Hot-desking: How successful businesses make it about people not desk space

Drew Turney
Technology Journalist

Drew Turney writes about technology, science, film, books, pop culture and the crossroads between any or all of them

Drew Turney
Technology Journalist

Drew Turney writes about technology, science, film, books, pop culture and the crossroads between any or all of them

Hot-desking is still a thing, but the secret to making it work is to look beyond mere desks and realise it's not about moving, swapping or removing furniture, it's about working with staff to enact deep cultural change.

The term 'hot-desking' was a hot buzzword back around the time we accessed the internet on Netscape Navigator through a dial-up modem, but it never really took off. Like the Apple Newton, it might simply have been before its time. 

Man taking phone call on headset Many businesses are implementing activity based working in the workplace.

But the term was also a bit of a misnomer, because simply removing desk ownership is never going to work. And in a more globalised world, where work relationships are both more dispersed geographically and closer enmeshed technologically, the cultural need for a new way of working might be more urgent than ever.

First, get used to a new term; activity based working. Second, it's about much more than just saving desk space – the drive to implement it should be about something deeper. In fact, hot-desking initially went off the rails somewhat as a concept because people went about it the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.

As Stuart Kirkby, managing consultant for Telstra business technology services, says, "A lot of people think they've implemented activity based working, but actually they've done hot-desking. [Activity based working is about] making a change to the way we work as opposed to being just not just having a desk anymore."

Human behaviour trumps tech

So why bother, if your business seems to run fine and everyone has a desk? Your people can always be more engaged with their work, and while employee engagement is a very hot new workplace science you can't ignore, there are also other tangible benefits.

A Gallup study reported that a workplace with employees who are engaged with their work and peers outperforms those who aren't by over 200 percent. According to Deloittle's 2015 Global Human Capital Trend report, workplace culture and engagement was the most important consideration among those polled.

But it might also be critical. According to the Deloitte report, demand for locally based labour in Australia will outstrip supply by 2030, meaning staff and contractors from all corners of the globe might contribute to your business.

All of which proves that reducing desks is about people, not desks. It's hard to get right, but very easy to get wrong. When one company called Kirkby and his team to consult on their ABW project, their workplace was in disarray. After spending money on and deploying communications, content collaboration and enterprise social media solutions, everyone was still using email.

The customer had only concerned itself with technology, figuring staff buy-in would follow. The secret is to bake an environment of collaboration into plans at the base level, not just buy apps and remove nameplates.

What’s in it for your team?

The trick, as the above suggests, is to have input and buy-in from the people the changes will most affect – your staff. As Kirkby says, having a desk is psychologically entwined with our identity at work. "It's not just where people sit – they personalise it, they're comfortable there. You need to give people an outcome for them to want to sit somewhere else."

Instead of telling staff they don't have desks anymore, activity based working done right sends them a signal that while they don't have a desk, they have new places to work more effectively when it suits them. "And guess what?" Kirkby adds, "You only need be in the office when you're working with someone else. Other than that, you can be working from home or wherever you choose."

As with so many other trends and changes in the workplace, the charge is being led in many ways by millennials. According to the 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers report Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace, over three quarters of millennials polled think access to technology makes them more effective workers. They've grown up with consumer apps and tools that makes life easy when they're switching between activities and locations, why should the workplace be any different?

Kirkby has seen the same thing. "A lot of companies are looking to increase diversity, and with a more flexible workplace – where somebody isn't expected to be there at 8:59 in the morning and leaving at 5:01 in the afternoon – then it attracts different types of talent, probably a younger workforce. There's lots of evidence that the emerging workforce isn't expecting to be in the office between nine and five."

The tech to make it happen

The other reason activity based working's time might have come is because we carry our world – of work and play – in our pocket no matter where we are. Bring your own device (BYOD) is now very entrenched, and none of us need reminding how much millennials love their phones.

Research backs the BYOD trend up. As far back as 2013, Gartner predicted that by this year, half of all employers will require employees to supply their own devices for work. As Kirkby says, “Everyone has over two [smartphones] in their pocket.”

In fact, we love our technology so much now it might take the place of the previous icons of identity we previously invested in the pictures of our kids and stuffed toys on our desk. When our laptop is the hub of our work life, it might help avoid the disengagement of a half-baked activity based working program and help usher in the true age of hot-desking.

But Kirkby advises to look beyond apps and tools – instead of easy, cheap or something better-performing competitors seem to have, your constant benchmark should be the level of employee engagement.

"You can talk about cloud and mobility, but workers care about the experience of accessing and interacting with people and files. The bigger the difference between employees sitting in the office and sitting elsewhere, the more problematic it becomes and the less it gets adopted by the business. People just come into the office because it's easier," Kirkby says. "So what really matters in that technology is what people can do with it."

How to get started with activity based working

  • Do your sums. Can you afford to keep operating as you are after bringing in external partners while keeping office costs low?
  • Draw up a plan or proof of concept by all means, but engage all staff that would be affected at every stage.
  • Don't focus on technology, it can blind you with buzzwords and price tags. Ask staff what they will actually use (that goes for everything from their mobile to software deployments).
  • Learn to trust your workers implicitly. If you're constantly paranoid that they're slacking off while working at another location they'll sense your mistrust – and their engagement and loyalty will erode accordingly.
  • Get with the times. People will work more effectively at their own hours and under their own conditions than they will under a dictatorial clock-watching system – so let them.


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