The No-Office Workplace

Citigroup’s floor-plan at its new Tribeca headquarters is completely open.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Anti-cubical backlash might be close to peaking, as yet another American company is embracing the idea of an office-less office: Citigroup announced that its downtown Manhattan office will, in addition to having better coffee and faster elevators, feature an open-seating plan once renovations are complete. Starting next month, Citigroup employees at that Tribeca location will have their choice of desks every morning, and not even the company’s CEO will have an office with a door.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Citigroup says the new setup will not only be “minimalist” and “egalitarian,” and “will connect people face-to-face, raise energy levels, and save money, by fitting more people into one space.” With telecommuting on the rise, offices are beginning to resemble coworking spaces.

Office layouts in which workers don’t have set permanent desks, an arrangement sometimes called hot-desking or office hoteling, have already become the norm for some workers at American Express, GlaxoSmithKline, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Lockers are provided for employees to put personal belongings, and the arrangement is said to encourage communication among employees. Even for those who dislike the lack of personal space, some numbers are much too attractive for management to ignore: GlaxoSmithKline reportedly saves $10 million annually due to its unassigned seating arrangement. Doing away with assigned desks can make sense as telecommuting is becoming increasingly common—it's wasteful to pay energy bills and rent for space that's constantly filled with vacant desks.

On the other hand, some companies have reported morning desk scrambles due to hot-desking and reduced office space. And while there are conference rooms and telephone rooms for private interactions (Citigroup is reportedly considering a privacy technology it has called “instant fog”), some have argued that employees do better when they’re given control over some amount of their physical environment.

So even as large, relatively traditional companies jump on the bandwagon, the benefits of an open-seating plan are not yet clear. Citigroup’s own human resources department in Queens, New York, had already been experimenting with un-assigned desks for more than a year. The group told Harvard Business Review that the arrangement made sad desk lunches less common, and that employees who came in together tended to sit down near each other. And researchers have found that hot-desking isn’t the solution to every woe of workers and management: One company saw different groups of employees interacting more as a result, but revenue and productivity dropped because communications among employees who worked closely together plummeted.