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Beachtowelling, The Curse of an Agile Workspace

I was very lucky to have had a week off recently somewhere sunny and warm and when I’m away there is nothing I like more than lying on a sunbed or sat in a beach side bar watching the world go by. I am always fascinated by human behaviour and how people’s behaviour does not change whether in work or at play, at home or abroad.

Beachtowelling, The Curse of an Agile Workspace

One thing that seems to have become omnipresent wherever you go on holiday is the practice of “beachtowelling”, the act of placing a beach towel or personal items on a sunbed to reserve it for when you need it. Even if this means getting up at 6am every day to trudge down to the beach or pool just to get the perfect spot only to find the whole hotel has had the same idea and you are greeted by a sea of towels on sunbeds.

It was the same at our hotel. Most people had arrived on the Saturday and on the following morning there was beach-towelling on an industrial scale. Everyone was anxious to get a sunbed and had got up early to do so. You can imagine the panic going through people’s minds as they set their alarms for an unholy hour - what if no sunbeds are available, how can I relax and enjoy my holiday? How can I keep out of the sun? The whole holiday is going to be a disaster! It’s the end of the world!

But this hotel had provided enough sunbeds, not one for every guest but enough, and day by day people started to realise that there would always be a sunbed available somewhere, it might not be exactly the one you want under that particular palm tree or the one you had yesterday but generally there were sunbeds available near where you want to be, whether that’s by the pool, under the shady trees or on the beach. The level of beach towelling went down, the amount of available sunbeds went up, people stopped being so anxious, stopped getting up so early and started to actually enjoy their holiday.

But I Must Have “My” Desk

And it’s the same in any office undergoing the transition to agile working. Any form of desk sharing creates anxiety - it’s a leap into the unknown. Will I be able to sit with my team, will I still be able to sit near my files, near the window, will I even get a desk at all? The whole project is going to be a disaster! It’s the end of the world!

This anxiety is only natural and a human response to the unknown. To make the transition to agile working work well, we need to convince people that that there will always be enough desks provided they don’t excessively beach-towel. We need to make sure we are providing enough places to work (not necessarily all desks) in the first place and that there are “safety valves” in place like touchdown desks and lounge/breakout areas to deal with days that are unusually busy (usually only the day of the office Christmas party or when the annual bonuses are due!).

And most important of all, we need to engage with our colleagues, explain how the new office and new way of working is actually going to work. Reassure them that they will always have somewhere appropriate to work and in fact explain that we have given them choice, the choice to work where they want to suit the task or activity they are doing at the time; the choice to be more flexible and the choice to work with whoever they need to work with.

We also need to agree ground rules - is some beach-towelling ok? Is it ok to reserve a desk if you are away for a one-hour meeting, yes? What about two hours, maybe? What about three hours, hmmm? What is fair to our colleagues?

It is important to avoid being draconian and to remember that we are trying to improve things, to help our colleagues, to raise morale and productivity. If it takes them 10 minutes to get their stuff from their locker, to login to the phone and pc / laptop, to set up their chair etc. then asking them to go through all of this again after being away for just an hour is probably not just a bit unreasonable but inefficient - defeating the object of what we are trying to do.

And What About My “Stuff”?                

We also need to recognise that our colleague's response to agile working is more than just about reserving a desk, it’s also about personalisation. People like to feel that they own something, that it is theirs. After all, you spend more of the time you are awake during your working life in work than you do at home. They’ve worked hard to get the window seat, waiting patiently for longer-serving colleagues to retire, they like to have the pictures of the husband/wife and kids, the trophy they won at the team go karting five years ago, their collection of gonks.                

We need them to understand that it’s not about taking away their little nest but giving them something so much better instead. It’s about transitioning their mindset from “I’m working, therefore, I need a desk” to “I have a task to do, where is it best to do that task and who should I involve in it”. It’s about transitioning their thinking from “this is my desk” to this is “our space”. But we don’t have to depersonalise the workspace, we just need to discourage individual desk ownership and nesting behaviour as this will reduce available desks and negatively impact other colleagues. We are trying to raise morale, not create bland soulless uniform workspaces. There is also a growing body of research that shows that allowing people to tailor and choose elements of their workspace significantly increases morale and productivity.

So How Do We Prevent Beachtowelling and Make Agile Working Work?

Getting it right is important, credibility is on the line and people will be looking to rubbish the proposed new environment as they will be hoping to force a way back to their old familiar ways. These are a few tips to help you on your way to the brave new world of agile working:

1. Make sure there are enough desks. This is essential and you need to get it right. You need to be efficient but if you provide too few it will feel crowded and people won’t be able to sit anywhere near the people they need to collaborate with. We recommend doing a space utilisation study to ascertain what is actually happening and what sharing ratios teams or groups of teams can work to. This also builds credibility that the proposed new way of working is based on hard facts.

2. Make sure you put safety valves in place. As part of your new workspace, you will hopefully be including alternative work settings such as collaboration areas, high tables for teamwork, quiet/focus areas and even touchdown / short stay desks - all of these act as effective safety valves when the space is busy, accommodating staff as well as the desks.

3. Make sure you engage with your staff to explain the new approach, how it is going to work and reassure them that there will be enough sunbeds, sorry desks, available and if they don’t reserve desks there won’t be a problem. Explain to them about how to use the other areas, encourage them to be flexible and to not just use desks but whichever area is best for the task they are doing at the time. Consider undertaking an employee workplace survey (such as our PeopleLOOK survey) to understand what they think, what they would like and how they would like to work.

4. Let them decide. If you can allow them to set their own ground rules for when you can and can’t beach towel a desk or what sort of food can be eaten at a desk - it’s amazing how it self polices when it’s you and your colleagues who have discussed and decided what is acceptable behaviour

5. Find ways to allow personalisation. There are a number of ways (and products in the market) to allow people and teams to personalise their space, allowing them a choice, without fixing them to a specific desk. You can allow the team choice of artwork or local team branding, use products such as magnetised branding (magnetised posters that stick to filing cabinets) and for the individual you can use personalised storage boxes (such as the Hotbox range) that allow for colour choice and personalisation as well as allowing the user to quickly get their things from their locker and set themselves up. You can even put noticeboards or chalkboards near team areas and encourage people to further personalise their team space, to put up pictures, do some graffiti or to write something funny.

But what is most important of all, don’t lose sight of the fact that your colleagues’ beach towelling behaviour is due to not knowing any different and their anxiety is a natural fear of the unknown - we are only human after all. It is better to engage, explain and encourage and you might affect real change.

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