1 April 2016

Open plan design and hot desking:
innovation utopia or corporate
Hunger Games?

How we organise our workspace can have a big impact on creativity, innovation and collaboration. When an office space works for employees it can increase productivity, efficiency and harmony, but when it doesn’t, there can be a marked drop off in those metrics.

The positive results of transforming workspaces into open plan design, incorporating concepts such as hot desking, have been championed by many design experts, who say it opens employees up to new interactions and ways of working.

If you’re not familiar with the term, hot desking is when multiple workers use the same desk or workspace at differing times depending on need. This is often facilitated by the use of enterprise software that can assign resources according to calendar bookings. One of the most advanced versions of this type of arrangement is Deloitte’s the Edge building in Amsterdam, which has been called “the smartest building in the world”:

A day at the Edge in Amsterdam starts with a smartphone app developed with the building’s main tenant, consulting firm Deloitte. From the minute you wake up, you’re connected. The app checks your schedule, and the building recognizes your car when you arrive and directs you to a parking spot.

But some say this scenario, when badly done, creates the new corporate version of the Hunger Games – people not feeling like they belong or that they have their own space in which to work and concentrate on tasks. The antithesis of the hot desking utopia is portrayed as employees madly scrambling for stark, impersonal desks tables which have been stripped of character and utility. 

We’ve been thinking about the best way to organise work space for a long time now. This is from a British government report published in 1865: “...for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it.”

In fact, if you really wanted to go back in time, you could even argue the famed Greek agora – the large, open meeting places in cities like Athens – is the model for the forward-thinking innovation spaces favoured by companies such as Google and Facebook.

As this Live Science article points out, “Some of the world's most important ideas were born and perfected within the confines of the Athenian agora including, famously, the concept of democracy.” Just as some of the finest minds of Ancient Greece went about their knowledge work, so too the finest minds of the tech age do the same in places like the Googleplex and at Facebook’s MPK20 (Menlo Park Campus Building 20).

Facebook’s staff moved into MPK20 last year. The Frank Gehry designed space comes complete with 36,400 sqm landscaped roof, an 800 metre walking loop, 400 full-grown trees, WiFi, and plenty of spaces for employees to either work outdoors in the Californian sun or in specially appointed hangout spaces.

The company’s chief people officer, Lori Goler, says it’s a space designed for “bumping into people”.

"It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together. There's a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space."

Not all businesses are Facebook and the workspace requirements of each company depend on variables such as number of employees, building style and capacity, company culture, and of course the resources available to the company.

It can be tempting to jump on trends like hot desking as a way to jumpstart an innovation culture in your company. But you do have to think carefully about whether the creativity dividend (as well as potential cost savings) that may come from such a measure will be outweighed by the disruption of people wandering about looking for a free and usable workspace.

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