No place is home for Assembly hotdeskers

It was the desking arrangements that most intrigued visitors at the Open Day of Aberystwyth’s new National Assembly building yesterday.

In the interests of saving space, there are apparently only eight desks for every ten of the 460 workers at the new building, this on the basis that at any given time 20% are expected to be out at meetings, on annual leave etc. This means that all desks have to be cleared at the end of each day and any papers neatly put away in a small personal locker. Anything left won’t be there the next morning, presumably ending up in the materially-differentiated recycling bins dotted around the office. When people turn up for work in the morning they take their paperwork from their locker and put it down on the first desk they can find before logging into that computer - hotdesking.

Now we all know that the promise of computers saving paper hasn’t turned out to be true. Whilst they do reduce paper in many ways (e-mails instead of printed letters, scanning etc) this has been far outweighed by the ease of printing out documents. I can’t see the Assembly’s policy working in the Council’s Planning Department, for example, where in-trays are regularly stacked taller than the planning officers themselves, at least when they’re sitting down. Genuinely creating a paperless office requires managerial ruthlessness. This is what they’ve apparently done for years at Microsoft and it’s what they’re trying out now at the Assembly.

“Ah”, said one visitor on the guided tour, “If no-one know where they’ll be sitting, how can they be reached on the phone?” The Assembly had thought of that. “At the same time as logging into a computer they also log into the nearest phone so the switchboard always knows where they are.”

Another question: “Won’t the huge open plan offices be noisy?” Apparently the ceilings are designed so that noise goes straight upwards and out and doesn’t echo around.

These then are the offices of the future. They require a different way of looking at work, a shift of office culture, a new philosophy. They'll take a bit of getting used to - it’s not possible to put down the little homely knick-knacks that human beings seem to need to identify their own personal work space and I can imagine some lockers stuffed to overflowing with the dreaded papers. Since I work in the NHS, which seems to be institutionally behind the curve when it comes to IT, I doubt if I’ll see this kind of thing for another 15 years. Still, the offices we saw were certainly tidy. Maybe I’ll try some of the philosophy at home.