Wednesday, 26 October 2011


It sounds new, exciting, modern, sexy, doesn't it? If hot-desking sounds like something in "The Secretary", it's not by chance. The word "hot" carries the meaning of sexy and also of exciting, active, new. So it must be good. What is it, actually?

It's the practice in offices of not reserving a space for an individual, but providing a number of identical work-stations and leaving their occupation to first come, first served. So not wildly modern, exciting or sexy - but it's one of those things that ambitious managers pretty much have to believe in and spout enthusiastically about if they want to get on. But is it a good idea?

It can be. There's nothing at all new about the idea that if staff spend most of their time away from the office, it's inefficient to provide them all with desk space and they had best make do with what they can get on their infrequent visits to the office. That makes huge sense, and because of flexible working, the amount of time office-based staff spend away from the office is probably increasing - though as some technology like that for telephone conferencing reduces the need to travel to meetings, some trends are going the other way.

But what about staff who actually spend most of their time in the office? I had recent experience of a switch from open-plan with individual work-places to hot-desking, and it was clear there are disadvantages the senior managers ignore (because they don't hot-desk).

It seems to me the main advantages are as follows. It saves space (but many organisations are shedding staff but can't reduce their premises size, so the pressure on space is often reducing). How much space it saves depends on how many long periods people spend away from the office. It encourages people to get rid of unnecessary hard copy stuff and do more things electronically (though of course that's risky if the systems go down, as ours seemed to about once every two months, sometimes for two days or more). It helps people to get to know a wider range of colleagues well, because you're sitting next to different people day after day: this I think is important and it can generate a sort of freshness. Finally, it means that you cannot be stuck permanently next to someone whose constant chat, eating habits or whatever drive you up the wall.

And the disadvantages? There is generally extreme pressure on storage space, so that useful stuff you kept by your desk and could access immediately gets thrown away or put where it takes some time to recover. You tend to lose some of the strong team spirit of a small team when you're not actually next to those colleagues: this applies only to small teams. Setting up to be ready to work takes longer as you have to fetch the things you need (or hump them around with you all the time): in my case, in order to set up my phone to receive my calls, I had to key in fourteen digits, and it was easy to forget to do it at all!. There is a risk that some people will arrive for work and find no places: this is quite likely when there's a team meeting that day. In a fixed-place office, if a phone rings at an empty place, you know who the caller is wanting, you tend to know a fair bit about that neighbour's work, and you answer it, leaving a message for your colleague. With hot-desking, you often have no idea who was at that place, it may be someone whose work is a mystery to you, and from what I saw, people generally let that phone ring. You lose the sense of responsibility for your own space, so that people are less likely to clean it and much less likely to report faults like a broken keyboard part or chair since you don't have to go to that place next day. Again, I base this comment on experience. It can be quite dificult perpetually adjusting things like chair height and angle to fit what's healthy and comfortable for you - not a problem for short stints, but potentially a serious issue for long stints. It makes life more difficult for people with particular requirements because of an impairment or indeed unusual height. I it reduces the extent to which people can personalise their work-space. I'm sure some managers see this as a plus: I see it as a minus because I think people at work are individual human beings who will produce the best work when that individuality and humanity is respected. Finally, "good employers" are theoretically on the ball helping people with mental health problems in work, but what is the impact of losing your safe space?

Personally, I found the shifting around had its fun side and I like a change of scene (though desk space A to desk space D is a pretty small change of scene), but I hated losing the pictures I had by my desk and I found the constant adjusting, searching, unloading a nuisance. I'm told some of these issues are much less of a problem when there are people responsible for the good condition of the work-places, but how many managers cutting expenditure and keen to promote hot-desking will provide for that?

This is not a diatribe against the idea, but a suggestion that the real benefits and disbenefits should be weighed up rationally.

Back to satire and humour soon...

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