From desk booking to Zoning: Elevating Workplace Experience and Engagement

In today's evolving workspaces, crafting a strategy that fits every employee's needs has become one of the biggest challenges. With many different work models emerging and companies urging employees to work at the office (Meta, Zoom, Amazon), gone are the days where remote-first and Hybrid work models were a one-size-fits-all all.

At the same time, lack of connectivity and engagement within and outside the office spaces has led to a less connected and collaborative workforce, with employees more likely than ever to churn or disengage from their company culture.

Today, many Future of Work leaders and industry studies (HBR, Future Forum…) are all pointing in the same direction: we've entered a new phase in our approach to spaces, where employee experience has to be the main KPI to follow:

In Q1 2023, 46% employee are likely to leave a job because of loneliness (EY consulting), while 79% of the global workforce was likely to be disengaged, resigning, or quiet quitting (Gallup)
Structure of a dysfontional team

While the options in strategies, work models, and initiatives are infinite, it appears that the only obvious answer to the challenges brought by this new era is…flexibility. Today and more than ever, the workplace must be a flexible space.

Although desk booking appeared to be a straightforward solution to making the office more flexible over the past few years, it seems that it no longer solves all of the challenges that most workplaces are now facing: employee experience, retention, culture, and feelings of belonging, now must be taken into consideration when crafting a new workplace strategy.

Of all the options companies have to design their spaces and craft a new work model, a new emerging practice called zoning (or space booking) is one of the most efficient strategies for solving the challenges at the intersection of space, society, and culture.

Flex-office is still rising and brings new challenges.

The term "Flex office" refers to a workspace design concept that emphasizes flexibility in how office space is used, with companies offering a variety of workspaces that employees can choose from based on their needs for a particular day or task rather than assigning permanent desks or workspaces to individual employees.

The term emerged in the 90s with the rise of the Internet and mobile devices, when remote working became more feasible for many employees. However, the flex office became a popular concept in the early 2010s with the emergence of coworking spaces, led by WeWork and their idea of a flexible, shared workspace, emphasizing adaptability in workspace design.

The idea of the flex office was mainly built from a real estate and financial point of view: switching to a flex office, in many cases with the implementation of a desk booking software, allowed workplace managers to use the space differently, offer more options to employees, and better track occupancy with data that had the potential to elicit significant savings.

In the post-pandemic context of today, where many office spaces remain unused (about 20% in the US), the desk booking approach may have reached its limits. The workplace has to be appealing to employees to make the commute worth their while. Reserving a space must be frictionless, and employees must get actual value from their time spent at the office, such as valuable social experiences or enhanced productivity.

Floor plan for a desk-centered approach

Reserving a space isn't the main challenge that most workplace teams are trying to solve anymore. Offices are mostly empty, and employees feel more isolated and disengaged than ever.

In Q1 2023, 84% of employees were declaring they would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialize with coworkers. In the same study, employees with high workplace belonging were also showing a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (HBR)

According to recent interviews from industry leaders at Density, Linkedin, or McKinsey, most companies are trying to find new ways to engage and connect employees while offering a smooth experience from the moment they enter the office.

Redesigning spaces and exploring new emerging work models are imperative to strengthening company culture and enhancing workplace experience. This could imply switching from desk-booking to more flexible, space-centered approaches.

A new approach to flexible spaces: space booking (or zoning)

Floor plan for a space-centered approach

The increase in flexible work policies has led to an interesting new approach in space management: Zoning. Zoning, also called neighborhood or space booking, refers to dividing the workplace into different zones—each with a specific function—such as collaborative work, socialization, individual work, and relaxation.

Zoning helps optimize space usage in a flexible working environment where employees do not have permanently assigned workstations.

In practice, the concept is simple. When an employee chooses to go into an office, they can decide for themselves what area they want to work in based on the work they must accomplish on that day. As long as they reserve a spot in their desired zone, they will have a seat when they arrive.

Space booking removes much of the friction caused by desk booking. Employees no longer have to worry about someone sitting at their desk when they arrive on site, and booking within a space is much quicker than reserving a specific desk. In most cases, space booking can be accomplished in one or two clicks, whereas desk booking requires extra effort.

Additionally, the zoning approach aims at solving a significant challenge most employees are facing in the post-pandemic context: an increased feeling of isolation with a lack of cross-collaboration.

A space-centered approach is proven to help employees socialize and cross-collaborate within the office (including cross-team) by increasing serendipity and random encounters. While a desk approach is more likely to assign employees to the same desk daily.

Space booking can improve employee connectivity

Lastly, another benefit of zoning is how customizable it can be. Companies have complete control over the zones they create. They create large, distinct zones based on office functions, noise levels, or global departments. This practice is called macro-zoning. For a more detailed approach, they can try micro-zoning, which can be more specific: zones based on teams, projects, and type of equipment available.

How to design and implement a zoning strategy.

If you're considering switching from a desk to a space-centered approach, remember that while it is an opportunity to enhance your workplace experience radically, it can also be risky if you need to be sufficiently prepared for the transition. For a smooth and effective switch, here are the steps you should follow:

1. Assess your employees' actual needs.

Survey employees about their preferences and needs at work. Monitor your current space usage to understand which areas are underutilized and in high demand. Learn the types of tasks that are performed by different teams. All of this information will inform what your priorities should be as you design fresh zones.

2. Select the technology to go alongside your strategy.

The industry has seen hundreds of technologies emerging to manage space, collect data, or engage your workforce. Benchmarking these tools and selecting the one that meets your needs is a crucial step and will have a significant impact on the success of your strategy.

According to your employee and executive needs, ensure the technology you choose will allow you to efficiently and quickly deploy, track, and improve your new strategy.

For instance, software that allows employees to book specific zones in advance or allows for a customized experience for every space is excellent for reaching and maintaining high adoption.

(bonus) Integrations:

Whether you choose to deploy a new solution or update the use of your current one, remember that the experience must be seamless for all employees at every level. Integrating your new space booking technology with the rest of your daily tools (HR, productivity, communication…) is a powerful way to ensure that your new policy will have a high adoption rate.

3. Next, create a plan.

Decide the types and number of zones needed for a successful transition. From there, develop a new layout. Consider hiring an interior designer or space planner with experience in modern office design to help.

Example of a floor plan for space-booking

4. Run a pilot

Pick one of your workplaces to pilot your new space-booking tool. You'll see the best results if you ask everyone in one location to navigate (rather than asking members of a dispersed team). Make sure to give proper training on your new booking model to avoid unnecessary confusion or frustrations. Gather feedback from your pilot group before rolling out the new approach to the entire company.

5. Give clear communication.

Communicate the upcoming changes to all employees. Employees appreciate transparency; explain the benefits of the new strategy and how it aligns with your company's goals or values. Consider holding workshops or orientation sessions to familiarize employees with the new layout. As a bonus, you can add signage around the office to help people visualize the different zones.

6. Collect feedback

Setting up a process to collect and gather feedback is imperative to maintain a qualitative experience that leads to an engaged workforce. It would help if you regularly surveyed the members of each workplace, especially during the first few months of the new strategy, to collect valuable insights.

Then, make adjustments based on feedback to ensure the zones and policies meet the evolving needs of the workforce.

7. Review and adjust regularly.

The needs of your company and employees will change over time. You may also need to update your strategy based on any analytics, reports or feedback collected about employees' use.

To make sure to find a way to enhance your strategy and be able to react quickly in case a change is needed, you must set up a monthly or quarterly review

Reassessing and adjusting your zoning strategy is vital in maintaining high-level experience.

More abour analytics: How to leverage data & analytics for Hybrid?

To summarize, switching to a space-centered strategy is an ideal opportunity to enhance the global employee experience, but it isn't without any risks: backlash, low adoption rate, poor compliance rate, etc… Which will ultimately result in a deterioration of the experience.

To maximize your chances of success, ensure you're prepared for a smooth and clear switch for every collaborator.

Switch for space booking and embrace flexibility

At Café, we know that the future of work is flexible.

We designed the ultimate workplace engagement hub for companies, enabling employees to own their schedules with flexibility, transparency, and interest-based connections at the forefront of every social interaction.

We help hybrid and remote-first companies increase belonging and build efficient, flexible and thriving cultures.

Boost office connectivity with social moments and create strong connections across teams from your social hub in Café.

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Timothée Bourcier

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