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Outrage: ‘The cult of hot-desking has failed to deliver a democratic workplace’

Outrage office

The super-tidy, characterless and indeterminate business community is the same old hierarchy in more egalitarian clothing

Hot-desking as a concept was devised and promoted by smart consultants who spent large amounts of time out of the office. No worker-drones they. In their own workplaces, the allocation of a permanent desk would be a mark of social and career failure, since  if you were not a fee-earner, rushing hither and thither to client meetings, you were only good for a desk-bound existence of the sort characterised by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax floorplate, and satirised in Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment.

The effect of this new doctrine on the wider business community was dramatic. Out went fuddy-duddy notions of personal space and a sense of ownership of chair and desk (sorry, ‘workstation’). In came the concept of the super-tidy, characterless and indeterminate, where any office drone could hover and park themselves for a day, before removing any evidence of occupation that might distress the next day’s occupant.

Hover is the right word. In those offices where the impeccable logic of hot-desking operates at full force, there are substantially fewer desks than people, hence the poor unfortunate who arrives at 10am after a (possibly arduous) breakfast meeting casting around for signs of workspace availability. Colleagues keep their heads down, mostly silently blaming the person in question for coming in late. 

Desks the latecomer will avoid are those of any senior manager, for one of several reasons. First, despite the imposition of hot-desking on staff in general, the really important people often retain a cellular office all of their own. So much more convenient to be able to have private conversations away from prying ears in that open-plan prairie that the great unwashed occupy. You certainly don’t treat that workstation as public property.

The second desk you don’t occupy is one which is clearly identified as not to be approached, with the equivalent of a blast zone around the club bore. This may be because it is much bigger than a ‘normal’ desk; because it has a superior chair which doesn’t give you backache after 30 minutes; or because it is located in a key power position (far corner). The feng shui vibes will radiate a warning.

Billy Wilder The Apartment

Billy Wilder The Apartment

Source: United Artists

Billy Wilders ‘The Apartment’

Even if the managers all sit at ordinary workstations, there will be those that ordinary workers steer clear of, because they are recognised as special, usually by the manager’s team, managers liking to keep their ‘direct reports’ close to them. Try sitting in one of those and there will be a raised eyebrow, or a word of warning from the PA that the boss is expected in later. You get the drift, and can only wonder at how the hot-desk philosophy has ended up sanitising manager desks, even though managers are the people most likely to be attending ‘meetings’, and therefore less requiring of permanent nests in the office environment.

So the deskless zombies make their way to the coffee area, squat on a sofa in reception, or simply head for the nearest café  and hope that nobody notices. There are always in-house coffee areas, by the way, because the same philosophers who  gave you hot-desking also had a profound belief in the inevitability of business-changing informal interaction as office strangers chatted by accident as they queued for caffeine, discussing their latest whizzy thinking rather than complaining about the fact that they can’t find a desk.

As is frequently the case, the noble ambitions and aspirations of the creatives who invented a new approach to facilities management have been debased. Where they envisaged democracy, the powers-that-be substitute hierarchy in slightly more egalitarian clothing. Where they saw bounteous meeting-room provision in return for fewer desks, facilities directors  saw intensity focused on as few as possible. Where the creatives saw economy, employers across the world have simply seized the opportunity to be stingy. The smaller the desk space, the worse the chair.

While the Googles and the Apples of this world make claims about the importance of workplace ambience (student campus), generosity of provision (wired for nirvana) and individual satisfaction (whatever, whenever), they extract a price: living with paranoia and Colditz security in the Hotel California.

Meanwhile, we ordinary mortals, given half a chance, try to work at home. The ambience is comfortable; the design and chair a matter of personal choice; environmental controls whatever you want. And it is all yours: the Home Office. And not a hot desk in sight.