A billion Garfield cartoons can’t all be wrong. Nor can a similar number of rubber plants, Wills ‘n Kate coffee mugs (ironic, of course), or any of the other paraphernalia you find on and around the desks of people who love their place of work enough to want to put their own stamp on it, and to stake out their own little domain within it.
But the search for economies and the power of the laptop, which – just ask Bill – acts as a virtual desk, have given rise to the phenomenon of hot-desking, or to give it its formal name, the Activity Based Workspace. In an ABW, workers have no assigned desks, and sit wherever there’s a free desk. We’ve been seeing increasing numbers of businesses opt for this format, so is it the way of the future?
We think the jury’s still out. We see plenty of businesses for whom it’s an excellent solution. Younger employees, particularly digital natives who have no experience of the traditional office environment, tend to like the format – at least in their early years. Businesses with a lot of out- of- office activity have the most to gain from hot-desking, and can probably expect general acceptance by the work force. Others say that while the logic of hot-desking is appealing, it has many drawbacks in the real world. Here are a few:
- Theory vs Practice 1 – In theory, hot desks are available on a first come, first served basis. Rank is no longer correlated with desk and office size, and a junior employee can find themselves working next to the CEO. In practice, the employees who are around a lot tend to lay unspoken, unofficial claim to the workstations with the best view or other advantage, at the expense of those who either aren’t around as much or simply haven’t got the alpha dog instincts to face down the squatters. So the rule of the boss gives way to the rule of the bossiest - a form of mild anarchy that corrodes morale.
- Theory vs Practice 2 – in theory, all workstations are configured the same, and you’re supposed to be able to rock up with your laptop and get to work in minutes. In practice, getting every work station identically configured seems to elude many businesses, and even when everything’s working, it can take employees a quarter of an hour to log on and start working productively.
- Health – well, you might have guessed it. Moving people around promiscuously spreads disease. ABW workers report a noticeable increase in the proliferation of colds and flu.
- Management Style – the ABW model is not suited to the traditional style of monitoring employees’ performance by tracking activity. Transition to an outcome-oriented style of management is essential, if employees are not to feel an oppressive sense of scrutiny. Companies that fail to make this transformation can actually see their productivity decline. ABW isn’t just about where people sit – it’s about how they are managed.
- Some people just want their own space. It’s too early to tell, but it seems that there may be an irreducible portion of the work force for whom being able to “nest” - and put up their Garfield cartoons - is essential to their ability to work productively.