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Easter rant: Hot Desking is a privacy issue, but few people will speak out against it

hot-desk

By Simon Davies

The Easter long weekend is upon us, and in Britain many companies are using the holiday break to move premises. Staff should now eagerly look forward to a gleaming new office on Tuesday.

Coupled with Open Plan it’s hard to imagine a more alien environment for sensitive overstressed workers in the 21st century.

Well, they should be looking forward to it, but many aren’t. For them Tuesday is a dreadful prospect – and it’s dreadful because they will lose their beloved desks, doomed to a nomadic and uncertain existence.

Yes, hotdesking is back. I thought it had been abandoned years ago, along with other discredited notions like creationism and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But no, apparently it’s alive and twitching.

I have two colleagues who are facing the hotdesking ordeal on Tuesday, and both loathe the idea. Coupled with Open Plan it’s hard to imagine a more alien environment for sensitive overstressed workers in the 21st century.

You might wonder what all this has to do with privacy. Well, quite a lot actually. Privacy is intimately connected to intrusion and autonomy. Privacy is what people retain so they can have some level of control over their personal space and their environment.

In my experience organisations that go down the open plan and hotdesking route have either sold their souls to Change Management theory or are tethered to the deluded personal agenda of a senior manager, most of whom wouldn’t even know how to pronounce the word privacy. What interests them is the alleged space saving and the promise of higher productivity brought about by an organisational panopticon. Some have even bought the laughable argument that somehow a new bond will be born among workers, creating a sense of value and community.

What interests them is the alleged thirty percent space saving and the promise of higher productivity brought about by an organisational panopticon.

What utter nonsense. A third of the workforce will despise the change and a third will be silently nostalgic. The remainder will hover between contrarian joy and a blind hope that something good will emerge from the reforms. Most will be culturally bullied into submission, their silenced enforced by a mantra that times need to change.

Don’t expect people working in a dynamic industry to oppose the changes; they rarely want to risk looking like troglodytes.

Meanwhile, many of the senior bosses will maintain their private space on the pretext that they need to meet key clients. So much for collegiate bonding.

Hotdesking in an open plan environment is a niche solution. It can’t be simply imposed into a delicate work environment. There are a hundred reasons why the idea fails miserably, ranging from unexpected trivia to core cultural conflicts that smart managers should have spotted. Yes, there are theoretically sound reasons to hotdesk, but most organisations work on backward logic. Instead of seeking a way to strengthen coherence and build teams in a way that leads to hotdesking, they seek to contrive a team benefit once they’ve already decided on the change.

Don’t expect people working in a dynamic industry to oppose the changes; they rarely want to risk looking like troglodytes.

There are productivity and coherence implications for the organisation. Findings from a 2008 study by the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield suggest that hotdesking makes workers feel less connected to their team, and both less able and less motivated to share knowledge with their colleagues.

“Oh,” the deluded senior manager with the personal agenda might respond, “if that’s the case then we’ll develop community spaces with lots of fun aspects”.

Hang on.. what was the point of doing this in the first place if you end up converting the office area you save into more community space?  If the response is something to do with improving the quality of work life then I’m afraid your justification is revolving in circles.

A UK local government project manager told the Guardian newspaper that hotdesking has reduced the opportunity to share best practice and increased the number of his colleagues who feel isolated and anxious about their jobs. “Organisational change goes on all the time, but at least when you get back to your desk you feel you know what’s going on. But what if you have no desk?”

If there are managers and employees out there who love the open plan hotdesking option, then let them go ahead by all means. Leave the rest of us to enjoy our 22 square feet of private space to make our own. It’s not much to ask is it?