Can hotdesking work for growth companies?

Hotdesking has had a rocky ride over the last 15 years. Does it actually work?


Let’s first deal with the failures. The spectacular failure of hotdesking at advertising agency Chiat/Day should have been the final nail in hotdesking’s coffin if the world and his wife are to be believed.

In 1994 Chiat announced that it would be doing away with everything personal, all employees would now hotdesk – they would no longer have a desk or an office, they would only have a locker and that was that. Back in 1994 it was about as radical and likely to work as suggestions we would all be using jetpacks to get around by the year 2000.

By 1999 Chiat had abandoned its plans. However, it had started a revolution – albeit a quiet one. Walk into the offices of any large FTSE company and you will see people hotdesking – IBM and Microsoft both use hotdesking. And it’s not just technology firms, companies such as Guinness and much, much smaller businesses also hotdesk.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?

The two traditional answers are space and space. Most companies have unused desk space, created by people out on the road, on holiday or in meetings. So the number of desks and therefore the amount of office space needed is actually much less.

But according to hotdesking experts this is really ‘the big lie’. What hotdesking actually does, according to Lauren Clark of Georgeson Office Interiors, is to improve the intangibles. “Things like staff attraction and retention, the amount of sick leave. It also offers people more autonomy, they make quicker decisions, it empowers people – as they can work where they want – and it can protect the intellectual capital of organisations,” she argues.

In addition it’s also about mobility. “This is the real reason,” reckons Tony Norman, product manager for hotdesking at VIP. “I might be working at home or could be out on my mobile, it doesn’t matter – the caller will always get through to me.”

WHY DID THINGS GO WRONG?

Two reasons. Firstly, thinking that simply saving money on space would be the answer and secondly a lack of enabling technology back in the 1990s. It’s now possible to have a phone system that will connect your customers to you via one number, regardless of where you are in the world.

WORKING OUT SPACE

The most important part of hotdesking is to get the space issue sorted out. An office full of desks that people can plug into and use is not a hotdesking solution. Having a mixture of desks with plugs and desks with computers, areas where people can sit and meet informally, and areas where people can meet formally is the real solution. Collaboration is often nipped in the bud because there’s never a meeting room free. A hotdesk solution means people interact more.

MANAGING THE TRANSITION

The real key to hotdesking is getting everyone to understand just what you hope to achieve right from the start. Lauren Clark recommends you don’t use the word hotdesking at all. “It’s very emotive – never use the word hotdesking. We use the term ‘free’, and for Direct Line we used a car parking analogy, of short-stay and long-stay, where short-stay was a place you could plug in and grab your emails and do a few calls, and long-stay was two hours at a fixed workstation.”

Another key point to successful hotdesking is to establish a rule book before you start. “The only time we have seen organisations come a cropper is where they haven’t got a strategy, if they are just doing it to save space and cost then it won’t work,” she says. However, a complete building full of hotdesks with no structure won’t work for all. Deloitte run a hotdesking system that hotdesks within departments, so the structure of the organisation is kept. Sometimes it’s just not possible for the CEO to hotdesk but companies get around this by operating a hotdesk executive club where there’s a special area just for execs.

WIRELESS

Wireless-based networks are a key enabler of hotdesking. An office equipped with wireless means a computer can work anywhere seamlessly, there’s no need to plug in and out of the network and it’s perfect for working outside the office in wireless hotspot areas, such as cafes and airport lounges.

FOLLOW ME

The main enabler of hotdesking is the ‘follow me’ type of phone system. No matter what device you are using, be it mobile, landline or internet, or where you are in the world, all you need to do with a ‘follow me’ system is to dial in to your network, hit a few buttons and all calls to your company phone number will be redirected automatically to you. This is known as Private Automatic Branch Exchange (PABX). All a person needs to remember is one number and with that they will get hold of you at home, on the move, or in the office. To them it will always seem like you’re at your desk throughout the working day.

These systems usually start at around £18,000 to £20,000 and are on top of your normal PABX costs. Additional add-ons include an auto-attendant, a voice recognition system that recognises names and departments and acts as a virtual switchboard, so your customer only has to remember one number per organisation, and single voicemails. There’s also call screening which takes the name of the caller and asks you if you would like to accept a call from Mr X before it routes the call through to you. “The advantage in terms of security is that nobody needs to know the number you’re on, and that includes your mobile phone number, or your home phone number,” adds Tony Norman.

Paul Welham, MD of Telephonetics is a real evangelist of ‘follow me’ systems. “One of the real advantages is not having to know what number you’re on, we worked with the Royal Marsden hospital to build its system. The hospital had issued all staff with cordless phones, so they could wander the hospital and receive calls, but when they needed to call colleagues they needed to know the number, so we added an auto-attendant system so all they had to do was dial and ask for the person and the system would find them wherever they were.”

But Welham also points out that the system isn’t just limited to the UK. “It’s ideal for outsourcing. Cap Gemini has a global telephone network which means it can get all calls to one number – regardless of whether they’re in London, Paris or New York. The advantage is flexibility: you can appear to be a bigger company than you actually are.”

WORKGROUP SOFTWARE

It’s now possible to buy or rent software that allows you to work together in work groups and share files and information wherever you are; at home, on the road in an internet café or in the office. The software is either based on your system or can be used as an internet application and can be set up quickly to build formal or informal work groups on a project-by-project basis and include external customers as well as internal users. Typical costs start at £5 to £30 per user per month.

AVOIDING THE PITFALLS

It’s useful to have standards when it comes to hotdesking. A recent foray to a hotdesked FTSE technology company nearly ended in tears when the harassed executive complained he couldn’t do a conference call because the phones were different from those in his branch office. He managed in the end by getting someone else with a normal phone to conference him instead. Microsoft’s Word spellchecker still doesn’t acknowledge hotdesking as word. Perhaps it’s trying to tell us something.

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