Hot-desking might be popular in large, open-place offices Australia-wide, but according to the union representing tax office employees, the practice is dehumanising and a brake on productivity.
The Australian Services Union is taking the Australian Taxation Office to the Fair Work Commission to protest against a plan to extend a hot-desking trial in Melbourne to more of its employees.
In a statement, the ATO said the feedback is has received from participants in the trial has been “very positive”, and “revealed overwhelming support for the layout offered”.
But Jeff Lapidos from the ASU said his members do not want hot-desking and extending the trial is inconsistent with the ATO enterprise bargaining agreement.
“There are many problems with hot-desking,” Mr Lapidos said.
“The first people in on the day get their choice of desk, and the people that come in later in the day don’t get a choice so they have to pick up what’s left.
“It is not an easy job working in the tax office, and having some comforts from home like photos of your family or friends or having sporting memorabilia helps people get through the day.”
In its statement, the ATO said hot-desking provides staff “with more efficient access to a wider range of facilities” and that all staff will have a desk to store personal items.
But Mr Lapidos said the hot-desking plan is not about employees’ needs at all.
“It’s clear that their real purpose is to reduce accommodation costs, even if it is at the expense of productivity,” he said.
Mixed evidence for hot-desking: workplace experts
Hot-desking has been around in Australia for at least a decade, and according to architectural consultant Donna Wheatley was first trialled by the Los Angeles advertising industry in the 1990s.
Dr Wheatley said hot-desking is often unpopular when first introduced, but employees generally warm up to it once they have experienced it firsthand.
“For older staff, like the over-50s, only 7 per cent would put their hand up and say ‘yes I’d like to do that’, and on average it’s only 18 per cent who actively say ‘I’d like to work in that way’,” Dr Wheatley said.
“But when we go back and evaluate people’s preferences, we get between 50 and 60 per cent saying they prefer [using hot-desking] and the flexibility it offers them.”
But Libby Sander from the Bond Business School on the Gold Coast said while employers like hot-desking to save money, the productivity benefits are not as clear.
“One of the problems with most modern offices is that a lot of the time, quite a significant percentage of staff are not in the office — they’re on annual leave, they’re out at meetings, they’re doing various other things,” Ms Sander said.
“So organisations have figured out through hot-desking you can save around about 30 to 40 per cent of your lease costs by reducing the footprint of your workplace.
“We’re also finding that people are not necessarily communicating more with their colleagues, but are actually becoming quite indifferent to them.
“So they think ‘well if I’m not going to sit next to you tomorrow, I might as well not be bothered saying hello to you really, because I might never see you again,’ which is an unexpected, opposite outcome from what the organisation was intending.
“But because it’s still relatively new in terms of it being a widespread practice, we haven’t seen many open disputes as we are now seeing with this particular case between the ASU and the ATO.”