Hotdesking on a hot seat

Hotdesking, the flexible and open arrangement of workstations, is planned for the H-building, but this isn’t going down well with some UN staff in Geneva, and a growing body of evidence supports their concerns.

The move to a new site is not the only controversial issue for the UN’s Strategic Heritage Plan (SHP). Anger is brewing over hotdesking, the arrangement of flexible workplaces in the new H-building—specifically, four workplaces for five employees in open-plan offices.

A symbol of modernity, hotdesking has been in use for many years in the world of start-ups and innovation, as well as at several multinationals and large banks. It is also already in use at the UN in New York. A September 2013 report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is explicit about the need to embrace the mantra of flexible work and hotdesking, which will “reduce square meters per workplace by 20%” and “increase the number of staff a building can accommodate.”

However, the UN staff at the palace does not see this innovation as a good thing. Prisca Chaoui, Secretary of the Staff Coordinating Council of the United Nations Office, does not mince her words. “The staff has never really been listened to on hotdesking. They have legitimate concerns about their ability to work efficiently. This is not a question of employees being resistant to change. What is at stake is a form of dignity at work.” Prisca Chaoui shared her grievances with the new Director of UN Geneva, Tatiana Valovaya.

UN Geneva spokesperson Rhéal LeBlanc, however, has reaffirmed the direction of the project: “The implementation of a flexible workplace strategy is in line with the General Assembly’s resolution on this issue and is consistent with what is done in other UN offices. While this is a new way of working that will require some adaptation, every effort will be made to facilitate this change for employees.”

“It’s a veiled way of saving money on the backs of employees,” says one employee. The recent implementation in New York is far from being unanimously approved. A survey of employees revealed that while 58% of them are open to change, the majority are dissatisfied with hotdesking.

Indeed, it seems that a practice that may work in one context is not necessarily right in another. Only 6% of employees believe that flexible offices, not assigned to a specific person, are appropriate for UN business. For over half of respondents, these spaces do not offer the necessary confidentiality to deal with certain files. Officials at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking on condition of anonymity, note: “This system is not suitable for our work.”

The holdouts now have science on their side. At Harvard, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban conducted a study of two large Wall Street companies. The conclusion: the creation of mobile offices did not increase interactions between employees—on the contrary, it reduced them by 70%. “An open architecture seems to trigger the natural human reflex to isolate oneself from one’s colleagues and to interact more by email,” write the researchers. As a result, the number of text messages and emails exchanged by employees in the study increased by 20 to 50%. Correspondingly, verbal communication decreased. Before the advent of hotdesking, employees interacted directly for about 5.8 hours a day, whereas today, it’s less than two hours, the study reveals.