By Matt Bee
What’s so bad about hot desking? It’s a question that has had me stumped for years, and the more I’ve read about it the more perplexed I’ve become.
That social workers don’t like the concept is beyond any doubt. A few years ago Community Care found nine out of 10 social care staff believe it saps morale and increases stress.
They hate the idea so much that earlier this year Slough council bucked the trend and even started moving away from the controversial practice.
But sharing workspace is perfectly common in other industries. Apart from civil servants in Whitehall who recently kicked up a fuss (not without reason, given that the department was trying to sit over 6,000 of them at just 1,500 desks) most members of other professions get by quite happily without resorting to sitting in one another’s laps.
So what’s so different about social work?
Important to the psyche
It’s hard to say, but the arguments put forward are that hunting for a place to work wastes time, it divorces practitioners from their colleagues and it robs them of their own individual space to sit and reflect. Personalising a desk with family photos and mementos is important to the psyche, it has been argued by academics.
I’m not so sure. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of mementos. I get that having small reminders of holidays, home, family and friends, can help embed a person in their workplace and give a sense of security and wellbeing.
But speaking for myself, I simply don’t need a photo of my labrador taped to the partition wall to inspire me to work. If anything it’s a distraction, and so too is all the other clutter festooned on computer bases and stuck atop monitors.
Not doing it right
This is the real problem with hot desking. As a profession we just haven’t adapted to it well. People habitually want ownership of their workstation and they claim it by scattering personal effects about the place, mounting files and textbooks nearby, and then locking the computer before going out on a visit. The times I’ve walked into a completely empty office to find there isn’t, incredibly, a single computer free…it’s maddening!
It’s not that hot desking doesn’t work for social workers – it’s just we’re not doing it right. And this isn’t all our fault.
The estates department of a council cannot simply close down office blocks and then expect the resident staff to just start roosting elsewhere. Plans need to be put in place so they can still get on with the job in hand.
Homeless social workers
This you would think is logical, but in some districts homeless social workers drive forlornly from one office to the next in the vague hope of finding a spare seat somewhere to call their own. Not only this, but they have been banned from firing up their laptops at home – flexible working doesn’t extend that far, they’ve been told.
This is patently ridiculous. Although it might not seem like it, ours is in fact the perfect profession to embrace hot desking. Why wouldn’t it be? We’re out on the road a lot attending meetings and visiting clients. What good is a PC back at the office when we’re stuck in traffic ten miles away? It makes sense that someone else should use it.
Making it work
But it also makes sense that managers, and the organisation in general, should do more to make the arrangement work. Why can’t we work from home? Why can’t a council develop software to keep track of all the vacant desks in real time so when we’re out on the road we can simply check in online, perhaps on our phones, book the nearest desk available and travel to it? What’s wrong with that?
This may sound far-fetched but it isn’t – not when you consider how we conduct our personal lives these days. No one is buying desktop computers anymore; it’s all about tablets and smartphones. Everyone is on the go, all the time, accessing their online bank from coffee shops, doing clothes shopping from their settee. There’s literally nothing we can’t do with the right technology and a spare five minutes to kill.
Matter of habit
If this is how we adapt in our private lives, then why can’t we, and our employing organisations, adapt professionally as well? Why do we hold onto our workstations with such resolve? As far as I can tell, there isn’t really any practicable reason why a social worker needs their own personal workstation. It’s just a matter of habit and routine.
It’s amazing the strong feelings and resistance this issue evokes. But social work practice will always evolve and develop, and we shouldn’t resent moving forward with it. Social work will always be about you and the client; it shouldn’t be about you and a desk.
Matt Bee is a social worker based in North East England
Do you have a nightmare story about hot-desking? Has your area implemented it really well? Community Care is running a special report on hot-desking later this year and we want your stories. Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org