“‘Hot desking’ and ‘clean desk’ policies are a source of anxiety for employees,” says sociologist Danièle Linhart

“‘Hot desking' and ‘clean desk' policies are a source of anxiety for employees,” says sociologist Danièle Linhart

“First come, first seated” is the flexible workspace or ‘hot desking’ system tested here at Sun Microsystems in California. According to sociologist Danièle Linhart, this system, presented by the corporate world as creating a stimulating environment, actually places workers in competition with each other and corresponds to the ideology of temporal acceleration. “Being flexible, mobile” is the new credo.

(AP/Paul Sakuma/Julien Collinet)

The open-plan office emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and expanded with the rise of executives and engineers in the 1980s, to the point that the individual office is now no longer the norm. According to the consultancy firm Actineo, only 19 per cent of British and 23 per cent of Spanish employees still had an office of their own in 2014.

Today, big companies in particular are turning to new workspace policies, such as hot-desking or the clean desk policy requiring employees to totally clear their desks every evening and forbidding any kind of personalisation, policies often unpopular with their employees. In a survey conducted in France, 68 per cent of those questioned said they were against the ‘clean desk’ policy. Some point to its dehumanising effect, whilst others see it as a way of tightening the grip on employees. In an interview with Equal Times Danièle Linhart, a sociologist specialising in the world of work and research director emeritus at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, dissects the impact of this way of working on workers.

What do managerial policies such as hot-desking or clean desk systems involve?

I saw this type of workspace organisation emerge in Europe less than 10 years ago. What is referred to as ‘hot desking’ is when employees are not assigned a desk of their own. The number of desks, moreover, is generally lower than the number of people using the workspace. When a clean desk policy is applied, people are not allowed to take ownership of their desk, they have to take away their laptop, their documents, and leave it exactly as they found it in the morning. This idea of not assigning space is not new. Some large companies long since stopped assigning parking spaces to their employees, forcing them to reach work earlier and to find a place to park.

How do companies justify such measures?

The rationale, first and foremost, is to save on floor space. It is presented as being more convivial: people are sharing the same space, so they can interact; it fosters a more stimulating environment. That is the managerial rhetoric, but the fact of the matter is that it does not recreate a community spirit, far from it. Hot desking fits in perfectly with the ideology of temporal acceleration. We have to be flexible, mobile. Hence the idea of changing desks, and not always being next to the same co-workers. If colleagues want to meet, they get up and go to rooms where they can have stand-up meetings. These rooms are often glazed, so employees feel they are always under the gaze of other people.

Does this have an impact on the workers?

The constant uncertainty creates a feeling of nervousness and anxiety. We never know if there will be a place for us, or if we’ll get the place we want. It adds a dose of stress: ‘I mustn’t forget my things. Will I be next to noisy colleagues?’

I have gathered testimonies from people who complain about the unpleasant odours coming from those next to them, people they have to avoid being sat beside. People develop a kind of fixation about finding a place where they are able to work without being disturbed. It makes them feel under pressure to get to work earlier so that they can get a place that’s not too unpleasant or even to get a desk at all, because there are not enough desks for everyone. And that places them in a position where they are having to compete with each other. “I want that desk so I’m going to make sure you don’t take it from me.” That is not the way to foster solidarity and acceptable social interaction.

What benefit is there to placing employees in such as state of uncertainty?

In France, for example, 80 per cent of employees are on permanent contracts and therefore have a degree of stability. But the aim of their managers is to push them to work according to profitability and quality criteria that meets the requirements of short-term efficiency in an increasingly financialised economy. To achieve this, employees are systematically kept in a state of subjective precarity, which is helped by their skills being made obsolete by the rapid changes in their individual and collective experience. “Things are being shaken up all the time, software applications are changed, departments are restructured. The employees lose their markers and have to accept the procedures and protocols imposed on them. The way the workspace is organised is a way of telling you: ‘This is our place, not yours’”.

Who organises these workspace overhauls?

The work is outsourced to very expensive consultancy firms, as the consultants, being totally detached from the realities of the job and the field are able to impose things that anyone aware of the actual constraints would never dare to impose. Just as there are some consultants who are paid to think in terms of mergers and acquisitions or technological advances, there are others paid to think about how to best tighten the grip on employees. All of this is wrapped in Newspeak that distils absolutely everything. The use of English jargon is ever more common and is intended to blur our perception of reality, at least in countries where English is not the first language.

Why are major companies offering their employees more and more services such as concierge or personal development solutions?

Managerial intrusion into the private lives of employees has been around for a long time. In the 1920s, when Henry Ford introduced assembly lines, he had to raise the workers’ wages to compensate for the unbearable working conditions. But, in exchange, he also wanted to ensure that the workers lived in a way that was compatible with the efforts required at the factory. He set up a body of inspectors that would go to his employees’ homes and check whether they were married, and ensure their wives were taking good care of the household and providing them with good nourishment. Nowadays, you are given help to manage your health, help to stop you smoking or to control your cholesterol, with a range of dietary menus, you are massaged. The idea is to ensure you are fit enough to handle your day’s work.

Do trade union organisations fight against these managerial policies?

The unions are aware of all the dangers, but they are not yet in a position to propose a new way of organising work. And I do not think it can be built on the basis of a ‘subordination clause’. It is absolutely essential, not only to put an end to the toxic management of human resources but also to stop the predatory management of planetary resources. If we give free reign to the pursuit of short-term profits as the only logic behind the organisation of work and the management of human and planetary resources, we are headed for certain disaster.

This story has been translated from French.