Hot-desking: hot or not?

JAMES ADONIS
Last updated 10:14 01/08/2011

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Once upon a time, an employee's desk was a home away from home.

Adorned with paraphernalia of hobbies and interests and obligatory family photos, it was as much a statement of identity as it was a place to perform a job.

But this cosy space is slowly being taken away. Hot-desking is the culprit.

Otherwise known as 'hotelling', it's a practice whereby employees don't have a permanent place to sit.

Instead, when they arrive at work, they take any seat that's available. Where they sit today might not be where they sit tomorrow.

It's a policy that Macquarie Bank introduced two years ago at its head office at Sydney's Darling Harbour.

They call it 'activity-based working', a more palatable expression of the same concept.

A spokesperson told me that even though people don't have their own desk, they still have an 'anchor point', which is a locker and a place to congregate with their team. Upon arrival in the morning, employees choose where they'd like to work - anywhere in the building.

A recent staff survey showed that the majority of the building's 2500 employees don't want to return to the traditional methods of working.

"Our teams aren't sitting in silos, and they're able to work a lot better together," explained the spokesperson. "It supports the sharing of information, the sharing of knowledge, and it brings people together from different parts of the business."

But research suggests that hot-desking isn't a driver of collaboration. A study released by the University of Sheffield in the UK shows it diminishes the connection between colleagues, and the scattered locations make it difficult for people to communicate with each other. 

George Mylonas is a psychologist and workplace interior designer. I asked him whether hot-desking is a good idea.

"It depends on the situation," he said.

"For some organisations that have a lot of staff on the road, such as sales reps or consultants, they're used to not having their own desk, so they're better able to adapt. But hot-desking is not for everyone. Some people find it difficult to adjust and acclimatise to different colleagues and different locations on a regular basis."

Hot-desking seems to be the favoured option for organisations with a large number of part-time staff.

Rather than having vacant desks gathering dust, it makes sense to share.

It reminds me, though, of a big team of part-timers I once managed, all of whom were hot-desking. I was constantly inundated with complaints of dirty mugs, coffee stains, messy desks, damaged computers, and hazardous ergonomics. It was a non-stop source of discontent.

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For businesses considering a move to a hot-desking environment, Mylonas emphasised the importance of involving staff in the process.

"Employees are more likely to accept these changes if they're involved along the way, and if they know how it's going to benefit them and the work they perform," he said.

He pinpointed two common issues. The first is that some employees feel isolated and team-less. The second is that hot-desking removes the opportunity for employees to personalise their workspace.

Both concerns can be mitigated by having designated zones where staff can interact with their colleagues and "mark their territory" - similar to Macquarie Bank's anchor points.

Recruitment firm Kelly Executive has noticed an increase in the number of workplaces transitioning into hot-desking environments. And they don't like it.

General manager Ray Fleming told me that "the popularity of hot-desking is being driven by the obvious environmental and cost benefits but may not be the right option for all types of businesses".

He added that productivity and motivation are maximised when employees have their own workspace.

It helps them to "feel part of the organisation and solidifies their position in the team, and businesses need to keep this in mind. Businesses also need to be aware that shifting to hot-desking just to save money may drive some employees to look elsewhere for employment".

- BusinessDay.com.au

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