Because I live the London aspiring-middle-class dream, which means paying exorbitant rent for a box in a leafy suburb in Zone 6, I commute to work. I stand on a train for twenty-five minutes, and then I stand on a bus for fifteen minutes. I am, indeed, becoming a standing expert – carving out space in a sea of sleepy zombies, stoutly ignoring loud phone conversations, and marvelling at how so many screens can captivate so many people (while I smugly read my Kindle Paperwhite).
I’ve become conditioned to cramped commuting. It may be painful at the time, assuming of course you manage to board the train and it does actually take you to the advertised destination and the advertised time, which is hardly guaranteed on my particular line. But at least I know that when I’m in my office I have a place and a purpose (stop sniggering at the back, there). I can make a nice cup of tea, maybe have a sneaky biscuit, and settle in for a productive day of meetings and e-mails, and people won’t elbow me or shout “CAN YOU MOVE DOWN PLEASE!” in my ear-drum. I may not be guaranteed personal space on the train or on the bus, but at least I can in the office.
Except I can’t. Because my office employs “hot-desking”. Which means that having missed out on sitting on the train, and on the bus, I’m not even guaranteed to plonk my posterior down in my own workplace.
For those unfamiliar with hot-desking, those unbelievably fortunate people with desks covered with photos of their spouses and name plaques proudly placed on top of monitors, the set-up is that the office deliberately contains fewer desks than people who work there. Already it sounds like one of Baldrick’s ‘cunning plans’ but it gets even better – you are expected, nay encouraged, to sit in different places every day. Because the desks are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis, your arrival at work is a lottery, where that colleague who bellows nonsensical inanities down the phone every thirty minutes could be your closest companion. This may sound like a slight inconvenience, but it also means that because you aren’t guaranteed to sit in the same place from day, you have to pack up your office life every night, and unpack it every morning, storing your paraphernalia in little lockers that are sometimes five minutes’ walk away from the desks.
It’s like being hired at 9 and fired at 5, every day of your career.
Proponents of hot-desking, usually to be found in “Facilities” who have somehow managed to agree with the powers that bw that their desks should be reserved, say that because our workforce is mobile (i.e. we have smartphones and laptops) we shouldn’t need a consistent place to work, meaning that people can work equally well from home or from Homebase, and companies can trim office space selfishly allocated to their employees and save money. I agree whole-heartedly with the concept of the mobile workforce – I will be the first to suggest that in an age where desktops are fast becoming antiquated paperweights, we should be breaking from the shackles of the office and embracing opportunities to work where we can make the most impact (which may well be from our “home office”, or from the coffee shop around the corner).
But the problem is that far too often the culture that is required to maximise flexible working just isn’t embedded into the organisation. Few companies will truly tell their employees that they can work wherever they like, whenever they like, as long as they get the work done (Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer famously instructed her colleagues to do the opposite). Managers are too scared of lost productivity and reduced line-of-sight, not to say anything about the swathes of expensive boardrooms sitting unused and unloved. So employees are allowed, graciously, to work one or maybe two days from home, but other than that they must troop in on their uncomfortable commutes and fight like tigers for territory.
On our intranet, a question was raised about people who regularly can only arrive at 9.30am because of personal commitments, only to find all desks are taken. The answer simply stated “teams are expected to sort this for themselves”. Very useful, very employee-centric. Hot-desking needs to die – either promote remote-working from the ground up with properly designed offices that cater for people who fly in and fly out, or provide enough desks for your people. I find it amazing that organisations can think that it does anything other than cause confusion and uncertainty, when employees, after their long commutes, just want somewhere to sit down.
Is that too much to ask?