Activity-based work: hot-desking without the desk?


Activity-based work: hot-desking without the desk?

Activity-based working (work teams that don’t have allocated work stations) has recently joined the list of HR buzz terms. What is it, how does it work, and what are the issues that employers need to be aware of?


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Activity-based working (work teams that don’t have allocated work stations) has recently joined the list of HR buzz terms. What is it, how does it work, and what are the issues that employers need to be aware of?
Activity-based work versus hot-desking
Most people are familiar with the term ‘hot-desking’, which refers to a limited number of work stations each being shared by more than one employee. Activity-based work takes the concept a step further.
It could be argued that hot-desking is motivated as much by cost and space-saving as anything else. Activity-based work, however, aims to improve team collaboration as well. It removes hierarchical structures from the workplace as much as possible and, ideally, seeks to provide people with almost complete freedom as to how, when and where they work. By removing ‘status’ items such as individual offices and work stations of different sizes and positions, it may also reduce individual competitiveness between employees, focusing instead on collaboration.
How it works
Activity-based work means that there are no assigned work stations for anyone, including no private offices for senior managers. Sections of the workplace may however be allocated for particular work activities. There may be ‘hubs’ for small groups and individuals and larger ‘clubs’ for more collaborative activities such as meetings and brainstorming sessions. An employee arriving at work may set up anywhere in the designated area, instead of at a particular spot.
Technology such as cloud computing and the increased capabilities of mobile devices are increasing the opportunities for such ‘unstructured’ arrangements.
Advocates of activity-based work have claimed that it typically reduces the amount of office space required by about 30%, given that more than one-half the work stations in a typical office are unoccupied at any given time. It is also claimed to significantly reduce the amount of paper used in a workplace.
To date, large organisations such as investment banks and management consultancies have been early adopters of activity-based work. An article in the West Australian newspaper named Macquarie Bank and the Commonwealth Bank as organisations that have begun using it in parts of their business in Australia.
Changes in management style required
An office environment lacking in hierarchy and status symbols may come as a shock to some managers and employees, so attention to training and education on how to make it work best may be required, and a supportive culture is essential.
Some managers may be used to the ‘bums on seats’ and ‘if I can’t see them they are probably not working’ approach to managing. However, it is outcomes and results that matter, not work processes or hours completed. A ‘coaching’ approach to management rather than a supervisory one will be required.
Social cohesion is another issue that may require attention. Some employees may feel a loss of status or sense of ownership by no longer having their personal office space. It may help to allow them to ‘personalise’ other things, such as their laptop sleeves and lockers, and providing opportunities to ‘decorate’ office walls, etc. Consultation with employees about their needs and preferences before adopting the new arrangements is strongly recommended.
Training and education should be provided to both employees (how to best use the new arrangements) and managers (how to manage activity-based work, which may require some attitude changes).
OHS issues
An activity-based work setup is still a ‘workplace’ in the legal sense of the term, so the usual occupational health and safety obligations and duties of employers and employees continue to apply. However, with employees not having their own regular work stations, some additional issues may require attention:
  • If employees are using vacant work stations at random, they need to be familiar with the procedures for making adjustments to chairs, computer screens, distances, lighting, etc, to ensure they are ergonomically correct. Some form of checklist for employees to follow should be prepared and installed at each work location.
  • Similarly, if they are working remotely (eg from home), they will need to follow the same procedure, at least at the installation stage. If an employee regularly works from home, an OHS audit of the work environment is recommended.
  • ‘Club’ areas may need to be separated from ‘hub’ areas because the conversations that they generate may create excessive noise for people trying to work individually.
Precautions for using laptops
Laptops and some other mobile work devices have elevated and compressed keyboards and small display screens, with the result that they are not ergonomically perfect. A further potential problem is that the keyboard and screen cannot be physically separated, which may create issues with work posture. Overuse symptoms such as eye fatigue and musculoskeletal problems can therefore arise if they are not used carefully.
Prolonged use of devices such as tablet computers and smart phones can also create problems due to small print and screen sizes, and sometimes with finding a suitable and comfortable position that balances them with other work items that may be used simultaneously. The increased finger pressure required to type on a virtual keyboard on a hard screen (instead of on keys which ‘give’ as they’re pressed) has the potential to contribute to musculoskeletal injuries. In addition, tablets need to be propped up so that the user’s wrists are in a comfortable typing position or, if used lying flat, the user needs to lean over to look at the screen, which can lead to neck injury or neck fatigue.
Again, the issue is mainly one of user training. Employees should be shown how to position the devices and adjust their various settings (eg print size), and how to avoid glare and reflection from sunlight or office lighting. They should also be encouraged to take regular work breaks in the same way as they would if sitting behind a fixed computer screen for lengthy periods.
Further information
Consultants in workplace design and layout can provide assistance (for a fee) to organisations seeking to adopt activity-based work setups.
Source: Mike Toten, HR writer.
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