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The future of work spaces: hot desks or cold comfort?

The future of work spaces: hot desks or cold comfort?

The stereotypical workplace of yesteryear — replete with corner offices, closed doors (and minds), cramped desks and awful coffee — long ago gave way to the stereotypical ‘progressive’ workplace of today, with its open-plan settings, ergonomically-tested chairs, wireless internet and espresso machines.

With the realisation that a carrot — rather than a big stick — is more likely to improve workplace morale and, by extension, results, many companies now routinely revisit their workplace arrangements, seeking ever newer and better ways to make their team members more comfortable and, as a result, more productive.

How we manage our desk or work area can say a lot about how we work. Some companies, however, are now taking that choice away, instead implementing innovative — and sometimes contentious — workplace arrangements that are designed to foster collaboration and mobility.

BHP Billiton’s ‘office environment standard’ sparked some debate late last year. The standard — which had been in place for two years in other head offices and had recently been introduced in Brisbane following the opening of its new offices there — prohibits post-it notes being left on your keyboard or monitor at the end of the day, and bans the placing of any paper or pictures on dividers, walls or doors.

Employees used to inhaling a sambo while working through their lunch hour are advised that eating at desks isn’t permitted. And those contemplating bringing in the leftovers of that delicious Thai green curry better think again, because foods that ‘emit strong odours’ aren’t allowed, either.

While to many this all sounded a tad extreme and pedantic, BHP Billiton’s defence of the standard certainly made it sound slightly less so. Put simply, it was designed to promote employee mobility, comfort, courtesy and respect. No arguments there.

Making team members get up and eat their lunch away from their desks, BHP Billiton believed, would encourage them to socialise with colleagues in designated areas, where the smell of that Thai green curry would presumably invite the sharing of recipes, not howls of protest.

The initial outcry to the standard died down after a day or two as everyone sensibly got back to work. One reason why it perhaps registered but a blip on the media radar was because BHP Billiton is just one of many companies taking similar ‘leaps of faith’ in terms of how they are encouraging their people to work. Waking up to the fact that so many of us are out of the office on a daily basis, many are realising the concept of an anchor desk is becoming increasingly redundant.

‘Hot desks’ are being seen as a solution, with the evangelists promising minimal ownership, maximum mobility, and enhanced collaboration and productivity as a result.

In Sydney, Jones Lang LaSalle’s offices use an in-house-developed WorkSmart Activity Based Working model which “…incorporates enhanced mobility and flexibility through multiple activity settings and work locations.

The translation? Save for a few select divisions, non-assigned desks are the order of the day and the open-plan office is en vogue. The desk you work at today doesn’t have to be — and likely won’t be — the desk you work at tomorrow.

Jones Lang LaSalle Managing Director, New South Wales – Michael Fenton said the company was seeking to improve the use of its office space.

“Non-assigned desks means we can increase the work points for our employees from 2 settings (desk or meeting room) to 8 different settings (desk, meeting room, quiet ‘hush’ room, discussion pods, team tables, café, floor hub, touch and go area for short stays),” he said.

All this probably sounds a long way from where you’re sitting right now (which might be at your desk where you’re brushing sandwich crumbs off the keyboard and thinking to yourself, I really better get back to it).

Such changes are always going to provoke debate. By its very definition, change is difficult; that’s why major corporations spend millions on change management programs. Because particular changes made by the likes of BHP Billiton and Jones Lang LaSalle are so different to the status quo, it’s easier to resist and criticise them than to be open to the possibilities for greater collaboration and enhanced productivity they might offer.

What do you think? Is the ‘hot desk’ a window to the future promoting collaboration and mobility? Or does it take ownership away from employees and impose a way of working that provides cold comfort for the challenges of a typical work day?

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