Smart Office Not So Damned Smart?
November 10, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

You know that trend a while back towards 'smart offices'? I think that's what it was called -- you know, when nobody has their own desk, and they just snag their laptop and go sit anywhere and somehow they are magically more creative and productive as a result? I'm having trouble Googling up trip reports: can you help me out with links to stories and research about experiences in implementing it (or your own personal experience)?

My focus is actually on why explanations of why it was tried and didn't work; I'm happy to read about how it actually did as well, though.

My memory may be faulty, but I seem to recall hearing that most of the experiments with this kind of thing failed thanks to massively increased stress among employees and no gains of any other kind, mostly because it just goes against human nature.

Anyway, any info you have or can link to on this stuff would be welcome. My perfect answer to this question would be a link to a highly critical research paper, complete with comprehensive data, revealing this idea to be total snake oil.

A paper that revealed the opposite, if it were credible, would also be just fine, despite my clear prejudice in this matter. Heh.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken to Work & Money (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Try "hotelling" and "hot-desking" as additional search terms.
posted by argonauta at 12:55 PM on November 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, currently the practice is called Hot Desking or Hotelling, and I've seen it used frequently in sales and professional services type offices where the employees spend most of their time on the road or at customer sites. However, I do remember that some ad agency in California implemented it in the late 80's/early 90's for most (if not all) employees... Yep -it was Chiat Day
posted by dchase at 1:00 PM on November 10, 2011

There's also a trend of "co-working" spaces popping up. It is not precisely what you're referring to; nonetheless, it may help clarify your thinking or point you in some direction you had not considered.
posted by dfriedman at 1:16 PM on November 10, 2011

The Social Life of Information by John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid features a section on Chiat/Day and the failure of hot-desking there.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:24 PM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've seen it used in a call center/support environment. The cubicles were small, low-walled and offered no storage. Employees got around the no decorations policy by carrying around floppy disks (this was a while back) of personal photos that they would make their PC desktop wallpaper for the day.
posted by tommasz at 1:28 PM on November 10, 2011

This is sort of vague, but maybe it will jostle someone else's memory and help track down the article. (I'll do some further searching when I have time.)

I remember some "forward thinking" company implementing this approach, and trying to go entirely paperless, therefore no need for a desk or "your own" filing cabinets. It turned out (duh) that people really did need paper more than the bosses predicted, which resulted in everyone lugging briefcases around, and storing papers in their cars.
posted by The Deej at 1:44 PM on November 10, 2011

I don't know about scientific research but I can tell you that I have worked in an office that practiced it, and it was FUCKING AWFUL.

It's like, "first they take away offices and give us shitty cubicles. Then they tell us we can't even have the shitty cubicles to ourselves."

In the most successful (relatively speaking) implementation, every employee was given a sort of rolling storage cubby. At least then you have a place where you can put your coffee cup and note pad.

"A rolling plastic storage cubby to call your own." It was just as dreadful as it sounds.

In practice, everyone pretty much staked out their own desks. No one was supposed to, but we all wanted to, so there was a lot of social pressure dictating which desk belonged to whom.

It was interesting to acculturate there as a new employee, because you had to remember which desks were "taken" and which were "free." Since no one could leave anything at the desks, they all looked the same to the newbie. You could only tell the difference based on whether or not some complete stranger (whose desk it "was") gave you a seething glare as they walked past you.

There is nothing good about this system, from the perspective of those who have to use it. It's dehumanizing, humiliating, and hugely inconvenient.

I guess it's spiffy to upper management, because it seems really efficient? All I know is, it's incredibly bad for morale.
posted by ErikaB at 1:47 PM on November 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

I once interviewed at a company where I was told that there were deliberately fewer desks than people who needed them, so those who got in early were 'winners' and it was usual to see the 'losers' all sharing two or three desks. (And yes, the interviewer actually used the words 'winners' and 'losers'.)

Where I work now, we have hotdesking, but primarily for people who are only in the office once a week or less, and there are always spare desks available, so it doesn't have the stress associated with having to hunt round looking for somewhere to work.
posted by essexjan at 1:49 PM on November 10, 2011

Everybody's favorite Bank of America is still doing it. Google for "My Work."
posted by Sweetie Darling at 1:50 PM on November 10, 2011

I don't have any literature at hand, but I consult professionally - I've heard this is god-awful and a serious blow to morale at companies that use it for regular employees. Travellers desks, or desks for road warriors are okay...

Cubicles can be awful but its at least a bit of personal and semi-private space. People without them feel alienated and from what I have heard, using this method just encourages people to book more conference and meeting room space.
posted by Intrepid at 2:00 PM on November 10, 2011

You could also try searching for words like 'telecommuting', because these arrangements are often used where lots of people pretend to work from home.

One of our regional offices has a similar arrangement, where the bulk of staff are supposed to be out in the field most of the time. They were given permanent use of a car, handed a mobile phone and a laptop with 3G access and told to spend most of their time on the road and use the laptop to update records after each visit from the car. It's actually worked pretty well, overall - not sure if they spend any more time working, but they spend a lot less time in the office ;-)

The field staff have access to 'hot desks' and they tended to use a particular desk whenever in the office so, over time, it has become 'theirs'. Because enough staff preferred to never come into the office (or only when forced), there are more or less enough desks that staff who do spend time in the office can unofficially claim a desk as their own.

Hot-desking is one of those things that seems logical in theory (and there are lots of good reasons why it is a good idea), but completely ignores human nature. We like to have our own space, including at work because it makes us feel safe. People who feel safe are happy, productive people. I'm not one to do lots of decorating of my work space (even now that I have an actual office), but I do get annoyed when I go away and come back to find that someone has been using 'my' space and they've moved the mouse to the other side of the keyboard and inconsequential things like that. Hot-desking takes this sort of thing to an extreme, so people never get to develop that sense of safety and belonging in the workplace that makes them happy and productive. This is why it is a great idea that simply doesn't work.
posted by dg at 2:04 PM on November 10, 2011

I saw this at a national call centre, Australian government, 2000.

"Nobody owns a desk. If you want personal belongings on your desk, you need to clear them out at the end of the day."

The next day everybod went back to the same, now empty desk. Nobody took anybody else's desk. After a week, everybody stopped packing up their personal items.

So all that happened was:

- their perfectly adequate desktop PCs got switched out for expensive laptops with a problematic SOE that meant the help desk spent more time calling a different help desk than servicing its own customers;

- people wasted half an hour every day getting said laptops out of the secure cabinet, connecting them up, hooking up the Kensington lock and logging on, then reversing the procedure at the end of the day;

- people's opinion of management consultants was reinforced.

This article suggests that hot desking reduces team identity but increases organisational identity (that is, people idenitfy more with the organisation as a whole, rather than their immediate team members). I'm not sure if it goes into detail about the results of reduced team identity. I don't think I saw any increase in org identity at the help desk in my example - if anything, they drew even closer together and adopted an 'it's us against the idiots upstairs' mentality.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:06 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the Netherlands you see this quite a bit, perhaps because more people work part time here. The government also wants people to be more flexible, work from home or other places as well as from the office, because that is better for the environment, less traffic jams, makes women with children more likely to work more hours, etc. But with all those flexible workers, it doesn't make much sense to give everybody their own desk (especially since we are a relatively crowded country where office space is not cheap).

I found this article which is unfortunately in Dutch. It mentions research that most people say they prefer their own desk, but in practice they get used to the "flex desk" as it is called here. The final opinion of most (over 80%) actual users is either favourable or neutral towards the flex desk, but it does seem to matter how well it is implemented and there are some pitfalls (people do not like it when management does have their own office for example).
posted by davar at 2:51 PM on November 10, 2011

Slashdot story from 2002 about hot desking at Sun.

(It links to a Yahoo News story which is alas no longer in existence.)
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:02 PM on November 10, 2011

The TBWA Chiat/Day story was in Wired: Issue 7.02 - Feb 1999: Lost in Space : It was a bold experiment in creating the office of the future. There were no offices, no desks, no personal equipment. And no survivors.

I vividly remember being disappointed it didn't work out for them. I loved the idea.
posted by artlung at 3:21 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the call center I worked for that did this (they have space for something like 300 people, they have about 700 workers, most of whom work about 30 hours a week sometime between 7am and 10pm on any of the seven days of the week) it was dreadful, hated, and openly rebelled against by pretty much anyone with any power at all - supervisors, tier 3 reps, people with more than a year of service all had desks everyone unofficially recognized as "theirs." People brought binders with pictures in them to prop up, and at some point, people affiliated with all the smaller accounts (less than 20 reps on the force) just flat-out took over sections of the call center floor and decorated the cubes with client-specific stuff; within those teams everyone had claimed a specific desk, put up nametags, etc. You'd hear people on the big tech support account wistfully describe the joys of working for a tiny catalog team.

By the time I was there, the system was already far from what they had originally intended (come in and find a spot on the giant floor, any spot, and work there, under the watchful eye of the central control area.) If you sat in a random place, your supervisor would come hunt you down and say "I've kicked out some guy in my row, come sit there," because otherwise he'd be "supervising" people distributed all over the place. Equipment failures were inconsistently addressed because people would sit down, log in, notice a problem, and then - because they had to get to work, see - they would find another place to sit and not report the issue. Same thing with pretty much every other resource - copiers and printers breaking, toilets overflowing, etc. People got sick a lot more often because no one was cleaning the keyboards and phones and stuff - veterans packed antibacterial wipes along with their "I am a real person with a life outside this cube" decorations. Newbies had no place to put all their training documentation, because the cubes were designed not to have any storage. There was no private place for a supervisor to discuss your performance with you - it happened out in the middle of rows with colleagues on either side of you. I can't actually think of a single positive aspect of the system.

(This was like, item 15 on the ranked list of terrible things about that job.)
posted by SMPA at 5:16 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to work for a company, and in one of their offices its all hotdesking as they called it, and only enough desks for 83% of the staff I think it was. From asking the guys still working there, its by far and away the most popular office to work in (3 years down the track from its creation).

I think they did it right though, the building has corporate wireless access EVERYWHERE. The cafe in the lobby? Yep corporate wireless access there. They have all sorts of different styles of meeting rooms, discussion rooms etc. Every desk had two monitors and a docking station for the laptops.
posted by Admira at 6:04 PM on November 10, 2011

Interestingly, a group at my old company tried a variation on this in which the software engineers had desks, but their management didn't, on up to their director. I sadly left the company before I heard how it worked out. I do remember people being a little bugged that when their manager wasn't in meetings he was usually loitering around the engineers' cubes hoping to be entertained.
posted by troublesome at 9:16 PM on November 10, 2011

Yeah, "hoteling" is the word you're looking for.

And it sucks.

A former employer of mine tried to change over to a 'hoteling' arrangement from traditional desks, mostly to save on square-footage costs. The argument was that on any given day, only 50-60% of the workforce was in the office, so why not just get rid of 40% of the desks? So they did.

What actually happened was that fewer people started coming in. Basically, the company had unwittingly rolled out the unwelcome mat for employees. IMO, the message hoteling sends is "this isn't your space, it's just a spot for you to park your carcass and prop up your laptop for a few hours." And well, if all I'm getting is a flat spot to put my laptop, I can get that elsewhere. Like at home, with its refreshing pants-optionality. Or in a library, or a coffeeshop, or any number of other places.

Basically overnight, that 50-60% of the workforce that showed up in the office probably dropped another 5-10%, and morale went into the toilet. People started getting intensely territorial over space; even though you couldn't officially reserve a desk, if you just piled enough papers and dead IT equipment in a cube, nobody else would sit there — suddenly you have a "real" desk again. At least until someone called in a complaint and all your stuff got thrown out in the middle of the night. More than once I saw or heard of someone having a full-bore Office Space-style meltdown over all their missing stuff when this happened. I'm surprised the building didn't get torched.

Since in a hoteling environment it's a lot harder to find someone — there's no desk that's "theirs" where you can always drop by to find them — it's a lot easier to just not show up and not have anyone notice. (Since rather than get up and wander around cubeville searching for you, they're likely to send an email or IM instead.) And since you're never guaranteed to be next to the same people, the social reinforcement to show up doesn't exist either. Long term, it wouldn't have surprised me if desk utilization had dropped to the same level that it was before they implemented hoteling.

Since the only time you got to sit with your usual bunch of coworkers was at lunch, people started taking rather extensive lunch breaks. (Sometimes long enough to allow their working-from-home colleagues time to drive in and join them.) Teams started squatting in and took over conference rooms or lounges. Stuff got weird; the atmosphere got really mercenary.

The whole thing just struck me as a sorry exercise in penny-wise-pound-foolishness on the part of some bean counter somewhere. Probably from the same brain trust that got rid of the free coffee.

Last thing I heard, they had abandoned it in favor of letting people who wanted to telework volunteer to become actual full-time teleworkers, with all that entails, and letting people who wanted or needed physical presence get a cube with their name on it. I wouldn't know, because I quit pretty soon after. I won't say that the hoteling thing was my reason for quitting, but it was certainly representative of a certain kind of thinking that I'm not fond of.

tl;dr: I would run the fuck out of a job interview if I heard the word 'hoteling,' unless I was flat broke or had a gun to my head. Seriously, it's a bucket of suck.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:21 PM on November 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

It seems like a lot of you had some bad experience in how this implemented and therefore conclude that of course this can never ever work. This for example There was no private place for a supervisor to discuss your performance with you - it happened out in the middle of rows with colleagues on either side of you. does not happen here because there are always, in every implementation of flex-desking I have ever seen, meeting rooms exactly designed for such a thing.

If having a flex desk is part of an overall policy of being more flexible (flexible hours, flexible working places) I think it is a pretty good system. It also means that you can just come in a few hours later if you need to take your child to the doctor, work a day from home if the plumber is coming, always take Wednesday afternoon off and make up for that in the evening, etc. But like I said before, of course you have to implement it well. There are books about this, no reason to repeat the pitfalls that people made 10 years ago.
posted by davar at 11:59 PM on November 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, all.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:48 PM on November 11, 2011

« Older How to get sold out Rio Theatre PFT tickets?   |   Help me get back into the workforce Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.