Hotdesking experiment week 1

This was week 1 of our 8-week hotdesking/mobility experiment. Hotdesking at its most anarchic means that people do not have an assigned desk but take any desk or workspace that is available. Often there are fewer hot-desks than people based in that workplace. 1:2 is an often quoted ratio. This allows for vacation, sickness, people out on client sites or whatever. It also means a reduction in corporate real estate costs as the amount of space needed to house people can be reduced. Hotdesking is variously defined, but for our purposes it means:

a) People participating (12/300) clear their assigned desks of all their stuff
b) A notice is put on the desk saying 'This is a hotdesk' and each of the 12 desks is numbered and a floor map showing the location of each of the numbered desks is given to the participants.
c) Cards numbered 1 – 12 are put in a hat on the reception desk.
d) Participants 'Simply go to the front desk and pick a number out of the hat; that will be your hot desk for the day. Return the number at the end of the day. Repeat the following day.'

We didn't go into this cold-turkey. We had several meetings working out how we would do this and what we would need, beyond the volunteers, to make it effective. It's involved the IT team, the Office Services Team, the Telecomms Team, and the Finance Team. But now all desks are equipped with a standard set of kit, two boxes to store stuff have been allocated per person and storage space has been provided, all participants have a softphone on their laptops, and we know what code we can charge our desk-clearing and weekly check-in meetings to.

We weren't actually hotdesking in Week 1. It was a 'Clear your desk' week – which for 3 of the participants was the value in joining the experiment. One sent me a photo after 4 hours of intense desk clearing with the triumphant comment that he could now see a small piece of the actual desktop. (I must ask him what he did with the bright blue fur bean bag he kept under the desk).

Another was coming in over the weekend to clear as she has 'stuff spread out over several locations'. In case people didn't know on what 'clear your desk means' I sent out a tip sheet on this. (See July's tool of the month). In previous desk clearing events I've been involved with I've suggested people look at the very funny George Carlin piece on Stuff. There's a much more sobering piece on stuff – related to sustainability and the cradle to cradle concept via The Story of Stuff Project.

We're not the only ones experimenting with hotdesking: KPMG is one and we're fully aware that it's not all going to be roses for all the well documented reasons. But our purpose is to:

  • Push the boundaries of our rather traditional workplace
  • Gather information that we can talk with our clients about
  • Test our own thinking about hotdesking, mobile working and what it means to designers and users.
  • We want to know whether this form of working augments interactions, facilitates connections, and gives us usable insights or leads to innovative products/services.

So week 1 has not been about hotdesking but preparing to hotdesk. Each participant has to clear his/her desk putting all their stuff into two moving crates – in our case medium Fedex boxes – as if they were moving offices. (The two crate equivalent is the standard allowance, in my experience, for people moving from assigned seating to mobile working in new space). The things which don't fit into the two crates have to be taken home or disposed of.

Over the preparation week various questions arose:
Personalization of space: Some people want to be able to personalize their space with a photo or something, even for a day. Others want to toss everything in a backpack and be totally free of anything stored and be nomadic. (See my blog on office as backpack).

Is this preference or job content or both? In one office the personalization thing was addressed by each person having a small wall mounted Acrylic display shelf in the coffee area and putting the personal item(s) on display in that. It was a kind of office photo wall without the photos.

Finding people: One person's manager who was in favor of supporting his participation but wanted to know how to find him if necessary, and whether he could drop out if it proved unworkable. The question of finding people comes up a lot in my experience, but can be helped by technology – instant messaging, hoteling software, and now indoor positioning systems (IPS).

The desks and equipment: some of the 12 desks are standing and some are seated. We agreed that we would take whatever desk we got from the hat and try it out. Some people may need two monitors or other special equipment. In fact, it was on the desk/equipment question that two people decided to drop out (originally we had 15 volunteers). The first dropped out because he has specialized equipment which would take too long to set up each day. (He sent a photo of the spaghetti of cabling he would have to contend with). The second because she is working with large trays of physical samples and it would be too difficult to keep moving them.

So both these drop-outs are work-content related. Is it feasible then that workplace designers go for a 'one size fits all' or should they yield to preference and job content? Workplace Evolutionaries is currently running a good debate on lawyers and offices related to this question.

Team based working: A third person dropped out because he has just been asked to set up a team for a new project. He didn't feel he could hotdesk in different locations each day whilst getting the new team established and working. One of the things we're hoping to find out is the effect hotdesking has on team working and we will be able to do this with the more established teams.

Are they working? Not asked but usually in the back of managers' minds is the question how will I know the person is working if I can't see them regularly. There's a useful article here on this topic. I've learned that in many cases it is easier to know what mobile workers are doing than office based because managers and employees are making more effort to stay in touch via various methods than they might being in the office and co-located.

So week 2 – the actual hotdesking – begins with 12 people. Over the coming weeks we're planning to reduce the number of desks available to participants, and to enable off-site working. Each week we're having a check in with a specific focus for the discussion. This week's will be: What do you need to have with you to be mobile? What does it feel like to plug and unplug equipment? How long does it take? How do you locate things in a new space e.g. printers?

It's good to be experimenting too few workplaces actively encourage it. What have you been able to experiment with in your office? Let me know.