The Problem with ‘Hotdesking’
There has been a lot of noise in the press in Singapore and Australia over the past 12 months about the dangers of ‘hotdesking’ and ‘activity-based working’ (ABW) – and this is before we further confuse the issue by talking about ‘remote-working’ or ‘telecommuting’ (although we see much less of these programs in Asia than in the US).
My first concern with this dialogue in both the media and our industry is with the terminology. It is outdated, inaccurate, open to misinterpretation, and hence skews the discussion of both positive and negative outcomes of a mobile workplace policy.
These labels hinder rather than help us have a constructive conversation about evolving workstyles and appropriate workplace design responses.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘hot-desking’ as “a way of saving office space in which workers do not have their own desk and are only given a desk when they need it.” Wikipedia calls it an “office organisation system.” Hmmm, sounds like an attractive employee value proposition doesn’t it?
‘Hotdesking’ is a Taylorist concept which emerged in the early nineties (a long time ago in office-years!), predominantly within sales companies and accounting firms who had significant numbers of staff working off-site for days or weeks at a time.
The term has little relevance to current practices involving some type of non-, or neighbourhood-assigned desking, supported by other shared spaces in the office, and (in some organisations) off-site facilities in so called ‘third places’, at home or in satellite & co-working centres.
And I can’t get my head around the term ‘activity-based working’ – isn’t ALL work ‘activity-based’?
Google the term and you will find hundreds of references with little consensus as to what it really means, beyond generally supporting collaboration, choice and flexibility for employees. I say this with absolute respect to Veldhoen + Company who claim to have invented the concept of ABW, and are justifiably recognised as a global leader in this field. To their credit, Veldhoen promote ‘ABW’ as being much more than trendy interiors and open work areas, and ultimately about facilitating collaboration, engagement and innovation when properly designed and implemented.
Whether desks are allocated to individuals or shared is not necessarily a mandatory requirement for ‘ABW’ (although it’s a fundamental premise of ‘hotdesking’). You only need to look at the incredibly diverse environments created for companies such as Google, LinkedIn and Facebook – employers that eschew desk-sharing – to understand that these workplaces are specifically designed to promote collaboration, community, connection and innovation, all ostensibly goals of ‘ABW’. Do these qualify as ‘activity-based’ environments or not?
My second concern with the discourse on ‘hotdesking’ and ‘ABW’ is that we don’t seem to have moved on from a fairly polarised discussion of the pros and cons, as if these would apply to any business trialling more mobile and flexible workstyles. Given the number of organisations in Asia and Australia who have trod the ‘ABW’ path in recent years,
…we should have ample data as to what works and why, and what doesn’t work under certain circumstances.
So it’s disappointing to see that there is still a lot of emphasis on images of brightly coloured, hip interior spaces featuring artfully-placed collaborative furniture and cosy cafes, rather than a rhetoric-free assessment of an ‘activity based’ approach to workplace design that has been evolving for decades.
This concern has caused me to reflect on the successful evolution and implementation of BlueWork for American Express in Singapore five years ago. The project followed pilots in Sydney, and at the time broke new ground within American Express globally. It was also one of the first comprehensive ‘activity-based’ workplaces in Singapore, recognised by winning the International Property Award for Best Office Interior in 2011.
In an interview with IndesignLIVE the same year, I explained that while the design principles for the project are similar to most other ‘ABW’ workplaces in the region,
American Express has a robust, HR-driven approach to implementing BlueWork that sets it apart from many other companies.
The programme is deliberately aligned with the company’s culture, structure, workstyles and technology. This people-led approach is evident in the key role human resources play with management in assessing employee workstyles and suitability, and in the commitment to pre-move training that guides employees and managers through the challenges that might accompany the transition to BlueWork.
This recount is not to suggest that the approach American Express takes would work for another company – far from it. Instead, the takeaway here is that our public discussion of the pros and cons of ‘ABW’ (or ‘hotdesking’ or ‘remote-working’) should recognise the diversity of contexts, applications and outcomes, in order to inform business and design choices. The indiscriminate use of potentially misleading labels may have the damaging effect of
homogenising perceptions of workplace mobility programs, and suggesting that ‘ABW’ is a way of designing, rather than a holistic approach to working.