Date posted: 12/03/2018 4 min read

Desk-sharing hits productivity

Hot-desking and activity-based work may be the new corporate standard, but their boosters have ignored the damage they do to productivity.

In Brief

  • A growing number of businesses plan to introduce shared workspaces.
  • While an effective cost-cutter, shared workspaces can inhibit employee productivity.
  • Workplace design should support both productivity and employee wellbeing through a nuanced approach.

A recent survey of 400 multinational corporations found that two-thirds plan to implement shared desk workplaces by 2020. But research shows these arrangements have a range of outcomes, many of which are negative.

A recently published study of 1,000 Australian employees found that shared-desk environments created a number of problems. These include increased distrust, distractions, uncooperative behaviour and negative relationships. On top of this, there is a perception of less support from supervisors.

Another study shows that shared-desk environments can lead to employee marginalisation, indifference and inattention to co-workers, loss of identity and decreased organisational commitment.

These studies and more should sound a cautionary note about shared-desk arrangements.

Changing workspaces

Office spaces are changing rapidly thanks to remote work, technology and the need to innovate. But cost is also a big factor.

Office space typically is the second biggest cost for organisations. And some research suggests that up to 40% of office space is vacant at any one time.

The cost of offices is one of the drivers of shared-desk work arrangements, which fall into two categories: hot-desking and activity-based working. By using these arrangements, an employer can fit more workers into an existing space and more efficiently use the available space.

Hot-desking is where employees either share a desk with others or are not assigned a permanent desk and must find one when needed. Hot-desking arose as a strategy to save on space and cater to the needs of employees who largely work outside the office.

Activity-based work, by contrast, assumes all employees work flexibly and will seek out a range of different spaces to undertake different tasks. As such, these workspaces provide a range of work settings for different types of activities, such as meetings, collaboration, private work, creativity and concentration. Employees are expected to switch between these settings as necessary.

Proponents of activity-based work claim that cost is not a major driver of its uptake. Rather, companies have implemented it to attract and retain talent, and increase collaboration and innovation, employee wellbeing and sustainability.

But plenty of research shows there are negative effects of shared-desk workplaces which potentially outweigh the benefits.

Diving into the research

Some studies suggest that having a permanent desk may not be as important as the layout of the office or the freedom to personalise spaces.

But employees without assigned desks complain of desk shortages, difficulty finding colleagues, wasted time and limited ability to personalise their space. And, as noted earlier, hot-desking has been found to result in higher levels of distrust, fewer co-worker friendships and decreased perceptions of supervisory support.

Meanwhile, research on activity-based work has shown that it is likely to work best for employees who see themselves as mobile and independent, and who have largely self-contained work processes. For those who work well in these environments, the ability to select a workstation or area based on individual needs and preferences is seen as a positive. Another positive is the ability to avoid unwanted social interaction when necessary by working in a quiet space, for example.

However, the flipside of activity-based work is situations in which it is hard to find privacy or quiet to concentrate. Other research shows that employees rarely, if ever, switch between work settings. While those who did switch workstations were more satisfied, there were strong objections among those who didn’t.

CA ANZ Library: Is there a future for the office?

Only 53% of UK employees believe their workspace design encourages productivity. This online journal by Chris Maxwell looks at various approaches to changing the work environment to being more people-friendly and subsequently more productive.

Activity-based work can also have an impact on the social dynamic in the workplace, creating tensions between those who use certain spaces regularly, and those who don’t. Lastly, it can create additional work, as workers must find and set up a workspace, move between locations, and then remove everything at the end of the day.

So while hot-desking and activity-based work are touted as increasing communication, collaboration and efficiency, research shows there are other outcomes as well. While these environments can work well for some employees – those who are highly mobile and autonomous, for instance – research shows that many employees do not work well in these environments.

A one-size-fits-all solution is unlikely to succeed. Implementing one may have negative impacts on the organisation as well as workers. Employers need to accommodate differences in individual employees and in the type of work they undertake. Additionally, research shows that management style, as well as social and cultural factors, will have a significant impact on the success of activity-based workplaces.

Workplaces should support both wellbeing and productivity. This requires a more nuanced approach.

Focusing on focus

Many advocates of shared-space arrangements argue that they make workspaces more productive. But studies on the work actually done in offices suggest the opposite – that shared-space arrangements can often reduce productivity.

One reason is that many workers spend most of their time on tasks that require concentration. A 2012 study by global design firm Gensler, based on surveys of 90,000 people, found that most office workers spent half their day or more in ‘focus’ mode. This is what you do when you work through a contract, check a spreadsheet, write a memo for your board, or have a phone conversation with a team member. Compared with other types of work (the Gensler study contrasted it with ‘collaborating, learning and socialising’) this sort of work takes up the most time for almost everyone from C-suite executives to marketing interns. It’s also rated by most people as their most important work.

Fighting interruption

Focus work requires workers to immerse themselves in the task in front of them, a state that renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed a state of ‘flow’. Researchers have calculated that once interrupted, it can take from 10–25 minutes to regain it. With an interruption every 15 minutes in a busy open plan workspace, you may never achieve your most productive, immersed state.

Most people seem to intuitively understand this. A 2016 global study by Oxford Economics of 1,200 employees and executives found they craved one thing from their offices more than any other: the ability to focus on work without interruptions.

Oxford found nearly two-thirds of executives believed employees had the tools they needed to deal with distractions at work. But less than half of employees agreed. Most seemed to be losing the battle against interruption. 

Researcher Libby Sander reports an employee in a workplace study remarking they were interrupted 80 times in one morning. “The interruptions had included an impromptu birthday morning tea in the workstations a few feet away, two colleagues having a stand-up argument, and another employee conducting a loud conference call on speaker phone in the open work area,” she says.

Employee responses to the question: Which of the following are most important to you in your work environment?

So how do people who need to focus deal with shared-space arrangements? Research suggests many people attempt to hack their workspaces, to work around the system and create the private and predictable environments that encourage focus work. “People often get to the office early, or stay late, or set out on a vigilant hunt for a quiet corner,” says a 2016 report from office furniture group Haworth, citing a slew of psychological studies.

And of course, some decide to spend more time working from home.

Collaboration happens everywhere

The Haworth study, like the Gensler study before it, found that good collaboration typically relies on a great deal of focus work. “Collaboration fails to achieve its promise when focus work is compromised in pursuit of group efforts,” it said.

But Gensler’s 2012 study also makes an observation seldom heard in discussions of workspaces: People can collaborate effectively almost anywhere, from a dedicated ‘innovation space’ to a patch of open lawn. “The most critical factor in collaboration is who you’re collaborating with, not where,” it notes. “Space plays a role, but a secondary one.”

Related: Five daily ways to practise mindfulness at work

Whether it’s on the train or at your desk, mindfulness expert Sarah Salas shows how taking regular daily short breaks for mindfulness practice can lower stress and help you cope better.

David Walker is the editor of Acuity magazine.

Libby Sander is assistant professor of organisational behaviour in the Bond Business School at Bond University, and the co-author of the 2017 book Work in the 21st Century: How do I Log On? This article originally appeared at The Conversation.