18 November 2021

Hot desking or flexible working? DAWE pilot exposes hybrid work model tensions

| Ian Bushnell
Join the conversation

CQ2 in the CBD will be the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s new headquarters. Image: Amalgamated Property Group.

Friction at one of the federal government’s major departments over a flexible seating plan highlights some of the challenges in adjusting to the new ways of working that have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Agriculture Water and Environment’s pilot plan for flexible seating arrangements and a booking system in combination with its flexible working policy has met resistance from staff, who say they first heard about it from the Public Sector Union.

The CPSU said that a survey of staff showed that the vast majority of respondents are very concerned about this arrangement referred to as hot desking.

It said 95 per cent of respondents did not agree with, or are unsure about, the introduction of the proposed seating and booking system in which staff would not have their own desk but have to book a workstation.

READ ALSO Evaluation gives tick to Australian Public Service workplace mental health program

Just over 70 per cent of those surveyed did not believe their feedback would be considered during the rollout.

“The Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment have tried to creep in hot desking under the cover of a lockdown, without any consultation with their staff,” CPSU National Deputy President Brooke Muscat said.

“Canberra has just come out of an extended lockdown and the department refuses to even consult on a policy that puts its workforce’s workplace health and safety at risk. Now is absolutely not the time to implement policies like this – there are complex WHS issues to work through first as staff return to offices.”

She said members had said they were disappointed by the lack of consultation and scared of the implications while still mid-pandemic.

Brooke Muscat

CPSU National Deputy President Brooke Muscat: DAWE has tried to creep in hot desking under the cover of a lockdown. Photo: CPSU.

A Department spokesperson denied it was introducing hot desking and said its flexible seating arrangements would provide staff with more choice and individual control about how and where they work.

“It creates an opportunity for staff to use spaces differently to support the way they are actually working and will allow the department to use its resources more efficiently,” the spokesperson said.

DAWE, the spokesperson said, was consulting extensively with staff in accordance with the department’s Enterprise Agreement and has included the CPSU.

The new arrangements also reflected the workforce’s changing expectations of new ways of working by removing the traditional emphasis on location, the spokesperson said.

“Aligned with our flexible working policy, these arrangements enable staff to work within departmental buildings or virtually, meaning that people will not need a desk in the office every day,” the spokespersons said.

“Flexible seating practices are already in place in a number of APS agencies and we are taking their lessons learnt into account in planning our pilot.”

All arrangements would comply with SafeWork Australia protocols for providing a COVID-19 safe work environment for staff and appropriate arrangements would be made for staff with WHS equipment and other adjustments.

The DAWE pilot is similar to arrangements in the new ACT Government buildings that operate at about 80 per cent capacity, with a number of staff working from home for at least some of the week.

The new offices accommodate about 3000 staff, but has only 2500 workstations as part of the adoption of activity-based working which allocates eight workstations for every 10 staff, presuming that at any time on any given day, a proportion of the workforce will not be in the office.

Staff, many of whom may be working some of the time from home, are not allocated workstations except where there is a clear need identified and need to book a desk.

The government is paying a company $700,000 to implement a digital wayfinding system that will allow staff to manage desk and room bookings as well as provide data on how the buildings are being used.

DAWE is paying almost $850,000 for a range of services to do with the pilot.

Many government agencies are moving to this hybrid model and adjusting their floorplans, fitouts and staff management policies.

The DAWE pilot is in preparation for Canberra staff moving into a new building in the Canberra CBD next year – Civic Quarter 2 or CQ2 – being developed by Amalgamated Property Group.

The spokesperson said the move from the Marcus Clarke Street and London Circuit buildings to CQ2 on the corner of Northbourne Avenue and Cooyong Street would likely take place in the third quarter of 2022.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

A better idea would be to start at the top with hot desking. Let the executives and decision makers try it first. They can “hot office” which will mean they can have say 20-30% less offices. If they all come in at once the ones that didn’t get an office can work in the spare open plan pig pens sorry cubicles.

If they think it’s a good idea they can then inflict it on their staff once they hve ironed out the bugs.

There was an interesting study that compared people in offices and people in cubicles. They gave each study participant a problem to solve and monitored productivity and stress. The cubicles were less productive and more stressed.

They measured how long participants spent trying to solve essentially unsolvable problems. The cubicle people spent longer trying to solve them, shifted around more and had higher heart rates.

I recall when we moved to new cubicles that had only low dividers. The boss claimed it would reduce noise and interruptions because we’d be more conscious of others. In fact it made zero difference to behaviour and thus increased both.

I prefer the term pig pens.

Every study done into hot-desking has shown a significant drop in productivity and worker satisfaction, and yet most departments try to implement it because it cuts costs which make the executives look good. Departments have tried hot-desking for decades now, and it never works.
It also doesn’t factor in things such as ergonomics. I (at great cost to the department) had my desk adjusted specifically by an OT, meaning that if I am to share a desk or be expected to move, that desk also needs to be adjusted and signed off on to meet WHS legislation.

What I don’t get is that all these departments pushing for AWB are “heavily encouraging” staff to return to offices, when quite a number would be satisfied to continue working from home.
Fulltime WFH needs to be accepted by more departments unless your role specifically requires face-to-face meetings. My stats alone show a 25% productivity increase working from home, and I’m much happier not having to get up 2 hours early to deal with traffic. I’m also saving around $100 a week on fuel/parking.

Steve Dawson1:06 pm 20 Nov 21

This all started on the fifth floor of Marcus Clarke in 2018 as a trial just before I retired. Hot desking, cleaning the desks sometimes before and after use with sanitiser. Logging in with the tablets assigned to you that you stored in your locker. Sections of people spread all over the fifth floor and team cohesion was non-existent. Occasional squabbles over teams trying to sit together and SES staff wandering around trying to find people in a hurry. This was about office space and dollars and nothing to do with efficiency. Part-timers struggled to get a desk. The consultancy for this had a field day at great expense to the Department. Who ever trotted out this dodgy work place model should be shown the door.

I haven’t seen how it might work with a booking system (ie – how far in advance are you allowed to book) but the biggest drawback to me in ABW is that it completely favours people who like to (or more importantly are able to) start earlier. Some desks are always going to be better than others and people who need to drop off kids at school and stuff are always going to get lumped with the desks next to the photocopier

The booking system if anything like the one where my wife works would overcome that issue.

Not that I like the idea though.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.