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Biscuits, plants and hot desks

Authors: The Work Foundation Jane Sullivan

26 August 2010

As the public sector seeks to make substantial cost savings as part of the government’s austerity drive, the cult of the biscuit, the pot plant and the desk are all at risk in Whitehall. Earlier this week, Today on BBC Radio 4 asked if such gestures really make a difference to the public purse. More importantly, they explored the potential impact of such measures on productivity, job satisfaction and general engagement when things are already looking grim for public sector workers.

Let’s start with the biscuits. Most of us love a good biscuit but do they promote or hinder health and wellbeing at work? As the UK gets progressively fatter, organisations that slam the lid on the biscuit barrel are doing their employees a favour. The cost savings won’t plug the gap in the deficit but I think they should go. Those who really want biscuits can always bring their own - there’s nothing like an office bake-off to enhance team spirit.

The case for plants is more compelling. As a fan of greenery in the home and in the office, I think plants can bring an air of humanity and calmness to otherwise sterile environments. Yes, they can be expensive as most offices have plants on a lease and pay exorbitant maintenance fees for their upkeep. Conclusion – keep the plants; they enhance the environment. Just find a cheaper maintenance option.

Hot-desking however, is a bit more of a serious issue. Ask yourself the following:

•   Does people’s work take them in and out of the office?  
•   Does your culture allow your staff to work from home?
•   Does your technology enable your staff to work effectively and efficiently from anywhere, anytime?  

If you answer yes to one or more of those questions, then the potential for cost savings by introducing a hot-desking approach is monumental.

Office space in the UK, and in London in particular, is expensive. Ridiculously so. Yet we tolerate – even encourage - under-used square footage to give staff the privilege of placing a picture of their pet dog on their desk and covering their PC in deely boppers in a feeble attempt to make the workspace feel a bit more homely.

Admittedly, introducing hot-desking and flexible working is not a quick win and it has to be done well for it to work. Staff might initially miss their freedom to nest at work, yet the long term positives far outweigh the negatives: the potential for cultural transformation; staff feel trusted and empowered; work life balance improves; efficiency and productivity increase; engagement is enhanced.

My conclusion?  Hot-desking when done well, with the right support infrastructure, saves space, which translates directly into significant cost savings - and simultaneously conveys positive cultural messages. It gets my vote every time.

The report on the Today programme came to a useful conclusion with regard to these cost savings. Involve staff in making the decisions about what stays, and what goes. Let them understand the potential cost savings against the potential pitfalls.  People at work are adults. In difficult times let’s treat them as such.

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