Make Hot Desking Work

Part I — Getting Colleagues on Board

Colourful open plan layout at the Cadbury Schweppes office — Credit K2 Space

In the ever continuing race to improve the efficiency of facilities, you may have been asked to consider implementing activity based working (ABW) or hot-desking. This is for good reason, “office space is typically the second-biggest cost for organisations. And some research suggests that up to 40% of office space is vacant at any one time.”

There are significant technical hurdles that you’ll need to jump through in order to successfully deliver the project; specifying, purchasing, contract management & scheduling to name a few. It isn’t the technical hurdles that are most likely to cause your project to fail though: It’s your employee engagement and change management strategy.

Way back in 2001, ‘workplace guru’ Andy Lake stated that if “you have neither assessed whether the new working arrangements are appropriate to their work, nor attempted to involve them in the change process. Expect trouble.” Flash forward 16 years and we still see this happening: Apple’s $5 billion dollar headquarters that don’t give their software engineers enough privacy and the backlash from employees at the Australian Tax Office are both very recent high profile examples of this.

There are many ways that you can engage your employees in delivering change though. A review commissioned by the Canadian government recommended communicating via town hall meetings, project websites, project walls, focus groups and celebration events. As well as consulting the workforce, the report recommends allowing staff to get involved in some design decisions.

Asking employees to make design decisions doesn’t just result in a more tailored project specification, it’s claimed that it can help overcome some of the significant psychological barriers to change. Scott Keller boldly states in the Harvard Business Review that “When we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome — by a factor of five to one.”

There are risks though. ABW and hot-desking have a number of unresolved issues and your colleagues are likely to identify them during the process. These can include, reduced privacy, desk shortages, difficulty finding colleagues and not being able to personalise space (I’ll be looking at ways that you can address these in part II).

In an article for Mckinsey Quarterly, Scott Keller and Carolyn Aitken claim that “Employees will go against their own self-interest if the situation violates other notions they have about fairness and justice”. If you can evidence that the new ways of working will benefit the organisation as a whole, then colleagues are more likely to accept change. When there are budgetary constraints; reducing the cost of accommodation is likely to be more popular than reducing the cost of personnel.

Finally, it’s worth noting that not everybody will get on board. Susan Annunzio in her book Evolutionary Leadership estimates that roughly 20% of your colleagues will champion your change and 20% will try to disrupt it. The remaining 60% of your colleagues will take their cues from both parties. Consulting them and having good lines of communication will help you to bring them over to your side.