Taking the hot desk

With companies seeking to make savings wherever possible, all aspects of the working day are being placed under the spotlight. Whether it is hours, staff numbers or workload, businesses across the board are looking for ways to economise. One interesting way being investigated is the work environment itself, and how different infrastructures can impact on productivity and team dynamics.

The evolution of the non-territorial work space, often referred to as ‘hot desking’, is an area that is receiving attention from academics in various fields. In this type of workplace, staff do not have a pre-assigned desk and can work in a different position every day. Depending on the size of the organisation, this could be four desks in a room or 100 desks spread over two or three floors.

Office space is expensive to hire or build, and there are also environmental costs of heating and maintaining a building that is not fully occupied. Therefore businesses are seeking to save money by using the space as effectively as possible. In a non-territorial office, there are often fewer workspaces than employees, as it is highly unlikely everyone will be in at one time.

Occupational Psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton, Dr Jane Carstairs, explains this kind of working environment has become possible due to advances in technology. Wireless technology means staff can set up a laptop anywhere and even work on mobile phones.

Pros and cons

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to this set-up, particularly in relation to staff members’ sense of identity.

“Having your own space allows people to gain control within that small environment and personalise it with pictures and little things that define their identity. The threats to that of the non-territorial office can result in a lack of motivation and even stress,” Dr Carstairs, from the School of Applied Sciences, explains.

“There have been some studies that suggest people find working without the ability to personalise their space quite a stressful event. This emphasises how important perceived control is in being able to cope with stress. The worst case scenario is that it could lead to people having time off work. If there is a reduction in people’s satisfaction with the environment and job then that can impact on people’s commitment to the organisation. In extreme cases they might find a job elsewhere.”

In environments where people do not have assigned desks, research has found there are instances of people getting into work early just so they can occupy a favoured desk. People may also attempt to personalise the space by leaving something on a chair or table so they can return to it the next day. Older staff in particular report difficulty carrying around heavy books and laptops and are more likely to favour a return to conventional office arrangements.

Another disadvantage is a lack of team cohesion. Staff members may not be seated in close proximity to the people they are working with on particular projects. However, as Jane explains, there is also conflicting research indicating that the non-territorial environment can benefit performance as well.

“If a team is dynamic and different people work together at different times, you can choose to sit with them and that could improve performance for that piece of work. There is also a suggestion that non-territorial offices enable the generation of ideas.”

A further advantage is that it is more egalitarian, and if you get in early enough to grab a window seat then you are entitled to it. But Jane says there have been suggestions that people of higher status will sometimes make it clear a particular desk ‘belongs’ to them.

Consultation

Dr Carstairs explains an important factor which has been widely recognised by researchers investigating the impact of moving into a new office environment is consultation with staff.

“It is important to get employees to have buyin concerning the design of their space and their environment, giving them ownership and control over some aspects,” she adds.

“It is also important to bear in mind the type of work being done. If people have a highly cognitive type of job they will often have more difficulty coping with the physical and psychological character of an open plan office than people involved in administrative or routine work. Staff members will benefit from having quiet areas where they can hold meetings or do more demanding work tasks. Many open plan and non-territorial offices have meeting rooms specifically for this purpose.”

Jane, who has worked at Wolverhampton for six years, has been researching workplace design, and a paper based on her work with Interior Design Consultant George Mylonas was presented at the 9th Australian Industrial Organisational Psychology conference. The report included recommendations for further research, and Jane explains teasing out what it is about the non-territorial office space that relates to reported improvements or reductions in performance would be beneficial, as existing research has produced ambiguous findings. It would also be useful to assess whether it is actually the effect of entering a new environment that is being reported rather than the office arrangement itself.

She adds: “There is a need for longitudinal studies to see how employees adapt over time. There may be savings in terms of space but this may be coming out in terms of performance and turnover.

“The key thing is for architects, designers and managers to be flexible in their approach and to allow change if it is necessary.”