens to one person affects all.' But when I'm a participant I don't like it because a) how can I easily write anything b) how can I look at my BB on my knee under the table c) why do I feel exposed and vulnerable d) why do I have to address the whole circle and not just a few people?

When I'm facilitating such an arrangement it's marginally easier but I still don't feel it works very well. Although it's supposed (I think) to be informal and 'restorative' to me people just don't look comfortable balancing handouts on their knees with no-where to put their coffee cups. My experience is that the circle often feels stilted and formal, as if inclusiveness is being required before the inconsequential niceties of getting to know each other a bit, and when people do know each other the conventions of 'inclusiveness' seem to gloss over the tensions and politics. (After the coffee break I suggested that this group's members change seats with the same result as I mentioned above).

The next workshop – same building, different group – had the same chair arrangement when I walked in but also randomly scattered bean bags. What started in an open circle quickly got rearranged via various activities into smaller clumps of mixed chair, bean-bag, floor sitting which gave a very different feel to the time spent together. And people moved around depending on their interests without any suggestion that they do so. What made this a more collaborative meeting I wonder? There are lots of variables – the facilitation, the group dynamics, the topic, the activities, the seating available, start time, etc. I wondered if the addition of the bean bags was the variable with the most impact – they kind of invited a relaxed feeling different from the 'therapeutic' feeling of the formal circle.

I've been conscious of seating in various settings this week because we are about to try out hot-desking (non-allocated workstations) with a group of volunteers and we're also thinking about introducing informal 'soft seating' arrangements. I've tried the hot-desking experiment before (see my blog on it) and I've learned that there is something about the desire to possess one's own seat that almost over-rides the desire to have a pedestal to put one's stuff in. To work with this own seat need – where is it on Maslow's hierarchy? – we had the idea that seat owners park their chairs in a 'parking lot' each evening so the next morning they could take 'their' chairs to the workstation they happened to be working in.

This, we felt, would solve the ownership issue and be perfect for those who a) didn't want to turn up to a workstation and find that the chair that went with it was a fit ball one b) didn't want to waste time adjusting a chair to their own spec c) felt queasy about sitting in someone else's chair. (Though the same people seemed to be ok commuting, eating in restaurants, going to the cinema, and so on). We didn't get this to work though because there wasn't enough space for the 'parking lot'.

Of course we could circumvent the seating issues by going to standing: standing desks, walking meetings, standing-up meetings. However, we have diaries packed with 'standing' meetings by which we mean regularly occurring ones and we also have 'stand-ups' which are used in agile software development teams. Paradoxically, people can sit in both of these types. Thus we would need to be careful about not confusing people about what we mean by 'standing' as opposed to 'sitting'.

I mean standing (on two feet) and since we now know about the health benefits of non-sedentary work we could make the case for removing chairs altogether. In fact it has already been made by Professors Andrew Knight and Markus Baer, of Olin Business School. They 'suggest removing chairs could be a low-cost way to redesign office space and tackle the health effects of prolonged sitting.' (An alternate to this is taking out all the desks and converting the chairs to standing desks using the new-to-market Storkstand – an ingenious invention).

The nearby park is an ideal location for the walking meetings that are said to increase productivity, health and fitness, and lead to better quality conversations. Some of the effects might be off-set if you were walking with someone smoking a cigarette as it's allowed in the parks, at least for the moment. You'd have to do an organisational cost-benefit analysis of the loss of productive time spent on solitary smoking breaks v the time spent on productive walking meetings alongside a smoker but with possible passive smoking consequences.

So you see, I'm still working on the 'I own my seat' conundrum which could be problematic as we head towards smartworking. How do you handle it in your organisation? Let me know.

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