How to optimize desk assignments?
February 21, 2007 2:47 PM   Subscribe

In the office we’ll be moving to soon, we’ll have about 50 desks, and almost that many workers to be assigned to them. How can we optimize who’s assigned to each desk so that as many workers as possible are as pleased as possible with their desk assignment?

We’d like to have people make desk selections or rank their preferences in some way, and then make assignments accordingly. The assignments are unlikely to be influenced by seniority or hierarchy.

Desks and groups of desks vary in ways that make them more or less desirable to different people -- e.g., more or less sun (which means better or worse views to some people, and tolerable or intolerable glare on their computers to others), aisle seats vs. middle seats in a row of desks, etc. There are also at least two factors that we’d like to take into account, but that don’t correspond to individual desks that people could rank or select. First, there are people who want to work quietly and others who like music and conversation. Likewise, there are areas of the building that are naturally quieter or livelier, but we can also define areas as quiet or lively based on how many people have each preference. Second, there are communities and relationships: people who want to sit together, and perhaps people who don’t want to sit near particular others.

We’ve considered just pulling desk numbers from a hat and then perhaps allowing trades. We’ve considered making assignments temporary so everyone gets a chance at a good desk some time. We’ve considered having everyone write down their top choices, and then doing the best we can to meet them. But it’s not obvious how best to do that. It would be nice to have a system that does so with optimal results. I think doing so should probably reward flexibility, such that someone who is willing to take any desk except a few is very likely to get one of their choices, while someone who only picks a few top choices might not get one of those. I’m wondering if there’s an existing algorithm or formula we can apply, or if you have thoughts on the assignment-optimizing method we should use.
posted by daisyace to Work & Money (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Bottom-up organization rewarding good employees.

One random day a month, without warning, make it a desk free-for-all. Those who arrive early get a desk of choice, and can choose to migrate away from groups which cause distraction, or get a desk by a window, or whatever.

This way, there's no boring organization, charts, or squabbles. Just, arrive, get your desk, start working.

The employees do all the managerial work! Isn't that grand? And they get some choice in where they end, rather then it being random, or with the good spots being assigned to (what would be considered) preferential treatment.

Trust your employees to make the right decisions, they'll work it out themselves.
posted by emptyinside at 3:04 PM on February 21, 2007

If there truly is no heirarchy or seniority with which to choose, the names in a hat method is the best you're going to do.

It's like going to Disney World in a big group - everyone wants to ride a different ride, and there's NO WAY you're going to make everyone happy.

BUT - since you're going with 'as many workers as possible are pleased', I'd recommend this:

Decide if you're going to set up environmental areas or not (sunny vs. shady, quiet vs. active, etc...). That has to be ironed out and agreed upon that those areas will exist. Then have everyone fill out a matrix with their top three choices of seats. Draw names out of a hat for the assignment order, and once everyone has been given an assignment, do it again (and a third time) for people who need to opt for their second or third choice. At the end - allow anyone to trade with whomever they want to.

Unless you make this a festive occasion on company time, I'd suspect everyone will find this to be a huge pain in the ass.

Your only other option is to take them all into the room at once, turn off the lights, and play musical chairs. When the lights come on, that's your desk.
posted by matty at 3:04 PM on February 21, 2007

Best answer: You could basically do an implementation of the Stable Marriage Problem:

1) Have everyone write and hand in a list of their top 5/10 desks.

2) Now "assign" everyone to their first choice desk

3) If they are the only person at that desk, they get to keep it!

4) If there is more than one person at a desk, randomly take people off and send them to their second choice desk.

5) Repeat steps 3-4 until every desk has one person.

As you can see, Step 3 rewards people who want a generally "unpopular" desk - if nobody else wants it, its theirs!

You could also add a step 6) Trades are allowed afterwards, at any time, by mutual agreeent
posted by vacapinta at 3:06 PM on February 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I would do it like room ballots are done at my college and others. Just give everyone a number 1-50, and the person with the highest number picks first, then in order.

If people want to sit specifically with other people, they should declare this in advance. The whole group will be drawn as one number.

Then let people trade.
posted by grouse at 3:06 PM on February 21, 2007

For the following to work, you'll need to define and make public your loud/quiet zones and the like in advance.

People will bid on the desks they want. Put a coffee can or something on each desk. Give each employee (say) 10 tickets with their own names on them. They bid on desks by putting however many tickets they want into that desk's coffee can.

Settle ties by a coin-flip and let the loser put his tickets in another coffee can.

This problem is the kind of thing that economists get PhDs solving, and I'm no economist, so caveat lector. It's also been discussed in the context of roommates allocating rooms here on AskMe before (though I see nothing under the "roommate/s" tags).
posted by adamrice at 3:11 PM on February 21, 2007

I think doing so should probably reward flexibility, such that someone who is willing to take any desk except a few is very likely to get one of their choices, while someone who only picks a few top choices might not get one of those.

Whatever that's supposed to be optimizing, it's not optimizing happiness. Given the opportunity to put two people in desks they would be fine with, you choose to only put one?

Those 50 workers probably already work in groups, right? So there's one criteria: People have to sit near the people they work with. Do those groups work with other groups? There's the next criteria: groups that work together sit near each other. Any special accessibility needs? Take care of those.

Now you've got an easier problem: Arranging groups. Put the groups together that need to be near each other; put noisy groups near noisy groups and quiet groups near quiet groups.

Once you've got the groups assigned to areas, then leave it up to the groups' managers or team leaders to arrange seating however they feel appropriate. Encourage them to leave it up to the employees if they think that will work, but don't force their hand if they think it won't.

Then run with that scheme for a while and see how things are. If individuals find their desks unacceptable, see if you can shift places around to suit. If entire groups do, do the same.

Yes, lots of "boring organization", but that's why you bother with a seating plan in the first place: to make sure that people are near people that make their work better, and away from people that make their work worse.
posted by mendel at 3:14 PM on February 21, 2007

grouse's method is how we drew for rooms in college, except we had hundreds of rooms to draw. The problem with other methods is that it's not transparant where everyone else is sitting until the very end. With this method, it's explicit.
posted by muddgirl at 3:14 PM on February 21, 2007

It would be nice to have a system that does so with optimal results

I should add that with lots of variables, different systems are good at optimizing different things. For example, one system may optimize everyone sitting near their friends while devaluing who gets their first choice seat and so on...

grouse's method is a common one and is simple. It was the one used at my college as well. Its perceived as fair but is not doing too much optimization. For example, person #10 picked might then pick their #5 choice desk because their first 4 are taken. But that same seat may be the most desired seat (#1) of someone whose turn may not have come.

But if you want to, say, maximize the number of people that get their first choice - the method I posted above will do that.
posted by vacapinta at 3:34 PM on February 21, 2007

One random day a month, without warning, make it a desk free-for-all.

please please please no. Do anything, but don't humiliate people and deprive them of any concept of personal privacy for the sake of some corporate gimmick.

This is the stuff from which Dilbert cartoons are born.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:03 PM on February 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you're making it too complicated.

If there is a team/group structure, allocate areas to teams and let them sort it out amongst themselves in a way that they perceive as fair. (what mendel said)

If all 50 people are equal, then you just need a system that is perceived as fair. Not necessarily fair, but recognised as fair.

So let people pick their own desks on the basis on one universally agreed criteria. That could be hierarchy (grade), length of service, or sales made in the last 3 months, or whatever your company recognises as a measure of the value of the employee to the company. Something that will be understood and perceived as fair to all employees.

(Then, when someone leaves, people are offered the choice of moving to that desk in the same order)

Most people I know hate hot-desking. There is a feeling of security in having your own desk that is perhaps underrated. Don't make people change regularly or do desk allocation on a temporary basis. Recipe for disaster.

Set a rule for desk allocation that is easy to understand and is perceived as fair for the majority of employees. Even the ones that end up with a crappy desk will be okay with it if they know that staying longer / making more sales will result in a better desk.
posted by finding.perdita at 4:30 PM on February 21, 2007


"so that as many workers as possible are as pleased as possible with their desk assignment"

I'd suggest that what the company really wants is that the most valuable employees are as pleased as possible with their desk assignment?
posted by finding.perdita at 4:33 PM on February 21, 2007

I was going to suggest the names-in-a-hat method, with the addition of groups, similar to grouse's suggestion, but I'm intrigued by vacapinta's "Stable Marriage" idea. That might come closer to your stated goal of rewarding people who pick unpopular desks and making sure they get their first choice. (Of course, names-from-a-hat does, too; if you want an unpopular desk, there's more of a chance that it'll be left unoccupied when your number is called.)

I think either method would work, and it's not obvious to me that either one would necessarily be superior. Drawing names from a hat has the advantage that it's easily understandable and transparent, and thus it'll probably be clear to everyone that it's fair.

The other thing I'd suggest is that I'd set some sort of expiration date. Don't make things "forever." Set a schedule for desk re-assignments, say every six or twelve months (or 18, or 24, depending on how long most of your employees have been around). If you tell someone "here's your desk, hope you like it, because you're going to be here as long as you're with the company," that's pretty depressing if it's a shitty desk. You want to make sure that people know there's the possibility of a way out in time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:36 PM on February 21, 2007

Methinks you are overthinking this. Remember that anyone who quits over a desk assignment will also quit over any other perceived slight, so you might as well be rid of them sooner rather than later.

Desk assignments should be dictatorial and opaque, because otherwise you create an expectation of empowerment. Whatever you do, a significant portion of the population will be unhappy with your criteria, and most of these people would have accepted their fates with no complaint if you had assigned them to the same desk with no input.

As to how to do the assignment, fairness should go out the window; your only goal is to keep your most valuable and difficult-to-replace employees happy. Order the list of people by salary (an approximation, but it'll do), take the top 20%, place them roughly according to their wishes, and then assign positions by function around them. Post the assignments a week before the move to give people a chance to voice legitimate business concerns ("it will be better if I'm next to Joanne, since we work together on lead generation") and respond to those concerns. Tell people with other concerns that they need to have a business case, because a lot of time and effort went into the layout (heh).
posted by backupjesus at 5:41 PM on February 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's a tool for this.
posted by Hildago at 5:46 PM on February 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

One gig I had? had all of the people who needed quiet, thinky time for their work sitting near all the people who needed loud talky phone-call time for their work.

All the quiet, thinky-work usability* people seethed and seethed (quietly, of course) and spent many work hours looking for other work... while the loud, talky, help-desk people couldn't figure out what all the stabbing was about.

ha! ha! enjoy the irony.

Seriously, talk to the managers, talk to the teams. You won't get a consensus but you'll have a better idea of the needs of the groups and the individuals. Also, generally, people like to not have their backs exposed. Some more neurotically than others, but it's a pretty solid generalization.
posted by mimi at 7:12 PM on February 21, 2007

decide ahead of time where the sunny desks are, and where the loud zones are. indicate that.
then, each person writes their name on the desk(s) they'd be happy sitting at.
(post-it notes on real desks or pencil on a seating chart.)
when everyone's done that, have them all walk around and see who asked for what desk,
and remove their names from the high-demand desks that they don't really care about.

this way, the problems might just solve themselves- if i knew who else would be where, i'd be happy to pick one of my top choices based on whoever is sitting near me in that situation, and i wouldn't need a management mediator at that point.
posted by twistofrhyme at 8:36 PM on February 21, 2007

Best answer: When I was in college, my housing department did dorm assignments. They had some semi-official matricies for specific communities of people. (Freshmen went there or there, while seniors went over there or over there, et cetera.) Aside from that, there was a small questionairre that included a few questions, mostly related to roommate selection, were you unfortunate enough, and you were allowed to mark three of the options as "priority"

Try that, but apply it to desks.

1)Do you want lots of sunlight? Yes "priority"

2) Do you want to be near the Water Cooler/Coffee Maker? Yes

You could also try to "zone" your new environment from these responses. Putting people that want quiet in one section, and people that want talk in another. Since you'll already have the answers before you make assignments, you can always change the zoning as necessary.
posted by troubadour at 10:05 AM on February 22, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for all the great responses!

Those of you who suggested a random selection order of one flavor or another, or observed that I'm over-thinking this by wanting actual optimization, you're absolutely right. But, over-thinking things is what I do, and a true optimization method is what I'm after. I actually hoped that it was "the kind of thing that economists get their PhDs solving,” and figured that if it had been solved, this would be the community that would know about it.

Those of you who referred to group managers, team leaders, hierarchy, rewarding coming in on time, focusing on satisfying the most valuable employees, etc., are all making reasonable suggestions for most workplaces, but I work in a pleasingly oddball kind of place where those ideas wouldn't go over.

From some comments, it's clear that I should have been more detailed about what exactly I was trying to optimize. I think it's the number of people who get their first choice, and the number who can't but who get their second choice, and the number who can't but who get their third choice, and so on, plus particular emphasis on minimizing the number who are forced to take one of their bottom choices. In terms of rewarding flexibility, I didn't mean that I wouldn't want to satisfy both the flexible and inflexible people wherever possible. It's just that, given that it's virtually inevitable that some people will lose out, I’d rather it not be the guys who say “Really, I’ll be happy with whatever you give me, as long as it’s not one of these 3 desks that I especially hate.”

With all that said, I think the Stable Marriage Problem is a great lead, very much along the lines of what I hoped for! Comparing the linked method to the simplified one listed out, I think the simplifications, while necessary to make it a practicable solution, erode the algorithm's optimization power. I'm very hopeful about trying to build something off this general principle, though.

Again, thanks all!
posted by daisyace at 4:35 PM on February 22, 2007

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