Working from home: does it work?

How effective is hot-desking and working from home?

The daily grind has taken on a whole new meaning for the 3.5 million Australians who now work from home, then land on a different desk every day that they come into the office with their laptop.

1. Alison Hirst

Director of postgraduate research at Lord Ashcroft International Business School, Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge

Alison HirstIt’s helpful to think about the move to working at home and hot-desking at work in terms of a psychological contract. With any job, there is a balance between the efforts we’re expected to put in (such as our time) and the package of rewards that we get in return (such as pay). 

When this balance is altered, say by a change in working conditions, employees tacitly calculate how it affects them and adjust their efforts in return. 

Starting with working from home, there’s a lot to like about it. For most of us, commuting is an effort that we’d rather do without. The evidence suggests that when people are allowed to work from home, they see that as an extra reward and will put in extra effort to make up for it: most time formerly spent commuting is devoted to work activities. Allowing some home-based work is a win-win for both employees and employers.

“Being unable to sit regularly in the same place, near the colleagues that they need to work with or enjoy being with, can make for a dispiriting day.” Alison Hirst

Hot-desking, however, has clear disadvantages. Although the employer can save money by providing less office space, employees lose out. Having to find a desk and get ready for work is time-consuming and not productive. It means extra work for employees that isn’t recognised by the organisation. 

Being unable to sit regularly in the same place, near the colleagues that they need to work with or enjoy being with, can make for a dispiriting day. And it leads to even more email communication in place of old-fashioned face-to-face relationships. Home working and hot-desking are probably here to stay, but need to be designed so that the gains outweigh the losses for both employers and employees. 

2. Philip Ross

Founder and CEO, UnWork.com

Philip RossThe resounding realisation from years of debate and experimentation is that hot-desking doesn’t work. Hot-desking, derived from the navy where sailors “hot bunked”, was a reaction to the cost of real estate and low utilisation of offices. However, it provides a bland, anonymous and unloved solution for knowledge workers – a lowest common denominator where people share desks on a random basis. 

Instead, some companies are borrowing from hospitality and also understanding the real work people are doing to align the workplace with activities and teams. 

Activity-based clustering, or ABC, is the vision for the future, where people sit with like-minded others, with algorithms and AI to create the optimal clusters. 

Also, people want to work with people. Working at home removes the chance encounters and team endeavour we all need and which provide the spark for innovation. The rush to home working seemed like a good idea, but the reality is that good ideas need people to work together creatively. 

“The rush to home working seemed like a good idea, but the reality is that good ideas need people to work together creatively.” Philip Ross 

Dispersed teams just don’t work – the office needs a vibe. Energy and pulse come from density and proximity. The need for speed ensures that decision-making is optimised in an environment where people can get together – a contrast to the endless planned conference calls that plague remote workers and constrain progress. 

As our economy shifts to knowledge work, and digital disruption destroys the old rules, we need an environment that stimulates creativity and drives business performance. 

3. Debra Eckersley

New ways of working partner, PwC

 Deb EckersleyEveryone talks about hot-desking differently. Often it’s used to refer to open-plan work spaces, with desks that are all the same and where no one is allocated a specific desk of their own. If that’s your definition, then it doesn’t work. 

Agile (or activity-based) working, however, is all about enabling your people through a choice of spaces designed for different activities and ways of working, and then trusting them to decide the best way to work for themselves. 

I am a big believer in people moving around rather than sitting at one desk all day, every day, because it encourages serendipitous and informal conversations and collaboration. 

Spaces need to range from those that are all about focused work, like the “libraries” we have at PwC, through to collaboration spaces, where people can work together, and more social spaces where people can share lunch or have fun together.

We have a whole range of spaces to suit different ways of working because, for us, it doesn’t matter where people work – it’s all about outcomes for our clients. 

“We have a whole range of spaces to suit different ways of working because, for us, it doesn’t matter where people work – it’s all about outcomes for our clients.” Debra Eckersley

Providing your people with the option to work from home is also about choice and trusting them to decide the best way to work for themselves. For many people, working from home actually increases productivity and job satisfaction. 

I think technology is particularly important to make this work for your people and for the business. It’s about investing in tech infrastructure and culture.

As a colleague said to me recently, “I’ve worked from my own office for 30 years. Now I feel liberated because I can work wherever I want.”

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The experts

Alison Hirst
Alison Hirst is director of postgraduate research at Lord Ashcroft International Business School, at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, and a research fellow at the Institute for International Management Practice. She is interested in how work spaces are changing and how buildings and technology, in particular, affect the way people work and are managed. 

Philip Ross
Philip Ross is an author, adviser and futurist. He specialises in predicting the impact of emerging technology on work, the workplace, our cities and the way we will live, learn and enjoy leisure. He focuses on change readiness, innovation and talent attraction as well as providing inspiration for leadership, helping to catalyse new ideas and create the business case for change.

Debra Eckersley
Debra Eckersley has a Bachelor of Commerce with a Graduate Diploma in Applied Finance. She studied strategic human resources at Cornell University. At PwC she aligns the human capital function directly with the firm’s business priorities including a strong focus on staff engagement and development. She is one of Australia’s leading executive remuneration advisers and works with many top ASX-listed boards to help them balance the expectations of internal and external stakeholders.

Read next: The 5 best technologies for remote working


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