How is hot-desking affecting social workers?

Hot-desking is becoming more prevalent as councils attempt to cut millions of pounds from their budgets. But how can social workers survive the experience? Kirsty McGregor reports

Hot-desking is becoming more prevalent as councils attempt to cut millions of pounds from their budgets. But how can social workers survive the experience? Kirsty McGregor reports

Hot-desking: for many social workers, it’s a dreaded concept. Some lament the way it makes them feel, as if they aren’t important enough to have their own space. “Like less of a practitioner,” says Emm, a user of CareSpace, Community Care’s online discussion forum. For others, the drawbacks are more practical. “The worst thing about hot-desking is when you log on and find out the computer has a bug, and you have to waste time trying to get IT to sort it out,” one social worker tells us anonymously.

More employers are reducing the desk-to-staff ratio to save space, and therefore money. A snapshot poll by Community Care earlier this year revealed six out of 10 social workers have to hot-desk. Responding to the results, Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work, said hot-desking “ramped up the stress levels in an already very challenging job”.

But not all social workers resent sharing desk space with colleagues.

“By hot-desking, I have worked with a range of professionals, and my knowledge has expanded significantly,” says JessS on CareSpace. “I am more organised and have more control of my diary.”

The College of Social Work is planning to work with employers on hot-desking best practice later this year. In the meantime, Community Care has some survival tips for social workers who find themselves without a fixed spot in the office.

● Get to grips with technology. Find out whether you will have a laptop. If so, can it be connected to every desk? Will you have a roaming profile? You should be able to save most of your work on the server. Ideally your laptop should have an easily accessible docking station, which will automatically update the server. If your employer’s IT system does not support your needs, make a case to upgrade it.

● Find out about the telephone system. You may still have a landline number, which you could access by logging in each day. Alternatively, you may be able to arrange to transfer calls to your mobile.

● Explore different spaces. Build good relationships with colleagues in other teams and buildings so you can always find space to work when you need to. Certain tasks, such as confidential telephone conversations with service users or colleagues, require privacy. Find out where to go in these situations. Can you book a meeting room? Or work from home?

● Throw away anything you don’t need. How much personal storage space do you have? It might be tight, so go through files and books and ascertain whether anything could be thrown out. You may need to carry smaller items but, for the good of your back, make sure they are items you really need.

● Learn what you use on a daily basis. One useful method for assessing which tools you need is to put a sticker on items each time you use them over a two-week period. This will identify the essentials you may need to carry with you. You won’t be able to pin reference material to the wall, so if you don’t need it every day, put it in a file in your personal storage space or save the information electronically.

● Be organised and plan ahead. Plan appointments on the same day if possible, so you’re not constantly popping in and out of the office. You will probably have to clear the desk after use, so introduce methods for dealing with work, such as an electronic to-do list.

● Think of your health. Desks should be adjustable so you can make changes to your work area quickly and easily before you start. If this is not possible, the screen should be placed on a monitor arm so that height adjustment is quick and easy. If the desk is not adjustable, you should ask for a foot rest. Ask for an occupational health assessment and check the Health and Safety Executive’s website for more advice.


For one local authority learning disabilities team in southern England, the move to a hot-desking system resulted in disruption to working patterns and made informal supervision difficult. A frontline social worker and team manager recount their experiences.

The social worker

“We were told six months ago that our team was moving to a new building and, at around that time, the number of desk spaces reduced. It has caused tension because we’re not clear about the expectations. When you go out, someone else will take your desk. We’re a supportive team, so we’ve managed it well, but with hot-desking you’re competing with other teams for space.

“Confidentiality is an issue. Private rooms with phones are now also used for meetings and training, so you have to book one in advance. But sometimes confidential issues come up without warning. And, with hot-desking, you don’t know who you’re going to sit next to; people can see what’s on your screen and space is limited, so you can overhear conversations.

“Our team had a good structure; we gave each other support and supervision. As we hot-desk more, we don’t know where our colleagues are. It’s disintegrating the team, and people feel isolated. Some people might even choose to hide away if they’re struggling. If we’re not together as a team, we can’t observe that and support them.

“On the other hand, sometimes hot-desking is less distracting than a busy team environment, where you’re tuned into your colleagues’ conversations. And I’ve found a couple of times that it’s good for networking.

“Ultimately, I’d rather have to hot-desk than have no desk and no job.”

The team manager

“We have been allocated eight desks for 13 staff. Normally I would check with people before they start the day to iron out any issues. But now it gets to the end of the day and there may be staff I haven’t spoken to or seen.

“If I need to speak to somebody I have to phone them, but talking on the phone doesn’t feel as supportive. Sometimes you can pick up on someone’s stress from their body language. That day-to-day stuff builds up, and a lot of the time people can’t wait a whole month for formal supervision.

“I’m worried about the impact on the team because they are quite dispersed. In our old office, when an urgent call came in, other team members knew what was happening; they would look after the phones for a while. There was more peer support and a much stronger team identity.

“Three people on my team have occupational health needs. Other workers can use their desks but they can’t use other desks. I have heard that one feels very guilty about the fact she has a desk. She says if she came back to the office and someone was sitting at her desk, she wouldn’t feel comfortable asking them to get up.

“There is a bit of a myth that we’re out seeing service users all the time, but we’re spending more time in the office. The thing that’s lacking is the equipment. My team budget for equipment is small, and it can’t pay for extra computer systems.”

Do you have any hot-desking survival tips? Join the debate on CareSpace

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