Special Report on Business Computing: 'Hot-desking' may be the way forward: Some companies are changing their structures, with results affecting the future of office organisation. Tim Bowler reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
OFFICES are undergoing a gradual revolution. The old statusbased workplace, complete with managers sitting behind huge desks in their own separate rooms and everyone working from nine- to-five, Monday to Friday, is slowly on the way out.

The twin driving forces behind this re-think of the office are the increasing sophistication of electronic technology, which allows more of us to work from home, and a shift in corporate culture regarding the very purpose of the office itself.

With the recession forcing companies to cut costs where they can, firms have taken a long and serious look at the office. In many corporations, the office is now seen much like another production plant; the only difference being that its 'products' are not widgets but information.

The companies at the forefront of this lateral shift in thinking are those in the computer industry. One such, Digital, recently radically re-designed one of its offices in Basingstoke, Hampshire. The building had been accidentally gutted by fire in 1990. Fortunately nobody had been hurt, but Digital took the opportunity to try out a new style of office design.

The company's first step was to concentrate on designing an office based on needs rather than on status. That meant no separate offices for managers, hitherto allocated as a reward for promotion. Digital began to rank employees on a need-to-use basis. No longer would senior managers always get the seats nearest windows. Instead, the secretarial staff won out. After all, in any office, it is the secretaries who are destined to spend the longest periods cooped up inside the building.

Another idea taken up by Digital, IBM and others has been that of 'hot-desking'. In effect, it means desk-sharing, and it significantly increases the number of workers who can be based in any given office - with obvious cost and space-savings.

IBM, for instance, will have 1,000 of its marketing and services staff in such offices by the end of the year. Hotdesking has enabled the company to shut down four of its offices around London, and move everyone into a a fifth - new - building.

A desk is increasingly being seen as a waste of valuable and costly floor space. Many company surveys suggest that on average desks are only occupied by their occupants between 40 and 50 per cent of the working day. This is not due to absenteeism of epidemic proportions, but because many jobs require people to be out of the office for much of the time. Given this, there seems little point in giving everyone permanent desks.

Hot-desking works because of the increasing portability of computers. These days many managers have their own personal laptops, which can be plugged in almost anywhere.

So in the office of the (not so distant) future, you will ideally come to work with your own personal lap-top computer. You will own a storage drawer at your workplace, but that's about it. The desk will have changed too. Instead of umpteen square feet of solid oak, it will be a plain plank, with what is called 'good trunking capability'. All this means is that there is somewhere handy to run all the computer cables. You will plug in your computer and get to work.

Computerised telephone and fax systems are coming, which are being used by the likes of IBM and others, which automatically switch your personal phone or fax extension to the telephone/fax nearest to you. This does away with the present need to hand out a bewildering variety of differing extension numbers to your business contacts.

Should you choose to go home, work will of course travel with you. The lap-top can be plugged into your company system via a modem. Finally, your home fax and mobile phone mean that you can always be at the service of your employer. Depending on your position in a company, this may be heaven or hell, but so far few firms have taken things to this extent.

One main reason why they have not is because of the problem of managing someone who works from home. In the past, an employee might have been judged more on input, such as whether he or she turned up on time. This is now having to change to a view based on output, that is, what actually gets done.

Flexible working practices, including remote working from home by a percentage of employees, means a manager must do away with the old idea that 'if I can't see you, you're not working'.

Yet the move to the broad sunlit uplands of a glorious flexible corporate feature has not been without its problems. A few years ago it was hoped the rush-hours in our larger cities might become less crowded affairs, as more of us merely plugged in the lap-tops on our kitchen tables to begin the day's work. A new word was coined for such working at home - teleworking. But, for all the razzamatazz, it has not really taken off.

There are two problems: the first is companies' inherent unwillingness to trust their staff to work when they are out of sight of the office - or perhaps, to put it more fairly, to remain as highly motivated when on their own. Second, of equal importance, there is the problem of social isolation and the realisation that social contact forms an important part of office life.

It is interesting to note that British Telecom, one of the companies that has embraced teleworking, is now planning to instal videophones to help stop some of its home-based staff getting too lonely.

Given current trends in office technology and organisation, it seems that the office of the future will see more flexible working practices than we encounter at the moment. But many executives are going to remain sceptical about the need for changes until they can see a difference where it really matters - their performance and the firm's profitability.

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