Keeping your hot-deskers shipshape

If applied with care, forethought and consultation, hot-desking it can be a solution right across your company. But the issues are far-reaching - not least of which is selecting the right technology

Keeping your hot-deskers shipshape
Manek Dubash
If applied with care, forethought and consultation, hot-desking it can be a solution right across your company. But the issues are far-reaching - not least of which is selecting the right technology

The Sunday Times'   annual survey into Britain's best companies, as voted for by their employees, reminds us that the nature of work is changing. As more people classify themselves as intellectual workers rather than blue-collar, they want a better balance between life and work. Legislation now gives employees a statutory right to ask for more flexible working practices and employers must respond within two weeks.

It's not just a nice-to-have either. As technology increasingly permits, more people find their work removes them from the office for significant periods of time, especially if the business becomes more dispersed.

It all means flexible working is becoming more prevalent, in particular, hot-desking. It's a term believed to derive from the sharing of bunks that perforce exists on warships: to save space, a sailor coming off watch sleeps in a bunk still warm from the previous occupant who is just going on duty. In the same way, employees share desks but not at the same time.

Hot-desking benefits
Because of their peripatetic work patterns, sales forces in particular are likely to experience the biggest increases in productivity as a result of hot-desking. Out meeting clients, they may only be at their desks 10-20 percent of the time, so hot-desking for them makes enormous sense, savings stemming from not having to provide everyone with their own desk.

That sort of flexibility is popular among other employees too, as the newspaper's survey suggests. If people are allowed to work from home, even as little as a morning a week, their job satisfaction jumps. Among the top 100 companies, many, such as Sun, allow considerable degrees of work/life flexibility, including hot-desking. Employers tend to agree that such flexible working can help retain staff and increase productivity.

HR issues
Some employees say that the loss of social contact is a disincentive to hot-desking, since not everybody's character suits solo working. It's argued too that the lack of a strongly defined company culture, which can be one consequence of hot-desking, makes induction harder when hiring new staff. Some managers also report problems regarding loss of control over subordinates, although others say this quickly dissipates with the correct training.

IT issues
IT departments suffer more than most when it comes to hot-desking, though. From a technology perspective, it adds costs and management time to set up and manage it. Employees with only occasional contact with IT systems may lead to greater reliance on the helpdesk, which has a cost attached. Those without robust networks may also find that upgrades are required, as the load involved in processing screen frames for dozens -- if not hundreds -- of users can be considerable, especially for graphics-heavy applications.

If a more conventional, PC-based approach is taken, management overheads are likely to be higher, security needs to be watertight and costs per workstation may be higher. For example, a hot-desked PC will need a card reader so that, wherever the user logs on, the correct profile along with network and file server permissions are delivered automatically to that PC and the machine looks to each individual like their own.

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Keeping your hot-deskers shipshape
Manek Dubash
Part II: If applied with care, forethought and consultation, hot-desking it can be a solution right across your company. But the issues are far-reaching - not least of which is selecting the right technology

Some solutions go further than simply smart cards, whose applications are not confined to hot-desking. Sun's Sun Ray Hot Desk Architecture, for example, is a concept that pulls together a variety of Sun's products, avoiding PCs altogether. These include Sun's thin clients and SPARC/Solaris-based servers, plus its Sun Ray software, which adds authentication, group and session management and a client administration tool. Because client sessions are stored centrally, following authentication a user can resume their previous session seamlessly from any client. Little client management is required, says Sun, as the complexity sits in the network not the client. For example, there's only one copy of the OS to be managed, rather than one per client.

Another, simpler hot-desk implementation involves wireless LANs (WLANs). As long as each user possesses a laptop, all they need to do is sit down, switch on and log in. Each will need a PC Card, and an access point will need to be installed for each 15-20 users, depending on how many are likely to be present at any one time. Cheap to implement using traditional, intelligent access points, WLAN management overheads can be high, while security concerns are now well-known. However, technology such as Symbol's Wireless Switch and Trapeze's Mobility System respectively can help reduce the costly administrative burden by concentrating the intelligence in switches at the network core, leaving only cheap, dumb access points in the workspace. Centralised security management makes them more secure too.

Hot phones
Computing is not the sole extent of the story though. A critical element of hot-desking is the ability to make and receive phone calls wherever users are sited. This is where the burgeoning technology of IP telephony makes a case for itself. The technology involves converging data and voice networks, running voice over IP (VoIP) data networks. With appropriate call routing and quality of service technology, among VoIP's advantages is that it can use the routing of users' data to redirect their phone calls as well.

Among the most avid of proponents of VoIP is Cisco, which has announced a number of customer wins in this area. For example, drinks manufacturer Diageo has installed 2,000 IP phones in its headquarters with the express aim of encouraging mobility within the premises and more flexible working practices, including hot-desking. It used Cisco's Unity voicemail and Personal Assistant products to help employees manage how and when they can reached. Cisco also says such systems open the way to migration to full unified messaging, and has just released a new colour IP phone.

Hot-desking implemented in a focused way for sales forces can undoubtedly bring benefits. However, if applied more widely with care, forethought and consultation, it can be a solution in many other circumstances too.

The issues that hot-desking raises are far-reaching. Not least among these is selecting and implementing the right technology for your particular needs, as well as ensuring that the people whose job it is to make it work are fully engaged. Finally the people who will be doing the hot-desking need to feel they have the full support of the company -- from HR and IT through to the top management.

With all that sorted, every party involved can emerge a winner.

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