Few aspects of office life are more dispiriting than hot-desking, the penny-pinching ploy that strips people of their own desk and casts them out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots.
But not that long ago, I discovered an even more troubling side to this irksome practice.
It happened when I was invited to hear an HR boss from a large global company give a private talk in London about the benefits of “agile working” in her office. I accepted at once, keen to hear more about the baffling concept of “agile”, an adjective that has morphed into a corporate jargon noun with a multitude of meanings, especially in the world of HR.
There, fans use it to describe a way of working that empowers employees to work when and where they feel like it as long as they get stuff done: at home, in cafés, anywhere around the office. But it can also save on office space and I have long had a lurking suspicion that for many companies, going agile simply means hot-desking.
The woman I went to hear confirmed that personal desks had indeed disappeared at her firm after an office move, as is so often the case.
A small alarm went off in my head as she began to list the alleged benefits of ditching dedicated desks: employees could “work fast and more agilely” to give a “better experience to customers”. The alarm grew louder when she revealed the phoney slogan her company had used to describe the new system. “We didn’t call it agile working, we called it ‘fresh working’.” Most regrettable of all, though, were signs of a mentality I can only describe as correctional.
Hot-desking apparently goes cold when workers try to cling on to a desk by sticking a family photo on it or draping a coat over a chair, moves she described as “signs of encampment”.
Rules had been brought in to stem such practices. Anyone away from their desk for more than a couple of hours was supposed to “clean and clear” it. When the coat problem had worsened in winter, “we had to have facilities going around with a gentle reminder”. Disciplinary action was also taken when workers grumbled about the loss of roomy personal cupboards or shelves to stash their stationery and work papers.
These had been replaced by smaller lockers but as part of a move to encourage less paper use — another common cost-saving tactic — a “stationery amnesty” had been declared. As she spoke, a vision came to mind of people lining up to surrender wads of A4 as if they were AK-47s. It was interrupted by the news that some employees had launched successful appeals against the edicts.
The legal team, it turned out, had been allowed to keep paper and shelves. Likewise, personal assistants, who argued they should be near the people they were supposed to be personally assisting, were granted leniency. They were allowed to sit at places called “anchor desks”.
There was, unsurprisingly, not a skerrick of comment about the financial benefits of chucking personal desks. In a place with stratospheric real estate costs, such as London or Hong Kong, research has shown a single workstation can cost as much as $20,000 a year. Since workstations are often empty, because workers take leave and get sick, the temptation to bring in shared desks is obvious — even though data suggests this can sap productivity.
People doomed to hot-desking waste an average of two weeks a year just looking for a place to sit, one British study claimed last month. That did not count the time it takes to set up a computer, adjust a chair and figure out where the people you need to talk to might be perched that day. Nor the efforts made by one hot-desker I know who gets up two hours early so she can get to work in time to nab a desk.
To the HR woman’s credit, she conceded that some employees (or inmates, as I had begun to think of them) had been “very worried about the new environment”. Among the senior management, “some found it more of a journey than others”. I feel for them all, including people like her who have to oversee these wretched systems. I like to think this madness will one day pass. After all, a jail takes a toll on all who pass through its gates, prisoners and guards alike.