Eight reasons to turn the tables on hot-desking

hot desking and flexible working
Hot desking is promoted as a way to cut costs on office space while appealing to "younger workers" - but is there a downside?

With the use of hot-desking and the number of flexible workspaces on the rise, David Whincup, head of the London employment team at Squire Patton Boggs, sounds a note of caution.

There is a trend for companies in sectors such as the media or web services to ditch many of their desks and desktop computers in favour of working “free range” on laptops and smartphones. Instead of having a fixed location in the office, employees can now work anywhere around the building at kitchen-style tables, or even in a local cafe. The aim is to build an office environment that suits the way that “young people” work.

This is clearly the sort of office most often seen in television advertisements for, unsurprisingly, laptops and smartphones, a world where everywhere is under 30 and has perfect teeth.

However, in the world outside such environments, would the introduction of “free-range” working really take off, or would the chickens soon come home to roost? Will businesses be able to keep a grip on the difference between “free-range” and “not actually there”?

The temptation is to conclude that whatever the merits of such working arrangements, they will not be effective in the majority of cases. Yes, they might save expensive floor space, and they might sound good to a generation that converses more fluently electronically than in person, but there are also clear downsides.

Osteopaths and physiotherapists warn of the musculoskeletal dangers of working from chairs and tables not designed for that purpose (those in kitchens and cafes, for example), but that is potentially the least of it. Here are eight things to consider when introducing hot desking or flexible workspaces:

  1. How much time would you waste trying to find the person you want to talk to?
  2. What damage could be done to team spirit and collegiality through physical separation? Humans are essentially social animals and often need the warmth and immediacy of workplace contact to function at their best.
  3. Studies show that concentrating on your work to the required degree is easier when you are in an environment without background distractions.
  4. Even if under-30s do function better in impromptu working conditions, how about the impact on the older members of the workforce, with the loss of the sense of security and being “home” when their allocated desk is brushed away with the personal effects they used to keep on top of it? The suggestion of a potential indirect age discrimination claim is not made wholly in jest.
  5. Reliance on electronic equipment works only if the matters you are working on are themselves largely or entirely already in electronic form. After the initial thrill, mundane issues such as carting paper files around, not having to clear your desk entirely each night and knowing exactly where you left your office stationery might make all your staff keen to re-colonise a fixed desk.
  6. Consider the confidentiality issues that arise if staff work outside the office, where others could look over their shoulder or their electronic equipment might be stolen or mislaid.
  7. Make sure that the type and amount of work being done on this basis is susceptible to meaningful measurement. Although one can argue that the volume or quality of the output is evidence enough of the value of the employee’s work, it would be naive in the majority of cases to think there will not be a need to keep an eye on attendance and timekeeping.
  8. Beware also of the reverse, the risk that an employee working somewhere else, whether within or outside the building, may become out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and so miss out on important information or opportunities.

An increased degree of flexibility or agility where it can be granted is clearly a good Thing, and a potentially significant source of competitive advantage. But woe betide the employer that follows this model slavishly without having first given a great deal of thought to shaping that flexibility to its work and not letting its staff do it the other way around.

About David Whincup

David Whincup is head of the London employment team at Squire Patton Boggs.
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