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

Ian Bushnell 18 November 2021 32

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.

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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.

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32 Responses to Hot desking or flexible working? DAWE pilot exposes hybrid work model tensions
Jilly Beans Jilly Beans 10:23 am 19 Nov 21

Last year, and the year before, we had hot desking. The bigest drawback is the tech- it's always so outdated and clunky that it struggles to cope.

Steve Herczeg Steve Herczeg 10:28 am 19 Nov 21

I can understand hot-desking for consultants who aren't 100% assigned to the Department, but for permanent employees it is ludicrous.

Humans are creatures of habit and tend to nest. They build up an environment in which they feel comfortable, and they can return to that place time after time and immediately relax into their habitat. Take that away and the productivity will drop.

Add to that the time spent retrieving your stuff from a locker, finding a desk, setting up that desk and preparing to begin work, then repeating in reverse at the end of the day. Say it takes 20 minutes all up. Multiply that by 10,000 employees and you've lost 416 man days for every 10,000 employees, every working day of the year.

And god forbid if you ever need to find someone from another team or floor.

NOTE: Oops, got my maths wrong, I divided by 24 hours instead of 8 hours for a working day. That makes it three times worse.

    Hannah Zurcher Hannah Zurcher 10:51 am 19 Nov 21

    I did the same math when I was at a workplace where hotdesking was compulsory (i.e. my boss forced us to sit in different desks). They could have added enough extra people that we wouldn't have been understaffed, if that time had been used for work.

    Matthew Pez Matthew Pez 12:13 pm 19 Nov 21

    Huh. This is actually a great argument against hot desking, I've never thought of it that way before.

Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 10:40 am 19 Nov 21

We moved to an "activity based work" building a few years ago. The communication around it from senior management was very poor when they prepared us for this transition. There was lots of resentment amongst staff.

But I have really liked it. As do most of my colleagues. I like the building, I like the flexibility, I like the new ways of collaborating it encourages.

Now I've been working from home since the start of the pandemic, I don't want to go back to the office full time though. And this ABW arrangement will make that easier too.

    Angela M J Brown Angela M J Brown 12:37 pm 19 Nov 21

    Lin Van Oevelen I hate hot desking, it is appallingly noisy, you spend your day getting technology to work and never enough desks

    Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 12:51 pm 19 Nov 21

    Angela M J Brown I never really minded noise at the office. Used to sit right next to a call centre when I started with this organisation. But after working from home I did find it very hard to concentrate at the office those few days I've been in.

    Checking and maintenance of monitors, cables and keyboards did leave a lot to be desired for.

    We usually had plenty of free desks. Only on the rare very busy day was I not able to find a desk near my team.

    Angela M J Brown Angela M J Brown 4:14 pm 19 Nov 21

    Lin Van Oevelen you were very lucky. There are not enough desks as they averaged for 70% of the workforce to be on site. Shame we have a lot of outside the city staff come in all the time. Not good for people with a disability either as adjusting chairs and screens etc can take a long time each day and often not to what is needed. Who carries a tape measure around with them.

Paul May Paul May 10:56 am 19 Nov 21

hot-desking has been demonstrated to drop productivity by approx 15%. So does an open-plan office. And so does allowing interruptions during work periods.

Do emails and accept phone calls only at the start and end of your morning and afternoon work periods.

Leanne Bodilly Leanne Bodilly 11:19 am 19 Nov 21

Peter, similar to your work

Anura Samara Anura Samara 11:28 am 19 Nov 21

True, working from home during lockdown proved that location is irrelevant. But if that’s the case, then a desk in a defined building is also irrelevant. One of the things that we were told on returning to the office is the social interaction is important - but that only applies if I’m near my own work team.

    Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 12:58 pm 19 Nov 21

    Anura Samara In one of the new ACT Gov buildings they did allocate certain areas to certain units, I believe. I think that's a good compromise. In our building only a couple of teams have an allocated "neighborhood" due to the nature of their work. Not my team but it was actually very rare for us not to be able to all find desks near each other.

    The activity based work arrangement made the transition to working from home a breeze for us. And it should allow for a voluntary continuation of that too. And then they can reduce the office space even more. I'd be happy with that strategy.

Simon Hiscock Simon Hiscock 11:32 am 19 Nov 21

This is the correct term

Wade Bermingham Wade Bermingham 12:34 pm 19 Nov 21

Wasnt this tried and declared a failure by heaps of places including the one that came up with it

Angela M J Brown Angela M J Brown 12:35 pm 19 Nov 21

It is no pilot, all the gov agencies are introducing it. Problem is it is a bacteria factory, there are never enough desks to go around so people have to work from kitchens, and it is so impersonal and noisy most staff hate it.

Cath Warden Cath Warden 12:37 pm 19 Nov 21

Jess Potter add this article to your submissions 😂

Tim Cole Tim Cole 1:33 pm 19 Nov 21

Any chance we can have someone other than bean counters running the show?

Heavs Heavs 2:59 pm 19 Nov 21

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

    JC JC 4:03 pm 19 Nov 21

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

    Not that I like the idea though.

Douglas Oliver Douglas Oliver 5:37 pm 19 Nov 21

At least they received some form of consultation for their proposal unlike our office that was designed as Flexible Working (aka hot desking) and we were forced to move into the new building….supposed savings in ICT infrastructure blew out and we are still suffering some 18 months later…..

Joanna K Heathen Joanna K Heathen 6:51 pm 19 Nov 21

Typical to spend hundreds of thousands on studies by consultants that just reinforce the obvious

Onelia Herriot Onelia Herriot 7:07 pm 19 Nov 21

I have spoken to a senior who said he hated it as he never knew were his EA and support staff were seated.

    Mirjam Herzog Mirjam Herzog 6:26 am 20 Nov 21

    I can totally see how this is a huge problem...

Joanne Mitchell Joanne Mitchell 9:39 pm 19 Nov 21

Hot desking is the norm where I work . You are asked to remove everything from the desk - including keyboard and mouse. It all has to have to go with you at the end of the day and you need to wipe the desk down before you leave .

Susanne Gardiner Susanne Gardiner 1:20 am 20 Nov 21

We don't do it at my work, but no one I know who works like this likes it. It does not seem to be conducive to a nice work environment or better for efficiency.

Carole Ford Carole Ford 7:03 am 20 Nov 21

How to make your employees feel under-rated and demeaned. The only factor driving this bloody ridiculous idea is money, reducing costs is the only thing that department heads are concerned about currently. Cut backs and cost cutting have been re-named.

Fiona Thomson Fiona Thomson 11:18 am 20 Nov 21

I like the flexibility and to be honest it is the cleanest work space because we do clear and clean our space everyday.

Steve Dawson Steve Dawson 1:06 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.

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