Ever on the lookout for differentiation, some resellers and integrators are adopting a way of working which has two radical effects on their business: one is to reduce their business costs and the other is to add a new string to their portfolio bow. It is hot desking, and some channel firms are finding that it is offering them dramatic cost benefits while they act as guinea pigs and demonstration sites for their clients.
The principle is simple: you have more employees than you have desks, on the assumption that most are going to be working away from the office most of the time. When a worker wants to spend a day or a week in the office, they book a desk.
The system has some obvious advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage is the reduced business overheads. Fewer desks means fewer offices to heat, less office space to rent and less services to provide. The disadvantages are mainly cultural ones. People like to have space which they ?own? and dislike having an impersonal desk which they have to clear completely before they go home. They want to feel part of the organisation and dislike feeling on the periphery.
Unipower Systems is an application development software house which adopted hot desking four months ago when it moved to new premises. Senior consultant Gary Grant says: ?I would thoroughly recommend it to other consultancies and we are considering adding it to our portfolio of services, although it is not within our core business.?
Grant says the main problems were technical difficulties with the telephone system. ?We wanted people just to register with the telephone switchboard from any desk, and for all their calls and voicemail to be re-routed to that extension, but it is not an easy thing to do. Perhaps it is the switchboard we bought, but it still requires some patching at the switchboard to make it happen.?
Otherwise, says Grant, the project to hot desk the company went smoothly, although it is still working through some of the side-effects. ?It has had less impact on the business and staff than we expected,? he says, ?and it has been accepted with far less fuss than anticipated.?
One thing Grant learned is that the whole organisation should, in theory, hot desk. ?There should not be any favourite desks or any people who are disadvantaged by hot desking,? he says. ?What this means is that, in theory at least, every desk and desk space in the organisation has to be exactly the same.
?There should be no advantage to certain corners or disadvantages to certain positions and everyone should be hot desking, even if they are based in the office most of the time.?
It is Grant?s belief that it is more difficult to implement hot desking if it?s just a small group of individuals who are unable to have a space to call their own. ?We planned our new office with a group of six or 10 desks which would be used for hot desking, but the way things worked out, almost every desk is a hot desking space.
?That means that they are all the same, even in terms of lighting, access to heat and door space, and they all have the same basic telephone and IT network links. Beyond that they are almost all temporary, and even permanent people can be moved around to make new teams if necessary,? Grant says.
Unipower does not currently have a formal desk booking system, although Grant does recommend one and expects it to be only a matter of time before one is implemented. ?We have 20 desks to house 30 people, and at the moment it works quite well enough by having a casual system of calling in a few days before the desk is required,? he says.
Most of Unipower?s executives are consultants working on other sites, and one trick to making hot desking work, says Grant, is to make sure that everyone feels that they are a close part of the office even if they are almost permanently based at a customer?s site or are on the other part of the work.
?We use mobile telephones a lot,? says Grant. And everyone has a laptop which can connect straight into our office server so all workers, wherever they are located, can feel that they are part of the office and join in email conversations and electronic group conferences.
?We anticipated that the cultural and emotional problems of feeling out of touch would make or break the project, so we went to great lengths to make sure that everyone could log into the office system and feel completely in touch at all times,? he continues.
Grant?s view is supported by Andrew Butterworth, who has recently joined Chase Technology Group from Ethan Adams as group sales director. He is responsible for sales staff across Chase Technology?s five companies and hot desking is part of his strategy. ?When you?ve got five disparate companies that all have to come together under a single roof, the whole sales function needs to be re-engineered, and structured hot desking is going to be an important plank of my strategy,? he says.
Chris Ellis, marketing manager at GPT Communication Systems, says telephone systems should be flexible enough to allow ?hot desking without tears?. He says: ?We have installed our Flexible Office package of communications solutions at Coopers & Lybrand and all its consultants and partners can now enjoy true hot desking. And because it supports ISDN, its users can also have multimedia facilities like desktop video conferencing.
Bart Francois, head of telecoms at Coopers & Lybrand, agrees. ?Flexible Office has brought dramatic changes to the traditional working environment, which has also meant that it is necessary for staff to be prepared and accept the accompanying shift in corporate culture,? he says.
But, as Francois agrees, most of the hot desking executives are consultants used to spending weeks or months based in their clients? offices, so there are few cultural difficulties. ?If we can provide our people with all the facilities they would normally enjoy in the office, wherever they are, then they have the necessary resources to deliver a first-class customer service without disrupting their working day.?
The company now has more than 2,000 consultants using the system, and Francois says it has made the partners and staff more responsible for their own working day, which has produced better results.
Certainly, technology is facilitating new working practices such as teleworking and hot desking, although there are occasional difficulties in installing a worker at the new station each morning. Sometimes it is the system logon and setting up the telephone system which takes a while, or it is the human side of working out who your neighbours are and where the nearest coffee point is.
Agreement to the new system is the first stage towards its acceptance, says Grant. ?It?s a big leap to persuade people that their desk is temporary and has to be shared, and they may be moved at a moment?s notice,? he says. A big step at Unipower was the decision to give every employee a filing cabinet on wheels, which is stored safely during the days or weeks they are working elsewhere.
?Some people keep personal mementoes like family photographs in their filing cabinet and the first thing they do when they arrive at their new desk is to create their own space,? says Grant.
Another solution is one adopted by consulting firm Cornwell Affiliates. MD Keith Cornwell describes it as the ?antidote to hot desking?. He says: ?With hot desking you have to scuttle to your storage space each morning to get your stuff and then scuttle back in the evening. Or rather, that?s what you should do. The reality is that people start leaving their stuff on their desks.
?Our solution is to combine the desk with the storage space. We have plug-in points so you can pull up a computer on a trolley to sit alongside, or if you have a portable you can just put it on the desk. That way people have their own patch and it?s secure, but it only occupies a fraction of the space.?
Grant says there is no need for employees who are based at one desk for more than a day to clear the desk every night. ?One has to strike a happy compromise,? he says. He adds that workers will form and reform in project team groups as dictated by the projects they are working on. ?It is extremely useful to be able to move people next to each other in work clusters when we need to.?
But if hot desking is badly managed it can cause severe problems among employees. One consultant says: ?We hated hot desking. The company thought that by giving us each a laptop, they had the right to tell us to use whichever desk we wanted, even if you were fairly permanently based in the office.
?It was all right if you arrived at the office early, but if you were late it was impossible to see which of the desks were being used because some people spread themselves around surrounding desks or did not clear their desks away properly. We felt demotivated and not part of the team.? This consultant now works for a firm which gives him a permanent desk even though he is out of the office for three or four days each week.
Chris Ridgewell, manager of flexible working at Mercury Communications, says: ?Flexible working and hot desking strategies must always be linked to organisational objectives which have to be understood at all levels. At first, once you embark on flexible working, employees need hand-holding and supervisors and managers have to learn new ways of managing their teams. This can be a steep learning curve.?
IBM?s Bedfont Lake site makes extensive use of hot desking and 1,000 staff operate in a space previously considered suitable for 600. But IBM is the first to agree that it doesn?t suit everyone, particularly those employees who are often on the road and crave contact with their colleagues.
Peter Wingrave, an IBM consultant, says: ?We took the principle one step further and created touchdown centres where sales people on the road can find desk space, hardware and software, and socialise with friends and colleagues.? He agrees it is important to ensure that workers who are not based in the main office feel part of the organisational structure.
The key to successful hot desking, he says, lies partly in making it as easy as possible for the employees to use different desks within the base office, but also in anticipating feelings of isolation in employees who are often based elsewhere.
With more organisations looking to reduce their overheads and improve efficiency, teleworking and hot desking are bound to increase in the next few years. Smart resellers and integrators should be able to sell the cultural systems and processes as well as the technical ones, and they will be well placed to sell more systems and applications as a result.
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