by Ben Capper

I am fascinated by the developing story featured in the Independent concerning desk monitoring at The Telegraph Newspaper ( Union criticises Telegraph for monitoring journalists and Telegraph to withdraw monitoring devices ).  At the same time I can’t say I’m surprised at the events unfolding.

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The story broke via Buzzfeed.com and gathered momentum with national press, fellow journo pals and The National Union of Journalists following suit.

In brief, Telegraph bosses claimed to be gathering efficiency information in order to measure desk usage throughout their facilities, using a little sensor box produced by a clever company called ‘OccupEye’, which is fitted on the underside of each desk.

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Journalists at the Telegraph were informed that monitoring  equipment had been installed underneath their workstations, the purpose of which was to monitor desk occupancy. Information is gathered to be viewed and discussed by facilities management and the workplace consultancy team in the battle to improve efficiency and maximise space. Are you with me so far?

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Workplace storm in a Telegraph tea-cup?

Having attended multiple lectures on this subject and discussed this with many clients, I see both sides. In my view this represents a battle between positive workplace design strategy Vs negative workplace scaremongers. This weeks’ events have no doubt badly damaged the Telegraph’s relationship with its staff, generated negative PR and got the privacy law rabble rousers into full swing.

The Journalists are up in arms as they feel their privacy has been invaded (ooh the irony). I feel it is my duty to explain the story from a workplace planning perspective…

In today’s ever changing workplace, efficiency (cost) is king. Sensors automatically turn off lights in unoccupied areas, whilst modern technology and building materials allow huge savings on running costs. But for large companies operating in expensive cities like London or New York, big buildings are bloody expensive, so where to next for the FD eager to demonstrate efficiency savings to his dividend-hungry board?

“Workplaces aren’t what they were a decade ago…”

Enter your local workplace interiors team. They stroll through the office in their tweed jackets and pocket squares with the FD, pointing out empty desks, making the (valid) point that in today’s workplace many desks are unoccupied for large parts of each day. People are at meetings, off sick, on holiday (are you at your desk now whilst you read this?). The point is we don’t need desks all the time, so why have one sitting there like a malnourished pet that we’ve forgotten about? Workplaces aren’t what they were a decade ago – they are important but we don’t need them as often as we did. In addition, many employers and new generation companies understand you don’t have to be at your desk (or even in your office) to work. iPads, MacBooks, Starbucks and Google changed all that. Just because you’re lounging on a sofa in a trendy cafe with a client sipping nonfat caramel macchiatos whilst discussing a project, does that mean you’re not working? Of course not. Staff want offices that are comfortable, trendy and cool – not boring beech L shaped desks and stuffy meeting rooms.

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working or skiving?

Many offices have moved forwards – begrudgingly. They’ve chucked out the L shaped desks and gone to open plan offices with bench desks. Great. Bit noisier though. So for meetings or for peace and quiet whilst cramming for that deadline, some staff nip down the road to the Organic Squirrel Frozen Yoghurt Co.

Company management can no longer easily see the working patterns of their teams. Yes they see the headlines and quarterly results, but I’m talking day to day movement. If you don’t know where your staff are spending their time, but you notice empty desks, how can you re-plan and improve their place of work? How can you, Mr Financial Director – pin striped king of the urban jungle – reduce costs, whilst improving feel good factor, morale and profitability? You need to get amongst your targets like David Attenborough in the wild. Tranquilize and tag your staff like an endangered species. Then study them whilst they go about their daily business.

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Ok. Maybe I’m going overboard slightly.

My (serious) point is that if you as an employer are not 100% familiar with your team’s working habits – and you are planning a refurbishment of some sort – you need to get to know how they work and what they need before you set out on this journey. In these situations, experiments such as this can be crucial for workplace consultants to gain an accurate understanding of what makes the office tick. The flip side is that they bring the whole ‘privacy’ debate into the fray and there may be some less scrupulous employers out there that would use information gathered in these workplace experiments for the dark side of the force.

I have noticed a number of what I would call ‘typical negative employee reactions’ throughout the Telegraph newsroom saga that will be all too familiar to workplace designers and consultants:

  1. Suspicion of people (or in this case boxes) studying their working habits, which quickly turns into concerns about being penalised by management for excessive toilet breaks or long lunches with Janice from Marketing- ultimately culminating with the perceived threat of redundancies.
  2. Common negative focus on ‘workplace efficiency’ and ‘reducing office size’ by scaremongers – ultimately culminating with perceived threat of redundancies.

If information about working habits can be harvested accurately, offices can be redesigned to be smaller and more efficient, yet still feel more spacious, relaxed and luxurious – ultimately places you would want to spend time in.

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Smaller can be beautiful (er). And reducing office size doesn’t mean staff cuts. In fact, if it reduces costs and improves health and wellbeing (and in turn performance) of staff, it could actually be a form of workforce preservation.

Maybe the culture in the Telegraph newsroom is all wrong and they all need to go on a nice team building weekend to Abersoch.

Thanks for reading. It’s 13.07 now and I’m leaving my desk to get a soy mocha chocca latte (but I’ll still be working).

As this is my brand new blog, I welcome any shares, retweets or forwards. Look out for my next blog edition. 

 

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