Terrie's Job Tips -- Space Planning for Employees, Part II: Hot Desks

The movement of human traffic within Japanese firms having an external customer service and/or sales effort is a study of contrasts. In the morning, after the departmental meetings, the office is a buzz of activity, with sales and service people on the phone to prospective and existing customers. Appointments are being made and customers are happy to get the personal attention.

Then, after lunch (or earlier), both the sales and services departments empty out, as the makers of appointments become the makers and keepers of promises. The office quiets down noticeably, with a few senior managers and back office staff remaining to run the show. Finally, the human tide waxes again around 17:00 or so, as the staff return from their customer visits and settle in to catch up on emails, make more calls to suppliers and partners, and unwind with a bit of chatter with their colleagues before heading out for drinks or to go home sometime between 19:00 and 20:00.

This ebbing and flowing of humanity is part of the social structure, a filling of team roles that makes the office, for many Japanese workers, their “family.” Almost like prehistoric hunters and gatherers in a village, the hunters are respected for going out to kill the meat, and when they return they are treated well by the gatherers… Well, that’s the basic idea anyway. I admit it doesn’t always work – especially if there is an autocratic and irritable boss running the show.

Now, transition those Japanese workers into a foreign firm some years later. They’ve learned their habits but have been attracted by the promise of higher salaries and the excitement of international business – and they are about to have a collision with foreign culture. Our protagonist is an ambitious foreign manager who sees all those empty desks in the afternoons and naturally thinks, “Well if they can do it for half a day, why don’t we put them on ‘hot desks’ and have them out all day?” The idea looks great on paper and not only is seating cut in half, per person work output promises to be higher as well, as the external workers have no distractions from their jobs.

Typically the initiative will be announced suddenly, and to make the move logistically possible, the hot desk staff will all get fully loaded portable PCs and communications gear. They may also get a fully fitted out automobile if they’re on the services side.

Often the hot desk initiative will also come with an ameliorating “spin” policy to explain why the company is removing the desks. A common take is that the new arrangement gives the individual more opportunity to run their job the way they want to, and for sales people there will be a bigger bonus as they are able to focus and contact more customers.

Indeed, for some very driven and independently minded salespeople, the system really does work, and they develop into “Ronin” for the company – generating record sales and profits, pulling down large salaries, and typically using their relative freedom to do a bit of their own business on the side. You most often see such successful individuals working for insurance or as financial advisers.

But for the other 95% of hunters thus tasked, while they may be grateful for the hardware, the chance to make more money, and perhaps to spend more time in the morning with the family, something doesn’t feel right. Essentially in the name of efficiency they have been set adrift, unable to feel the roots of the company they work for, and will often become very lonely. Such individuals will uncomplainingly carry out the tasks set for them, dutifully showing up at the shared desks for their appointed time slots – but since they don’t feel part of the team they want everyone to know it, and become difficult to handle.

A frequent outcome is that they start picking at various other ways the company is run, looking for an outlet to make others feel their dissatisfaction. They may also become negative with clients, grumbling about how the company doesn’t care about them. And above all, without the invisible human glue to keep them feeling that they are part of the company, they are extremely vulnerable to headhunters.

In reading this, you will have rightly deduced that I don’t believe in hot desks for a general workforce – although it may work for self-possessed individuals able to receive very high commissions. But most Japanese are not self-possessed. They are team players and have been brought up that way ever since they were in kindergarten. I believe that as soon as you “tell” an employee that they are not even worth a seat of their own in the family home (i.e., the office), they are likely to feel cut-off and unhappy.

Therefore, I encourage any manager in a position to receive a hot desk proposal to first require that the proposal be accompanied by an outside director’s estimate of what the staff turnover is likely to be. Once you see what the human impact could be, you will quickly realize that recruiting is a lot more expensive and disruptive than having an empty desk for half a day.