Escaping the hell of hot desking

The hell of hot deskingHot-desking is a scourge on modern work. That’s the only conclusion you will draw by reading ‘The hidden hell of hot-desking is much worse than you think’ (published in the FT on 28 July 2019) and dozens more like it that continue to appear in national media and top business titles. The piece contends that organisations are using the guise of agile working to excuse their cost-saving prerogative. In reality it is a penny-pinching ploy that “strips people of their own desk and casts them out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots,” or so we’re told.

The trouble is, they have a point. And if the workplace design and management world don’t get their heads around why, they should expect more of their proposals and strategies to be deftly challenged by both journalists and their readerships.

The workplace design and management world should expect more of their proposals and strategies to be deftly challenged by both journalists and their readerships

Pilita Clark’s FT article stance is an empathetic one. She clearly feels for workers who are not allowed to decorate their non-existent desks with family photos. By the same token, she airs an element of sympathy for businesses battling extortionate real estate rates, and her article even recognises that traditional assigned desk settings can result in poor use of space.

The piece suggests that the colossal waste of money that comes with unused workstations is on a par with the productivity killers that accompany agile environments, such as noise and the time spent trying to find colleagues. Summarising data from a British study, the piece explains that “people doomed to hot-desking waste an average of two weeks a year just looking for a place to sit”. Regrettably she omits to tell us that this research was conducted by a workplace management app called HotDeskPlus.

The crux of the FT argument is that one can’t put a monetary figure on “these wretched systems” that relegate employees to prisoners. It is more a question of ethics. Hot-desking, Clark concludes, is an attempt to control costs and behaviours; and the long-standing rationale that agile working enables employee empowerment is just a nice way to pretend it isn’t.

 

What agile really means

Clark raises a good point about semantics in airing her suspicion that for many companies going agile simply means hot-desking. Agile working. Hot-desking. Activity-based, flexible, mobile, remote, home working. The workplace world is awash with casually applied adjectives. Let’s face it, even corporate real estate professionals confuse these terms, so what hope do business journalists have in getting their heads around the nuances? Loose definitions aside, ignoring the incontrovertible fact that almost all of the workplaces that might be labelled as “agile” exist in many different settings, in many different guises, and for many different purposes is short-sighted.

When you become blind-sided by averages, you’re not seeing what the rest of the data says

Opinion is one thing. Evidence is another. And if we are to present evidence, let’s please do so without the unavoidable bias of a company that, to one extent or another, relies on hot-desking horror stories to make money. Once the data source is identified, let’s then look at what sits behind the averages: when you become blind-sided by averages, you’re not seeing what the rest of the data says, which means you’re inadvertently masking the anomalies – and so the examples of where it works go unnoticed.

Since 2010, Leesman has independently assessed the workplace experience of more than 600,000 employees in 4,000+ buildings in 92 countries. Measuring employee workplace experience is all we do. We do not sell workplace services, consultancy or productised solutions. And our unit of measure – the Leesman Lmi – is now baked into real estate and FM appraisals and scorecards the world over. But more interestingly, in this context, is that every one of our clients understands that in adopting the Leesman Index as their assessment of workplace performance, they are helping build a resource that can tell them whether, where and why hot-desking works or doesn’t work.

 

A lack of evidence

The assertion that agile environments or hot-desking kills staff morale is simply not supported by the evidence

The assertion that agile environments or hot-desking kills staff morale is simply not supported by the evidence. The best performing workplaces on the Leesman Index (a group we categorise as Leesman+) are predominantly open plan concepts, most with unassigned desk solutions, yet these organisations score highly when it comes to an employee’s overall experience, from their perception of personal productivity and level of enjoyment to their pride in the workspace.

However, while managing noise levels in open workspaces remains a substantial challenge, the workplace that reports the highest satisfaction with noise levels in the 2018 Leesman+ group is home to more than 1,000 employees (and no, they don’t all have a desk to call their own). So, with careful planning, then, the acoustic landscape in these environments doesn’t have to create “noisy, chaotic wastelands”.

Our research has found that people working in open, shared workplaces can be as happy as those working in traditional settings. But there is a caveat when it comes to assigned versus unassigned seating and this is where much of our research focus is now pointed. Across the c.85,000 employees whose workplace experience we have measured in ‘post occupancy’ i.e. after a workplace improvement or relocation project, 41% work at an assigned open-plan setting and they report higher satisfaction levels than the 43% based at unassigned settings. Why, we wonder?

With knowledge transfer and collaborative productivity a critical component of modern competitive advantage, we will analytically pick apart why employees with assigned desks show notably higher agreement for their workplaces supporting the transfer of ideas and knowledge (+5.7 percentage points), collective productivity (+7.5 percentage points) and of particular interest, a greater sense of community (+5.1 percentage points). Is it too much of a stretch to think that quite literally knowing your position in the workplace delivers a beneficial workplace experience? Is the uncertainty associated with seeking out an unassigned seat burdening employees with unnecessary anxiety? We have a sniff of a suspicion that the failure in some of the open, shared spaces is around the stress and anxiety that could be caused by the unknown. The ‘unknown’ in this case is waking up in the morning, not knowing where you’ll be sitting that day, or who you’ll be working next to.

 

A user focus

Workplaces need to be designed with the user front and centre of focus, since the employee is the profit centre – not the real estate footprint

Clark’s provocation has nailed one thing: workplaces need to be designed with the user front and centre of focus, since the employee is the profit centre – not the real estate footprint. As the FT article suggests, there will be some organisations that intentionally flower up the definition of “agile” as an excuse for poorly thought out real estate “solutions”. Drastically reducing density while enforcing free address may well dramatically dial down real estate cost but at what cost to the employee experience and associated output?

That the workplace industry has scant evidence and proof of the impact of their conceptualisations is poor. We live in a data rich world and the excuses are going to start running out, opening the floodgates for journalists to pitch sensationalist headlines against workplace strategies. And rightfully so if employees are to be merely thought of as lab rats in an ongoing unstructured experiment. So, let’s apply a bit of finesse to our arguments, and let’s think twice before jumping to conclusions. We need to look beyond the averages and refine the concepts before claiming we’re fluent in a language we don’t yet understand. Let’s be careful of labels and pigeon-holes. Most importantly, though, let’s treat employees with the respect they deserve. Let’s dig a little deeper. We’ll do our bit for the clients who’ve seen the value in a non-partisan appraisal of their efforts and we’ll continue to tell it as we find it.

Image: From Orpheus in the Underworld by Frans Francken the Younger. Musée des Beaux Arts, Nimes