Startup Grind
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Startup Grind

Your Office Should Never Be Fully Remote

Use This Blueprint For a Shared Desk Culture Instead

As I enter the office, there is a vibrant buzz of people from different teams engaged in small-talk and project discussions. A group of marketing and product managers is huddled around a laptop in the lounge area, discussing designs over coffee. My co-founder and CTO has moved a whiteboard into an open office space where he’s trying to figure out a server issue with a handful of frontend and backend developers. Across the room, a customer-success call with a key-account is in progress and the manager in charge waves over an engineer to quickly help with a complex integration setup. I head towards a quiet breakout-room I booked to get some focused writing done.

This kind of inspiring, collaborative and energizing atmosphere is what I love about working in a startup. Office serendipity is real — and it’s the reason I’m convinced that our company will never turn into a fully remote team (pandemics permitting).

Most people will say that this is just the typical tech startup environment — you either have it or you don’t. But that’s not true. Sure, the tech community tends to be an informal bunch. However, collaborative office settings can be carefully designed and maintained in any industry — and shared desks are a central part of getting it right.

I’ll use our own team’s transition from personal desks and closed offices to a shared desk culture as a blueprint for other teams to learn from and copy. If you consider moving to a shared desk culture or wonder if you should get rid of it, this article is for you.

About five years ago, we gave up all personal desks and offices at awork.io (including my co-founders and me). While related to the more general open office space discussion, this change goes beyond the simple office plan.

Despite countless heated discussions and some obvious disadvantages, we still believe in the positive impact of shared desks on team culture and collaboration.

Team discussion @ awork
Advantage of being super mobile: A team moved their discussion to the bridge at our Hamburg offices

How personal desks stifle innovation

If what you want is that vibrant atmosphere of innovation where everything seems to be happening at the same time, closed offices, individual cubicles, and personal desks create unwanted boundaries between teams and stifle collaboration.

Some teams think that being young and techy is a natural armour against a conservative office culture. It isn’t. Here’s how our startup team drifted towards a toxic office vs. office culture.

Initially, our office setup was very traditional. In our early days, everybody had their own desk and rooms were organised by team and function. There was a sales office where things got noisy and a lot of eyes were rolled. The growing tech-office was a messy mix of Nerf-gun bolts, infrastructure and coffee cups. And while individual teams felt quite at home in their spaces, even a small and young team like ours quickly began to lose track of our shared priorities.

More importantly, it got more and more difficult to explain why some things required so much time and effort to accomplish when everybody’s daily grind was hidden behind another office door. When we finally started hearing blame for problems being directed at entire offices (i.e. rooms), we felt the need to fix that part of our team culture and restore some understanding and appreciation for each others work.

Sales office at awork
One of our ‘sales offices’ before we introduced the Shared Desk policy @ awork

How shared desks drive collaboration and results

Mixing teams creates mutual understanding and appreciation

In our current setup, teams mix naturally and a developer will from time to time be forced to listen in on a sales call (voluntarily or not) and our support staff will hear a heated conversation around the technical difficulties involved in solving a maximum priority bug.

This is also true for some of the strategic discussions between us co-founders –- whenever we don’t deem them secret enough to book a meeting room, the whole team is welcome to listen in on our thoughts-in-progress. The impact on team culture is one of mutual understanding and appreciation.

Flexibility creates the perfect setting for any project or meeting

The shared desk model’s flexibility allows for project specific seating an meeting. Content and design can sit together for an hour (without requiring a meeting room) to develop a new campaign. A project desk can form between product, engineering and marketing to tackle an upcoming release. From a management perspective, this allows for a wonderful combination of sharing desks with one’s team on some days and huddling together with co-founders on the next to prepare an important pitch.

There is a similar flexibility when it comes to equipment. The model allows us to make some special equipment available to the team. Adjustable desks, different chairs, high-resolution displays etc. without having to equip every single desk with them – which would otherwise exceed our budget.

Concept session @ awork
Different rooms, different options: a cozy concept session in an engineering team @ awork

Mobility enables remote work and drives digital communication

When everybody is used to moving around the office, the switch to working remotely becomes much easier. For instance, analogue to-do boards, post-it reminders and handwritten notes are already super cumbersome compared to their digital equivalents, when you sit at a different desk every day.

While working remotely has always been an option for our team, since the Corona pandemic, the amount of people working remotely (also post-corona lock-down) has increased significantly. Individual Slack status settings (homeoffice, office, holiday, lunch, in a meeting etc.) help to identify if someone is available in person, via zoom call or on a well earned break. Letting integrations with our Google calendar and other apps automatically update the status makes this even more helpful.

Digital work management becomes the new normal for any team

For some traditional teams, this may be a big change: We do not have fixed phones at our desks and send hardly any internal emails at all. Those members of the team who do a lot of calls have mobile phones and we have a VoIP support hotline.

All other communication is handled via Slack (MS Teams would do the same, we just decided for Slack when that was virtually the only serious team-chat solution). The app allows for convenient team chats, team- wide announcements, document sharing and even direct calls from any device you’re on. In conjunction with our work management app awork (where we plan projects, tasks, timelines, milestones etc.) and Zoom for internal and external video calls, it does no longer matter so much where someone else is located.

“Are you actually at the office?” is a frequent question in chats and I’ve seen more conversations than I can count seamlessly transitioning from silent (i.e. on Slack) to outspoken in the middle of a sentence because you realise someone is actually sitting just a few desks across from you (makes people smile because of the absurdly ‘out of context’ sentences that sometimes float around the office).

How to set up your shared desk culture for success

Let’s start by again distilling the concept into a singe sentence:

Nobody at our company has their own personal desk.

To make that work, we introduced a few basic rules and some infrastructure.

The 7 basic rules for a successful shared desk setup

  • Laptops only.
    We do not own any traditional desktop computers. This currently has the added advantage of an easy transition to a temporary full work from home environment.
  • Standard equipment at all desks.
    Our shared desks have standard equipment like external display, mouse, keyboard & adapters that can easily be connected to anyone’s laptop.
  • Digital everything.
    We provide digital alternatives for communication, work management, documentation, etc.
  • Simple personal storage.
    We introduced container-like boxes to store personal items. These boxes can easily be taken to your desk for the day or simply be left in their central shelf.
  • Rooms for any purpose.
    Our offices have different properties: An open space with up to 20 desks, more co-working oriented areas with large tables and laptop space only (up to 12 ppl per table), bookable meeting / workshop rooms, a more noise-isolated room for phone calls also featuring a telco-box and a lounge area for more informal meetings and our regular All Hands events.
  • Clean desk.
    When leaving your desk, remove all personal items, cups, bottles etc. and make sure the standard equipment is in place.
  • Clean office.
    Moving around between desks and locations can create a little more overall chaos than usual. A weekly cleanup session of the entire office is an easy fix.
Shared Desk Boxes @ awork
One of several early shelves of “Shared Desk Boxes” @ awork (sorry about the mess ;-)

Creating a professional office environment (Or: How to keep the mess in check)

The ‘clean desk’ part of the entire model makes for a reasonably professional office environment and encourages contributions to everybody’s environment instead of my personal desk / cubicle / office. While no silver bullet, it helps to make the office everybody’s concern.

If you’re looking to cut costs by introducing a shared desk policy, you’re probably on the wrong track. You won’t save on equipment or office space compared to what you’d have to invest traditionally (at least not significantly). You may however increase your budget’s impact by making improvements available to everybody.

How to keep your shared desk setting from falling apart

The shared desk concept is far from perfect and full of trade-offs. For us, the constant discussion, especially among those who weren’t around to experience the alternative, are part of our cultural process.

It definitely helps to be prepared for the argument and to have (partial) solutions to offer to the team.

Noise, noise, noise 🔇

This is the classic in any open space office constellation and the shared desk model is no final solution to it either — although it has some advantages. Besides the very individual sensibility towards office noise in any team, different roles are affected differently of course.

At one end of the spectrum is the engineering team. Apart from the occasional discussion, they usually are a quiet bunch and need a certain level of silence to concentrate. At the other end is the sales team. Both due to their daily work (being on calls) as well as due to their self selection personality bias (they tend to be communicative), their immediate environment is noisy and they usually don’t mind the noise either. But there are people in between, too. Our consultants and customer success team for example. They are usually a source of office noise (onboarding calls, remote training etc.) but require a more silent environment to concentrate on important details and technical solutions.

The obvious solution: Let go of shared desks and open offices, put every team back into their ‘native habitats’ 😉 and give single offices to sales reps. All that does, is take everybody back to the original problem we’re trying to solve. And that is important to remember when addressing a wave of ‘the office is too noisy for me’ complaints. We’re accepting a bit of office noise to achieve something much more important: A healthy team-understanding.

Nevertheless, this needs to be taken seriously, as noise levels can be a source of significant stress and well-being at the office. Here’s what we’ve implemented to address the issue:

Julia from the awork marketing team preparing for a call in our Shout Space

Anti-noise project 1: The Shout Space: One of our rooms is called the ‘Shout Space’. It features good old noise isolated cubicles, an additionally padded ceiling to reduce echoes and a phone-booth for a completely isolated workspace. This is the place where you can do a full day of non-stop customer calls, long onboarding sessions but also just a short, loud, private call. Remember: These desks are also shared, nobody is ‘sentenced’ to always work in the noise. So once you’re done being loud, you can simply leave and enjoy a much quieter environment.

Anti-noise project 2: Work From Home: While we value our shared office and the benefits that come with it, working from home for anything from an occasional half a day to several days a week is a simple and effective way to do a quiet work session. I’ll definitely cover the topic in more depth in a future article.

Anti-noise project 3: Proper Headsets: Professional grade active noise cancelling headsets incl. call center microphones are rather expensive — but make all the difference for both sides of the call and let anybody fade out the office buzz for a while. Don’t be too stingy here.

No more personal spaces & items

One frequent point for discussion is the lack of personal space at the office. While this won’t matter for some, other members of the team will sorely miss the cozyness of a personal desk with photos, permanent storage, analogue notes etc. Our current concept reduces that to the individual boxes on a shelf.

We try to address this by making the entire office a place people enjoy to spend time in and giving everybody the opportunity to contribute to our office’s design. However, it is important to understand that, in fact, this is part of the underlying idea: make work at the office less of an individual endeavour and more of a team effort — and that’s reflected in the actual space.

Our racing track and my co-founder Lucas painting an office wall @ awork
One of the team’s art projects and yes, we did have more than 1,000 plastic balls rolling around the office at one point 🤪

Less room for teamwork

As flexible as the entire setting is, growing teams will sometimes find it difficult to secure enough space in the mornings to sit together for a day or two to work on projects and may be hesitant to ask others to move around the office on their behalf, team spaces may be fully booked etc. We’ve started addressing this by introducing a Team Friday, where every team chooses a dedicated area of the office to sit in closer proximity.

Favourite desks and personal equipment

Do some people have favorite desks? Do people come extra early to claim them? Does it sometimes feel as if some team members ignore the ‘shared’ part of the model? Yes, to all of the above.

The thing is: It’s not a problem. We do enforce the clean desk policy as much as possible (no official excuses to leave your equipment in the evening), so every morning is an opportunity to secure the desk you like. If coming to the office at 11 is your thing, you’re going to have to deal with what’s left over at that point. For the concept to work, it is not necessary for everybody to switch places every day (we thought so in the beginning). Rather, a natural shift with projects or just preference is more than enough. Also, asking someone to switch desks should always be allowed: To be able to use the special equipment, to regroup in a temporary team or just to get a change in scenery.

So how about that favorite mouse and that keyboard with the alternate language arrangement someone really likes? Everybody is welcome to bring and use their special equipment, as long as it gets stored in their boxes as part of cleaning a desk.

Open feedback is key

This issue is never going to go away completely in an open office setting. So being open to feedback (also direct feedback like ‘please leave the room next time you’re getting a long call’) should be accepted and improvements to how the space is used to minimize the effects should be constantly welcome.

Final remarks: Is this part of my job?!

My final remark on the shared desk model: It will create some additional effort for everybody on the team. Moving your equipment every day, getting used to a different desk, searching for equipment that somebody else didn’t put back — simply having to deal with the setting instead of just sitting at your own desk every day. Some people won’t like that. They’ll have strong feelings about that not being part of their jobs, maybe even complain that the company isn’t organised professionally.

Remember: The shared desk model is a means to an end — with some drawbacks. But speaking from our own experience, when managed correctly, the positive impact on work and office culture by far outweighs those drawbacks. It is therefore important to openly address concerns, explain the underlying advantages and clearly communicate that yes, this is actually part of working in a flexible, modern, open team and workplace.

Hi, I’m Tobi 👋, co-founder at HQLabs // awork.io where I head marketing & sales teams for two B2B-SaaS products. We’re a Hamburg, Germany based productivity company and love to build delightful products that help teams grow. While I hold a degree in mechanical engineering, I found my passion in entrepreneurship and team culture rather than mechanics. I firmly believe that we can improve our lives by unsucking work.

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