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Desk sharing – share your desks, get the whole office to work

As our research findings show, the average desk occupancy level is 45%. Are modern organisations able to finance such a large amount of unused space? Companies increasingly consider implementing desk sharing. In doing this, they not only take the financial side into account, but also the possibility to use the free space in a far better way.

Ewelina Solecka, Workplace Consulting Manager

You come to work in the morning. You enter your office and head for your locker ‒ a small unit where you keep all your belongings. You take your laptop and some documents because you always start your working day with a meeting with your manager. You go straight to the meeting room you had booked earlier. After the meeting, you have an appointment with a client. You sit on a sofa and go through the notes you have on your laptop to prepare for the conversation. Then you go to a phone booth and call your client. When the conversation is over, you want to reply to a few emails; you also need to compile a report. You do not need total silence to do this, so you go to the open space. You sit at a free desk, connect your laptop and open your inbox...

Profit, not loss

This is what part of your working day in desk sharing mode can look like. This solution, which is based on the co-sharing idea, is often encountered in flexible offices. Nowadays, when the trend of sharing different goods, such as cars, accommodation or services, is popular, it is no longer surprising for several people to share a single desk, although it still evokes a lot of fear and doubt. This is because desk sharing is wrongly associated with the loss of one's own workstation.

In fact, desk sharing is a broader idea that offers various facilities within the corporate space and benefits the employee. According to this concept, performing office work efficiently and comfortably does not depend on having one's own desk, but rather having access to different places where particular tasks can be done. Therefore, when implementing this solution it is necessary to design additional work zones, such as places for holding phone conversations, rooms for performing undisturbed work, informal meeting zones, rooms for holding meetings in small groups, and creative or project work zones.

Hot bunking as a source of inspiration

Where does the idea for desk sharing come from? The inspiration behind this concept is hot bunking, which was applied in the past on most warships and is now mainly encountered on submarines. The space on these vessels is precious and it is used primarily for storing weapons. Because seamen work shifts and part of the crew is always on guard, there are fewer bunks than people on the ship. Seamen use them in turn, which means the beds are always occupied and hot – hence the name hot bunking. The number of bunks depends on the shift system being applied on the ship – usually there is one bunk for two or three seamen. This solution allows for minimising the space needed to sleep, while the square metres saved can be used for other purposes. The idea of space sharing was transferred to the office environment in the form of hot desking, and it appeared in various versions in the 80s and 90s. Its earlier implementation was hindered by the low level of technology and the lack of tools allowing employees to work effectively while away from their fixed workstations.

Hot desking vs. desk sharing

Hot desking

The idea of one desk being shared by people performing their work at different times. This form was created especially for mobile employees or employees working shifts (e.g. telephone consultants). An office often has a hot desking zone for employees from different departments (another name is hoteling) or for people who want to work together at one desk for some time but cannot do so at their fixed desks because the arrangement does not allow it.

Desk sharing

The idea of the temporary occupation of a free desk by an employee. This form was designed for departments whose duties require holding different meetings, both within and outside the office, which often results in a large number of unoccupied desks. According to the idea of desk sharing, an employee does not have an assigned place, but uses the whole office and its various zones during their working day.

If a particular person needs to work at a desk, they can occupy any free desk. When the work is done, the person cleans the desk and leaves it empty. Employees can rotate (change their workstation) depending on the project needs – either in their department's work zone or any other part of the office. The number of desks for a particular staff depends on the degree of their mobility, which has to be measured.

The concept's premises

A desk is not the best place to perform all tasks at work – this is the main point underlying the idea of desk sharing. It is not natural to spend eight hours at a desk and carry out all tasks efficiently.

Let's think about how we work at home. When we work on an important project, we usually sit at a table; when we read, we sit on a sofa or in an armchair; when we want to come up with different ideas, we adopt a comfortable position. Contemporary concepts promote this work style in the office. In the past we did everything sitting at a desk – we held phone conversations, wrote emails, went through important documents and considered new ideas. Today people design places that ensure optimal conditions for performing all these tasks, so a desk ceases to play its previous, multifunctional role.

Economical aspects provide the second premise of desk sharing – empty desks are the hallmark of contemporary companies that allow flexible forms of working, but have not yet adjusted their offices to them. According to our analyses, the average desk occupancy level in companies is 45%, which means that for over 55% of the working day, workstations are unoccupied and every square metre of the unused space generates unnecessary costs for the employer. Desk sharing reduces this problem – the number of desks is smaller than the number of employees, saving space that can be used, for instance, to arrange different zones.

How can you implement desk sharing into your organisation?

The implementation of desk sharing is a huge challenge for a company. It involves changing habits, work philosophy, management style (the staff becomes more dispersed), information flow and even communication methods. It also imposes technological changes and the rearrangement of an office space.

The decision of whether or not to implement desk sharing into a company should be based on a series of analyses. The work style of individual organisational units and the desk occupancy level in particular departments should undoubtedly be surveyed. Detailed data are key also at the next stage – when it comes to designing an office space. This is crucial, since the office arrangement project must be tailored to the company's character as closely as possible. Employees, who are the target office users, should have access to all the necessary work zones in their new office. Moreover, there must be the right number of zones, all optimally located.

Difficult processes, such as conducting analyses and designing an office space, should be carried out along with soft activities. Employees must be prepared for the new work style and taught how to use the new space, while management staff must acquire the knowledge and skills that will help them manage employees effectively in the new work environment. It is advisable to conduct these workplace change management activities with external consultants, who are experts in the field, and implement these changes on a daily basis.

Rules of working according to the desk sharing idea

No stationary telephones

In an office that decides to implement desk sharing, it is not possible to use stationary telephones, because there are no workstations assigned to employees.

Place for storing shared documents

If the need arises (e.g. a certain department has a lot of shared documents), it is necessary to equip the office with cabinets or an archive, making them available for all employees.

Lockers

Any space based on desk sharing must be equipped with lockers – small lockable units assigned to particular employees that are designed for storing their documents, bags, personal items, etc.

Clean desk policy

After finishing working at a desk and moving to a new location, an employee takes all their belongings with them and leaves the desk clear.

The whole office is my workstation

An employee has at their disposal all the work zones and functionalities that are available in the office.

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