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Sharing space - and learning to love it

Changing office space and working practices for flexible work

You may have seen the difficulties that alien species have in co-existing in the same space in movies such as Independence Day or Starship Troopers.  It can get vicious, and somewhat messy too.

Similarly, I had a friend who took an uncompromising attitude to eliminating the spiders in his 17th century cottage.  "Spiders are territorial creatures," he would say, "AND SO AM I!" before unceremoniously flattening them.

We're more than a bit like that in offices.  We like our own space - even if we're not in it for much of the time.  We mark out our territory, and expect others to keep out.

Even when desk sharing is introduced,  heaven help the nomadic worker from Building Control who settles down in a shared area normally used by Planning.  A similar fate to the spider surely awaits.

All the same, sharing space is absolutely central to most implementations of 21st Century flexible working.

How can we do it and get it right?

Space sharing: a troubled history

For most people, the idea of space sharing means "hot desking".  And hot desking does not have a good reputation.

I'm told that the term "hot-desking" derives from the nautical practice of "hot-bunking".  When a sailor came off duty he'd collapse into a "hot bunk" just vacated by another sailor off to do his turn.  An eminently sensible space saving practice - though maybe dubious from the hygienic/aromatic point of view .

Through the late 1980s and the 1990s, hotdesking appeared in a number of guises in America and Europe, also being called by names such as "hotelling" and "free addressing" and the like.

Early implementations ran into trouble due to being over-zealous, people being isolated from their teams (on the 13th floor one day, in the basement the next), and lacking the right technologies to work effectively away from their own desk, let alone away from the office.

Now one can barely read an article about space sharing without someone debunking hotdesking, so to speak, on the basis of implementations from nearly 20 years ago.

Time has moved on - as have technology, property prices, efficiency demands and our understanding of how to make space sharing work.

Overwhelming business case

Much as most of us might appreciate having our own personal territory carved out at work, the business case for space sharing is usually overwhelming.

First and foremost, in traditional offices with assigned personal desks, average desk occupancy rarely rises above 50%.  So employers are tying up a huge amounts of money in redundant space. 

For further discussion of this, see our article on Shrinking the Office.

Secondly, when equipping staff with the kit and connection to work from home and on the move, we create opportunities for efficiency and savings.  But we also risk doing exactly the opposite, by creating multiple "office spaces" and duplicating technology investments.

Reducing the office space and introducing desk sharing is essential to justify the investment in mobile working and home working.

Changing the culture of possession

Even faced with a strong business case, there are always some people who don't want to share.

At a recent workshop on culture change, one sceptic said: "I only use my bed for a third of the day, but that doesn't mean I want to share it with strangers".  I had to think about that one. For me, it would depend on who the strangers are, I guess.

But the point is an interesting one.  Because there are two assumptions in this kind of view:

  1. that one has a right to the same kind of "ownership rights" that one enjoys at home
  2. that the other people one would share with are necessarily strangers. 

Both assumptions need challenging.

On the first point: in principle, one has no more rights of exclusive ownership to an office desk than one has to a seat on a bus, a restaurant table or a stall in the office toilets. 

And on the second point: in all probability the most likely people you would share space with are colleagues from your own team, or at least from the same department.

So a key part of the process of adjusting to space sharing is taking away the fear of change.  And in particular, taking away the fear of loss of "ownership".

Doing work in a modern office is not about owning a particular desk, but having guaranteed access to the right kind of facility for getting the work done.  This might be a desk, or it might be a quiet workplace in a resource area, a training facility or a touchdown space (etc).

Achieving this more business-focused awareness should be a positive exercise, where teams analyse the way they work, and the kinds of facilities they need access to.

When teams and individuals help to redesign the way they work, they start to understand the trade-offs.  And enabling a wide range of flexible working options is a key part of the trade-off.  Less personalised space is the price paid for achieving more flexibility and better team space.

Question the exceptions

It may seem self-evident that certain jobs "have to be "full-time in the office" - usually support roles.  Therefore they need their own dedicated desk.

But do they?  Once more electronic-based processes are introduced, many administrative roles can in fact be done from anywhere.  High volume telephony work too.

And it's usually a mistake to think in terms of whole jobs being suitable or not for remote/flexible work.  Usually, there are tasks which can be done from anywhere, even if jobs as a whole can not.

And where flexibility of place is not possible, greater time flexibility is often possible, which also has an impact on the use of space.

Managers too, may claim they need a personal office for reasons such as doing confidential work. These kinds of argument are rarely compelling.  Having flexible space to do the confidential tasks (such as appraisals or sensitive phone calls) is important.  But this need doesn't apply 100% of the time.

Policies to make desk sharing work

Changing the habits of a working lifetime does not happen overnight.  There are always people who don't agree with it, and who will try to subvert the principles by, as far as possible, resuming old habits and re-establishing the old office geographies.

And it probably won't only be the dissidents who lapse back into old ways.  After a few weeks, it's worth checking to see if people have tended to colonise favoured positions, and have reintroduced their personal library behind their favourite seat or have their family photos on the desk, or leave out that 'urgent work-in-progress' on their favourite desk whenever they go out.

Is it harmless?  Maybe.  But people who colonise space create a tighter ratio of desks-to-people for everyone else to work with.

So here are some principles to make space sharing work:

  1. A clear desk policy.  Establish that whenever people are out of the office for more than a certain time - say 1 hour - they must clear everything from the desk.  Having a locker to put things in is essential for this.
  2. Well organised team storage. Piles of files can't be left on desks - but shutting them away in lockers can be worse. It will actually increase efficiency to accept the discipline of returning files to team storage and making them accessible to all. 
    Shared libraries of reference materials have the benefit of reducing duplication and preventing personal silos of information.
  3. Have the same agreed compendium of essential information at each desk and/or online. E.g. key dates, fire escape routes, important telephone numbers, etc. And ban the maverick pinning up of "essential" information by desks to prevent "professional personalisation" of desks.
  4. Create a beautiful environment! Provide attractive pictures, planting, water features, etc and this will justify the restriction on people putting their own knickknacks on their favourite desk.
  5. Ergonomic work positions. Getting in the best and ergonomic workplace layout will help people accept working in different positions.  Chairs must be adjustable - or some will claim they have to sit in a certain place each day.
  6. Laptops are preferable to desktop PCs.  That is because they can move everywhere with one member of staff, and any specialist software installed moves with them.  This will prevent people laying claim to one particular space for IT reasons and enable more effective flexibility.  When working in one position with a laptop for a long time, a keyboard and mouse, laptop stand and/or additional screen should be used.
  7. Provide ample touch-down space to cope with peak demand. That is, places where people can connect their laptops to work for short periods.  These can be touchdown bars, or locations in resource areas, informal meeting/refreshment areas etc.
  8. Work in non-exclusive team areas with fuzzy boundaries.  It's good to keep the team connection and work with each other to share space effectively.  But space sharing will not achieve the maximum benefits if teams become exclusive.  The aim should be to break down barriers, and encourage working across teams. "Qualified Flexible Team Space", we could call it.
  9. Have a good telephony solution. People need to be able to log in to their extension whether in the office or out, and from whichever desk they sit at.
  10. Encourage flexible working in practice. People working from home and on the move, and working compressed working weeks in particular will reduce the daily demand for space.

And it's important to keep everything under review.  Some practices may not be working too well.  It may be that more training or gentle pressure is needed, or it may be that certain practices needs modifying.

But if it's done right and people feel they have a stake in devising the new arrangements, there's one thing I can almost guarantee will need reviewing. After 6 months, unless your staff numbers have increased, there'll be a surplus of space in the office again. You'll find nearly everyone loves the laptops, loves the greater freedom to "work anywhere", and are no longer fighting for their own personal space in the office.




October 09


Desk sharing - often characterised or caricatured as "hotdesking" - is often a concept too far for people who otherwise want more flexibility.

As they say in Switzerland, "Love your neighbour - but don't tear down the fences yet".

Here we look at the arguments for desk sharing in the context of flexible work, and how to get it right.





All material copyright Flexibility.co.uk 2009