‘Free desking’ gains ground

Altered workspaces are meant to appeal to millennials, boost collaboration, say employers
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/29/2014

Remember lockers and lunch tables at school? Grabbing your stuff and finding a seat with friends? That’s not just for high school anymore — several large employers are rolling out the concept in offices across the country.

Known as free desking, hot desking, shared space — a broad variety of names — the approach involves a mixture of long tables with unassigned seating, fewer offices, limited booths or cubicles, more collaborative areas and meeting rooms of various sizes.

Deloitte, for one, is embracing the concept, offering 14 different types of workspaces in various offices across Canada, according to Jason Winkler, managing partner of talent at Deloitte in Vancouver.

"It’s recognizing the reality that we have a multi-generational workforce, more so than any other time in our history. We have a national footprint with very high client service-oriented people, so our people are already working multiple ways — whether that is at home, at the local Starbucks, in the offices, trains, planes, automobiles — so the workplace strategies are really about how do we actually have the physical embodiment of our own spaces really reflect the flexibility of working the way you need, when you need, and getting away from the traditional hierarchical (approach)."

If needed, people can reserve a working space ahead of time at the phone-free, wireless desks, he said.

"Ultimately, we won’t have the space that would accommodate every single person on the same day because the chances of it happening are virtually zero... what really for us matters is the right type of space is available — and that’s going to be an evolution," he said.

It’s about improving connections and collaboration, in a fun and productive way, said Winkler. And while there may be cost savings, it’s more about cost avoidance, he said.

"When you have multiple offices today that are fairly inflexible, the actual new space in total, on a per-employee basis — the cost isn’t actually that different. So while cost matters to us, obviously, it’s actually not the main driver."

Real estate firm CBRE adopted the free desking concept in its Canadian offices last year, which means people grab their laptop out of a locker and find a seat — usually in a designated "neighbourhood" with people they work with, according to Ross Moore, director of research at CBRE in Toronto.

"Chances are you’re going to sit with your other team members because, in large part, this is about enabling or enhancing collaboration so it wouldn’t make sense if you were sitting away from the rest of your team," he said. "The absolute critical ingredient is private rooms that you can have meetings in, you can make phone calls in."

There are challenges, said Moore, such as noise and where to store paperwork.

"Keep in mind, at the end of the day when you go home, the desk has to be completely clear, so everything goes back in your locker," he said. "But, eventually, you’re going to have to scan those (documents) or whatever and save them on a server — otherwise, your locker will very quickly fill up and it’s not meant to be a filing cabinet."

Overall, office space can be reduced by, say, 30 per cent while employee count can go up 10 per cent because so many people are out of the office at any one time, said Moore.

"The numbers are quite dramatic. And there’s a tremendous amount of discussion in the industry because we’re only in the first or second inning of this, so I think there’s still a lot of learning and trial and error — everybody’s trying to figure out exactly how this really is going to work. I think it will really vary by industry — what works for one industry might not work for another. So I do wonder whether the pendulum has swung a bit too far and too fast and, in three or four years, we’ll see the pendulum swing back a little bit."

Newer technologies

So what’s driving the transformation? Newer, cheaper technologies are a big factor. TD, for example, went wireless when it decided to offer more open-concept offices and unassigned seating. This meant employees could walk around the floor with their laptops to do their work.

People really appreciate the open floor plan, along with greater access to natural light and comfy seating in collaboration areas, said Tania Litsos, vice-president of enterprise real estate at TD in Toronto.

"They feel more productive than they did before, they really value the flexibility and the choices they have, they value the collaboration with their teammates," she said.

"The other benefit we hear about is speed in decision-making, because people interact a lot more in an open environment than they do in the traditional offices."

Groups at TD can self-select if they want to participate and, so far, almost 4,000 employees in Canada and 350 in the United States have taken part, said Litsos.

"It’s a great way, if you have growth within your team, to be able to accommodate a greater number of people," she said. "We’re really pleased with the take-up that we’ve had."

TD’s office space is customized to the needs of each business group. IT, for example, needs more meeting rooms to go over project work while HR needs fewer meeting rooms, she said.

"It’s really important for us to understand what the business group needs are in order to design the space and the desk-sharing ratios."

And while there are definitely cost savings, that’s just a byproduct, said Litsos.

"Not only that, you’re using space more efficiently and effectively so, as a result, you need to acquire less space for growth, which has... a financial impact but also (helps) the environment."

Telus is also seeing environmental benefits, with 60 per cent of its workers working from home or on a mobile basis, according to Andrea Goertz, chief communications and sustainability officer at Telus in Calgary. Before changing its workspace, Telus performed space audits to understand its capacity.

"From a real estate perspective, it was a tremendous savings that we were looking at — over $200 million — and, right now, we’re at about one million square feet of reductions, we’ve got another 300, 400,000 to go, so it makes such a compelling business case by just looking at the vacant space."

Making the transition

But is everyone onboard with the new concept? Typically, millennials seem to be more open to this work environment, said Moore.

"It’s the baby boomers that are maybe struggling a little bit, but the millennials do seem to be more open to this," he said. "The pushback is actually on the older employees that got used to that private office."

The older generations have a harder time adjusting, said Litsos.

"Definitely the change management piece has to focus on the unique needs based on the employee population. So it’s very important to provide etiquette training as to how to use the new environment."

To ease the transition, it’s important to provide plenty of communication around the move. Deloitte began sharing information early on, talking about the whys and the hows of the process, putting things into a broader context, and setting up display booths to show what the new space looked like. The company also shared video clips of employees who are using the new offices, said Winkler.

"Really, to make it come to life, I think you can talk about it in theory but nothing is more powerful than hearing if from your colleagues."

It was also important to have leaders involved, he said.

"The leaders, by far, are our most important cohort because if our leaders are understanding and supportive of it, that will have a big impact."