When your office seating plan is based on a science fiction story you are bound to wind up with something strange.

If you aren’t familiar with Divergent it is a trilogy about a dystopian society in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Citizens there are divided into factions according to their predisposition for one of five “virtues”. After reading Divergent, which is intended for an adolescent audience, Citi’s Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer of HR was inspired to develop a work space open floor plan based on “neighborhoods”.

This plan is a pilot project for a larger initiative called CitiWorks which intends to optimize the company’s work spaces. Studies show that because of travel, vacations, absences, etc., work space is underutilized. Under this new plan no one has an assigned desk. There are only 150 desks for 200 people. If you miss out on getting a desk you may work in a private space for focused work or a “cozy seating area” where you mingle with other employees. Wherever you can find a place to sit. Kind of like free ranging.

Why Citi Got Rid of Assigned Desks

Susan Catalano, Citi’s Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer of HR, was reading the Divergent series — about a future society broken up into five social factions cultivating different virtues — around the same time she was asked to assist with an open floor plan for the HR group’s new workspace. The book influenced the end product. “We created what we call neighborhoods — a compensation neighborhood, a learning and development neighborhood, etc. — to help individuals feel they ‘owned’ their space, even though no one has a designated workspace and no one has a private office,” she explains.

Open plans, so we are told, will encourage innovation. People who might not come into contact with each other based on the standard floor plan may now bump into each other spawning new ideas (a convergence?) or a least having a greater sense of fun and camaraderie.

Besides all that employee fun there is another benefit of note—the company will save millions.

Other benefits include a greater sense of fun and camaraderie. Now more people eat lunch together, instead of alone at their desks. The office neighborhoods have started planning fun, informal events — breakfasts or Friday afternoon mixers. “Many of these are people I have worked with for years but I never met them in person. Now, we get a chance to connect on a more personal level, and it’s fun,” says Likerman. And the smaller footprint has saved millions of dollars in Citi’s HR budget.

This open floor plan scheme comes around every so often. In the 1970’s my town’s new middle school was built without interior walls to separate classrooms. It would foster new opportunities for learning. After two years the town had another great idea, install “learning enhancement partitions” (not kidding) in the school.

I wonder how high up the Citi ranks this open floor plan applies. I bet the top brass will still have huge private offices with their own very big desk. How do they manage under these circumstances to come up with innovative ideas like misleading investors about toxic mortgage-backed loans? Some ideas are best kept behind walls I suppose.

I know some work cubicles are not much better than dog kennels, but still, I believe many if not most workers prefer their own space. In fact, some people would rather spend their time with dogs than their co-workers.

I read the Harvard Business Review article around the same time I ordered my free range Thanksgiving turkey which influenced me to conclude, free ranging is best for turkeys and other livestock not so much for people.

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6 Comments | Leave a comment
  1. Alain41 says:

    Don’t forget parking. Management get their guaranteed space, but the 200 staff will only have 100 spaces. Must ‘promote’ mass transit. It’s green and senior management flies to Davos, next week to get a conservation award.

  2. Maynard says:

    The practical analogy that comes to mind and that we’ve all experienced is the school lunchroom. What you get — did anyone get anything else? — is instinctual segregation by tribes…the jock table, the nerd table (that’s where I was, and woe unto me if I tried to go anywhere else), the cool table, etc etc. And of course the racial segregation (ask Eric “My People” Holder about this).

    But maybe we just didn’t go far enough in mixing it up. Maybe our institutions should just become cavernous undivided enclosures, with random sprinklings of desks, tables, food outlets, sinks, and toilets. That ought to scatter the cliques and bring us into productive, efficient unity.

    Don’t get me started on private living arrangements, which of course must also be superseded. But let’s take this transformation one step at a time.

  3. NeverSurrender says:

    This open floor plan idea sounds like what obama is applying to our southern border. The United States is now free range territory.

  4. I know that this wouldn’t go over well where I work. People like to own their space. And everyone has their own way of working. I set up my computer at work so that I can do my work the most efficient way possible. But that becomes impossible if you get a different machine every day.

  5. ancientwrrior says:

    I’ve heard this expressed elsewhere. All animals are equal,BUT, some animals are more equal than others (the top dogs). Communism at it’s finest.

  6. Kitten says:

    For the same reason *people* like their personal space, they also like their own work space. On a broader scale, this sounds like collectivism. It reminds me of the Borg. No more individuality, or even individual thought. Where do you go if you are one who creates when alone? Is there no place for the introvert?

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