Hot-Desking and Other Unpleasant Work Practices
Now in her eighties and retired, my Aunt Mary is someone who spent her entire working life in an office environment, most of it as a secretary to the chairman of a large financial company. She's an intelligent and lively lady who loves to keep up with the latest in politics, but when I asked her opinion of the way many workplaces function nowadays I got some very blank looks.
"Hot-desking?" she said, looking confused. "You mean they heat desks now the way they heat car seats and bathroom floors?" Questions about telecommuting caused a similar reaction. "You mean like what happened to Ben Linus in 'Lost'? I expect it will be possible one day, but certainly not in my lifetime."
My aunt is not alone in finding modern work practices incomprehensible. Even those of us who have actual experience of them, find ourselves scratching our heads and muttering, "But why?" The practical reasons behind their introduction are often far outweighed by their disadvantages - most of which have only become apparent now that they are in increasingly common use.
Hot Desking – the Debate Heats Up
It is time that the workers of the world expressed their views, even if those supposedly listening choose not to hear them. Let's take hot-desking. This latest trendy practice has become the bane of many workers' lives. Hot-desking basically means completely getting rid of the current office system where you got to work and sit at the same desk, cubicles or office space. Instead of a desktop PC or Mac, you have a small laptop, which you unplug each night and take home with you, along with all of your other personal effects. Next day when you come in, you sit at any open desk in the office - which more likely than not, will not be the same one you sat at yesterday. Desks or offices are considered communal, rather than being 'owned.'
On the one hand, this set-up seems good, as by eliminating formal seating, it gives everyone a chance to come in early and claim that coveted seat by the window. Maybe you’re working with Bob from across the hall – hot desking means that you can now sit next to Bob for as long as you are collaborating with him. The system is frequently justified with the explanation that people are often out of the office for various reasons, so this practice avoids leaving desks or offices vacant. Or maybe the company just wants to be seen as innovative by following current trends.
Sounds good, right?
More realistically, people usually just end up sitting wherever there is room. People who come in early get regular ‘first pick’ of the plum seating, while those who for unavoidable reasons must come in later (after dropping off the kids to school, for instance), wind up stuck next to the kitchen, breathing in smelly microwaved dinner fumes each day.
Workers dislike hot-desking for many reasons. Not being able to personalize your workspace is the top complaint. It's always harder to settle down to work in a new space, with unaccustomed sounds or inappropriate lighting or people you don't know (or, of course, don't like) at close hand. Then there's the practicalities of the situation. You want some desk drawers to store items you use daily, like pens and notepads and paper clips? Or somewhere to keep your daily protein bar, packet of gum and bottle of vitamin water? Or a dedicated surface to tape that photo of your loving family or - more likely - that hilarious picture of your dog wearing a Santa hat and beard? Forget it.
The workplace is most people's second home, a place of safety and security, so to come in each day not knowing where you’ll be sitting or who you will be sitting next to can be mildly disconcerting to some, and a huge source of stress to others, such as people with antisocial personality types or workers who need quiet conditions to concentrate, such as developers and coders. To neat-freaks, germaphobes or those with more serious issues such as OCD who rely on predictable routines or personalized cleaning/ arranging rituals to feel settled at work, a transition to hot-desking and the idea of using a random person’s sticky crumb-covered, possibly-sneezed-on desk and computer keyboard each day can be highly stressful.
Then of course there's the added inconvenience of having to carry all your work paraphernalia, plus your paperwork, files and personal possessions, to and from the workplace every day. Perhaps that's why hot-desking is also referred to as "agile working" - you need to be fit and agile to lug all that extra weight around. Furthermore, if there's no safe way leave your work laptop and paperwork at the office each night, the risk of damage, loss or theft is greatly increased. And that’s not even to mention the obvious risk of hot-desking proving instrumental in the spread of germs and the increase in sickness in the workplace.
Breaking Down the (Office) Walls
So you still have your own desk? Lucky you. But the chances are that now instead of a private office, or even the flimsy-walled cubicle we used to complain about in the nineties, you currently work in a wide open space, in which every other worker in your department is in plain sight (with the probable exception of your manager, who is most likely cozily tucked away behind an office door with a conveniently-placed window through which they have a direct view of your computer screen).
The reasons companies present for this increasing tendency towards open-plan offices is that they claim it facilitates teamwork and enables staff to collaborate and brainstorm in a more organic way. Most workers, however, thoroughly dislike the setup, soon finding that the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. For instance, it's much harder to concentrate when you're frequently distracted by your colleagues getting up to chat to one another, noisily feasting on a jumbo pack of chips, gathering around one screen to have a heated debate about a trending YouTube video, or just wandering over to see what you’re doing and discuss whatever is on your monitor.
If people can't focus because of distractions, productivity may suffer and the quality of work produced can be diminished. Loss of privacy may also present a real issue for many people, particularly if you are working on an important project on a tight deadline, and anyone can put that deadline in jeopardy by listening to loud music on their headphones or having a loud personal discussion with a team-mate just went you’re trying to focus on crunching numbers.
Home Sweet Home – Or Is It?
Telecommuting, or teleworking (no, not teleporting, Aunt Mary), does appear to offer many real advantages. People can work in their own homes, with all the comfort and convenience which that affords. They can work around their family commitments, such as collecting children from school or walking the dog. Although you are using your own lighting and heating or air conditioning, there are no childcare or doggy day care costs to eat into your salary. And of course with no daily commute there are no travel costs either.
The employer also benefits from employing teleworkers by the reduction in office overheads and service charges. Workers who are unwell may still be able to work from home, whereas previously they would probably have taken a sick day just to get out of the office. And teleworkers have no reasons (or excuses!) to be late, such as being delayed by an accident on the freeway or a car that won't start.
There are, however, many drawbacks to working from home. The most obvious one is that it can be quite lonely. Having no colleagues with whom to interact can mean that ideas can't be shared, so the lack of input from others, and the subsequent reduction in teamwork, can lead to a poorer quality of work being produced. It's also harder to work to a high standard when there is no-one around to give you encouragement or to provide positive criticism or advice.
And, of course, you have no-one to indulge in a nice therapeutic complaining session with over your morning cup of coffee.
Why Dolly Parton's 'Nine to Five' Might Now Be Called 'Twenty-Four Seven.'
But the tide is slowly turning. Experts are now warning that such flexible working practices may be causing more harm than good. For instance, when you work from home there is always a temptation - a pressure, even - to never completely unplug from the "I'm at work" mentality, and this can result in serious psychological damage such as burnout and stress. To disconnect completely from your job is vital in order to recharge your energies, refresh your brain and just generally relax and unwind.
Alison Green, co-author of 'Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results', says that American workers are increasingly feeling pressured to stay plugged in - both mentally and electronically - at evenings and weekends. They feel obligated to interrupt their personal time and family life to respond to emails which aren't even urgent and to be generally available for work in their leisure time, often even when on vacation. This not only applies to workers who telecommute but also to those who go to and from their workplace each day.
As Ms. Green points out, while the goal of all this work is increased productivity, the long-term effect is a tendency to lower productivity as people become burned-out and increasingly stressed and unhappy. It's not only the employee who suffers, it's their family and friends too, as the worker's attention is diverted to what they see as an obligation to stay connected to their work 24/7. Researchers have coined the term "telepressure" as a description of the impulse to instantly respond to work-related emails, voicemails and texts in order to appear permanently accessible and on-the-ball.
Why Lazing is Healthier Than Grazing
Professor Gail Kinman, an occupational health psychologist from the British Psychological Association, refers to this new phenomenon as "grazing". People who increasingly "graze" through work by constantly refreshing emails, checking texts and taking calls outside office hours are putting their health at serious risk. Recent research has found that every time someone performs a work-related task outside of work, their stress levels rise.
"If you keep picking at work, worrying about it, your systems never really go back to baseline so you don't recover properly," says Kinman. "You might sleep, but you don't sleep properly, (so) the effectiveness of your immune system reduces." She also points out that lack of sleep can lead to people looking for a quick alternative way to relax, which is when they might drink alcohol, eat unhealthy comfort food, or even turn to drugs to help them unwind and switch off.
Work-Life Balance is Out
So can anything be done to change this relentless culture? Reversing is always harder than going forwards - ask any politician. But surely it is not beyond the scope of the companies who inflict these new practices on their employees to recognize some of their drawbacks.
Realistically, most companies are unlikely to do a complete U-turn on some of these policies. A recent article by Fortune Insider suggests that there is a difference between balance and effectiveness in the workplace, so maybe this is where some of the solutions lie.
The authors of the above-mentioned article, Emily Troiano and Amelia Costigan, are directors of Catalyst, a leading non-profit organization which works to enact real change in the workplace by studying global businesses and their organizational strategies. The article emphasizes that many of the companies listed on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list are starting to recognize that what is good for employees is also good for the company.
The question which all companies should ask is this: "Is there a better way to create a culture in which we are all tackling the right work at the right time?"
The expression "work-life balance" is deceptive, according to Troiano and Costigan, because while work is important to most of us, other parts of our lives are important too. "While we can certainly prioritize, we simply can't trade one part of our life for another, nor would we want to. (Therefore) the pursuit of balance in the workplace too often feels like a win-lose proposition, either way you look at it."
Work-Life Effectiveness is “In”
This new approach encourages managers to allow employees to determine where and when work gets done. To support work-life effectiveness, say Troiano and Costigan, "employees must be measured on their contributions and results, not on perceived, intangible metrics like the time put in. The key is understanding that personal success at work is not a one-size-fits-all proposition - different opportunities will make different employees happiest."
This not only recognizes that there are many different ways to work effectively, but also makes workers feel valued and respected.
So whereas one employee might feel happiest hot-desking in an open office space with lots of collaboration and background noise, another might prefer the option of an individual desk in a designated quiet room, maybe out of view from the other occupants with the use of a privacy screen. It's a matter of identifying what works for each individual and then getting management personnel on board.
This new attitude also acknowledges that while every employee has a personal life, they don't all look the same. Companies like General Electric and Virgin now offer unlimited vacation and family leave, thus allowing every employee to regulate how, where and when their work gets done. "A culture that is inclusive of different working styles allows each employee to bring their best and most productive self to the job," Troiano and Costigan declare.
Now that's something even Aunt Mary would approve of.