1995 - Hot desking – the concept
Christopher Jones gives his barrister's
briefcase a hefty kick. The briefcase doesn't
budge. 'I suppose this is the only drawback I
can think of,' he says, when asked if he misses
his old desk.
Jones is not a barrister but
a consultant at Unysis, the computer company.
He relies heavily on the bulky briefcase which
in effect is a travelling office and filing system.
Unysis is one of a growing number
of companies that no longer sees the need for
many of its staff to have an individual desk.
While computer companies may have been in the
vanguard of this trend among office workers, many
more employers are beginning to develop the concept,
often tailoring it to their own requirements.
What has become known as ' hot-desking'
- because it involves provision of a desk for
more than one user - can no longer be looked on
as a development in isolation. Franklin Becker,
professor and director of the International Workplace
Studies Programme at Cornell University in the
US, says that hot - desking is only one feature
of adapting the workplace and the worker to changing
The logic seems sound enough.
'About 70 per cent of the time people in jobs
like management consultancy, sales and customer
service are not at their desks. That is a constant
statistic across country boundaries,' says Becker,
the only professor at Cornell University not to
have a desk.
Those companies which have pioneered
the trend, however, are discovering that what
began as physical change, often inspired by a
desire to make cost savings, is demanding a change
in thinking, particularly by managers. Steve Pon
Tell, an independent consultant, told a recent
City seminar run by FM Communications: 'The biggest
obstacle has to do with management resistance.
The vast majority of managers continue to measure
performance by presence and not by productivity.'
Stephen Jupp, a specialist in
change management at Digital, agrees. Tapping
the side of his head he says: 'This is where the
real change needs to be made and it is often managers
who find it most difficult. Good managers manage
by results. Sloppy ones assess your contribution
by your presence and how long you are there.'
In a truly flexible workforce,
he says, the work may be happening in any number
Jupp, for instance, had come
from his home to the Digital Basingstoke office
for our meeting. We visited a desk only briefly
to look at the processing systems. There was no
clutter on the desk. 'All my papers and books
are at home. It was a relief to have one base
for my paperwork so that I no longer had to worry
about whether it was at home or at work,' he says.
Not all such arrangements have
been well received initially. Some employees worry
about the loss of their personal space and opportunity
Crucial to change is installing
efficient support systems to service the mobile
employee. Calls can be channelled from Jupp's
extension number to either his telephone at home
or to his mobile phone. Faxes are stored in the
system and can be brought up on screen in the
format in which they were sent, or can be proofed
into hard copy either at home or in whatever office
he happens to be in.
At Unysis's business centres
in Milton Keynes and London staff can pop in and
use whatever level of support they require. It
may be a desk, telephone and screen in an area
near the entrance, or it may be a more private
area near the back of the office designated for
Workspace design techniques,
meanwhile, are being developed to embrace this
ebb and flow of work. At Mobil Oil in the US,
the workplace changes were driven wholly by a
desire to save costs. Joe Licameli, vice-president
for real estate at Mobil, has been trying to make
$100,000 (£62,500) of cost reductions by
saving office space.
Licameli says that when he reviewed
office space for executives, he found that many
had offices which were far too large for their
individual needs. The size of the office depended
on the seniority of the executive. 'In my own
office, for example, I worked out that 35 per
cent of the office was status space, the place
where the couch went. We are getting away from
that now. It is costly and unnecessary,' he says.
The impact of office 'downsizing'
goes well beyond cost reduction, however. At Mobil,
executives have also had to clear out much of
their paperwork. Papers considered essential for
saving are now stored in cheaper warehouse space.
Overcoming the barriers created
by the culture of hierarchy and status is rarely
easy. In his book, Workplace by Design, co-written
with Fritz Steele*, Becker recalls Union Carbide's
Manhattan headquarters. Space, wooden furniture
and better views were all associated with higher
rank, as was the closeness of an office to senior
management. When it moved to new headquarters
in the 1980s, there was resistance when the company
made every office - from lower-grade professionals
to presidents of divisions - the same size. A
subsequent study, however, found a high level
of employee satisfaction.
A change in the way secretaries
are used seems to be a feature of many of the
companies which have adopted hot-desking .
At Mobil's headquarters in Virginia
secretaries are no longer allocated to single
individuals but are pooled in administrative support
groups. At Digital in the UK, where the people-to-desk
ratio has risen from 2:1 in the late 1980s to
12:1 in its Newmarket offices now, secretaries
are among the dwindling number of employees with
Some companies have introduced
the concept slightly differently. In Chicago,
Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, has developed
an idea called 'hotelling', where visiting staff
book small offices in a building. Similar systems
are now being developed in the UK, and Digital
is exploring relationships with shops and hotels
in the vicinity of its office.
The company, which employs 4,000
people in the UK, now has a quarter of the staff
on flexible working patterns, saving £3.5m
a year on traditional office arrangements. 'If
you applied that statistic to a quarter of the
UK workforce you would be looking at a saving
of £4bn a year,' says Jupp.
If more companies are going to
adopt this approach the government must look to
its statute book. Issues such as employer liability
and tax implications need to be developed and
clarified. Relationships between employees are
also likely to change if social and working relationships
flourish in local communities rather than in the
Computer companies are beginning
to accept these concepts and today there are far
more working alliances where once the same companies
might have considered themselves enemies.
The same may soon apply to managing
the flexible worker. Jupp says: 'When you think
about it there is no reason why your mentor need
be in your own company.'
*Jossey-Bass, San Francisco,
© 1995 The Financial Times.
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