Hot-desking, where employees don’t have a fixed desk in an office, is a key part of organisational preferences for cheaper, more flexible workplaces. As more employees work from home, organisations find they can downsize their offices to accommodate only those employees who are on site every day.
According to Franklin Becker, a social psychologist at Cornell University, the idea came from the navy. On a ship there are far fewer bunks than there are sailors. When a seaman ended his shift he would get into a bed that has just been vacated, and would still be warm. In the US the term is not thought very appealing and the practice is increasingly referred to as “hotelling”.
Open-plan is cheaper
Open plan offices are popular with managers who want to cut costs, but also because we have convinced ourselves that is essential to be able to see each other. Where there are walls, they are all made of glass, so there is nowhere to hide. If you want a private conversation at work, your best bet is to take it to a public place – the stairwell or kitchen – than in the goldfish bowl in the office.
There’s a startling gap between our dreams of the “perfect office” and the reality, with dream offices variously envisaged as everything from a café table in an Italian square, to a garden room with a view of a waterfall.
Alexi Marmot is Professor of Facility and Environment Management and Head of the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies and has a lot to say about open plan offices. She points out that, whilst organisations tend to cite better communication, collaboration and supervision, open plan offices offer great economic gains – are generally cheaper to construct – requiring fewer walls, less servicing, and simpler environmental controls and they enable organisations to accommodate more people more efficiently.
This may be fine for routine work but can be controversial where work is confidential or privacy for conversation is needed. The most frequent criticism from those working in open plan offices is that they are noisy and disturbing but, says Alexi, noise is partly a function of how you interpret sound: “It’s possible for people to get into a zone of concentration in extremely noisy environments. Working in complete quiet can also be a problem.”
Places for people
There seems to be a paradox as people, both managers and staff, often say they like the “vibrant”, “buzzy” atmosphere of their office, whilst complaining that they can’t concentrate there and retreating to the coffee shop or home. The idea that lively, quirky offices are conducive to creativity is open to debate. Quiet and noisy people, introverts and extroverts are all creative, so we need to consider individual traits rather than stereotypes.
Most office buildings are designed not for occupiers, but for the market, so cannot necessarily be tailored to specific users’ needs. The margins on most architectural work make it difficult to do new research or even to spend time reading the research that exists.
Alexi points to the trend towards “activity-based working”, which means people move to places appropriate to the work that they’re doing. Research suggests that the ‘perfect office’ often starts with where it is and how you reach it. Daylight and a view, especially of nature, are important, along with environmental comfort and good IT support.
The best workplaces, however, as voted for by users, consistently demonstrate more abstract values such as trust, respect and fairness. These are a function of organisational culture but the physical space can also express these values.