By Martin Atkinson, Managing Director of PiMS Workspacewww.pimsworkspace.com

The concept of desk sharing or ‘hot-desking’ is just as contentious now as it was 20 years ago. Human beings are naturally territorial creatures, with a powerful instinct to protect our personal habitat. But while most of us appreciate having our own designated space at work, the business case for sharing is often very strong. In traditional offices with assigned desks, occupancy rarely rises above 60 per cent, resulting in budget-wasting under utilisation.

Graduates and those entering employment for the first time are likely to find it much easier to adapt to desk sharing — many young workers actively seek flexible working practices like these. The greater freedom to work anywhere may be viewed as a perk of the job, as long as you can guarantee access to the right kind of facility for getting the work done.

Challenging a sense of workstation ownership will be much harder amongst employees with a long history of old-school office-based employment, so manage the change carefully to avoid resistance. Here are some key points to remember when implementing a desk sharing strategy:

Understand the Basics

Begin by gaining an accurate picture of exactly how and where staff work, how they interact within their department and other departments, when and why they need to be at their desk. Communicate your plans and the reasons behind them. Consult with staff to incorporate their ideas and promote the potential benefits. Staff feedback might be invaluable in gaining cooperation and highlighting genuine problems that you might have overlooked. Allocate a spokesperson to liaise between management and staff if necessary.

Keep it Clear

The first step to making a desk sharing strategy work is a clear desk policy. Each desk top should be cleared of all items other than the keyboard, mouse, phone and essential information (fire escape routes, internal extension lists etc) whenever it’s not in use. You will need to discourage any personalisation, so provide a welcoming interior with plants and pictures to compensate. Most importantly staff should be made aware that when leaving the office, any unsecured, sensitive or personal information should not be left on desk tops, to reduce the opportunity for security breaches, fraud and identity theft.

Provide Adaptable Workstations

Allow staff to alter their environment to suit individual needs, by investing in ergonomic furniture. If possible, mount the monitor on an adjustable arm to keep it off the desktop working area. This means it can be positioned at the optimum height and distance away from the user. Matching the workplace to the comfort needs of workers is the best way to reduce the likelihood of physical problems which affect productivity and attendance (not to mention compensation claims). By making sure every workstation provides the same level of comfort you will avoid health-related arguments for sitting at the same favourite desk.

Improve Storage

A cluttered desktop is a symptom of poorly organised storage. The user holds files and paperwork on their desk because it’s easier than having to source data for daily tasks. Create an anchor for desk-sharers who feel like they’ve been set adrift, with a centralised bank of storage lockers for each employee that can be positioned next to a workstation when needed. By making shared reference materials easier for everyone to access you will also reduce duplication and increase the chances of files being returned promptly.

Create a Break-Out Zone

Multi-purpose break-out areas are becoming an increasingly popular way of optimising use of space and creating an important social hub. As well as providing a place for informal meetings, lunch breaks and general interaction, they guarantee a temporary home to nomadic desk sharing workers during busy times.

Avoid Isolation

Feelings of isolation from colleagues and managers can be a problem for geographically dispersed teams. If desk sharing is not implemented properly, as with all flexible working practices, it can negatively affect communication. Try to offer access to desks within the employee’s own team area whenever possible, to fight feelings of disenfranchisement or invisibility.

Invest in Flexible Technology

People will need to log in to their own extension to answer direct calls or pick up messages anywhere. A central system will allow for a consistent company image (such as phone number) as well as keeping costs down. Laptop computers are generally preferable to PCs in a desk-sharing environment, but if that isn’t possible, make sure all desk-sharing workers have quick and easy access to the systems, knowledge bases and other resources they need, wherever they are.

Keep the Noise Down

Noisy neighbours are often a cause of irritation — especially as the trend for open plan offices spreads - and changing personnel in desk sharing environments can add to the problem. Carpeted floors and sound-absorbing upholstered barriers can help to minimise noise levels.

Lastly, but by no means least, remember a flexible working practice must be exactly that. Monitor the progress of your nomadic staff and be prepared to make changes if necessary to maximise productivity, workflow and morale.

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