It may not sound as nice as “Ubi bene ibi patria” (Where it is well with me, there is my home) or “Home is where the heart is”, but at least it isn’t a sentimental saying on a calendar: My office is where I am. Working from home and mobile working are stirring the pot in the working world. So-called desk sharing is included in this. Previously better known in hip start-ups, it is now making its way into the headquarters of the Siemens group.

It’s not for nothing that people are talking about the digital workplace or workplace 4.0 in the context of digital transformation. An evident expression of this transformation is so-called desk sharing. Desk sharing was previously known particularly from the pioneer sectors of the new economy: IT, creative start-ups, and innovative consulting companies. Now, Siemens is the first global player from the old economy to consistently introduce desk sharing. There are no more fixed workstations at the new group headquarters at the Wittelsbacherplatz in Munich. A clean desk policy is in effect.

At the Siemens office, every employee in principle has to look for a new desk in the morning and tidy it again in the evening. Piles of documents, paper baskets and employee perfumes are not a welcome sight; personal belongings have to be tidied away at the end of the day. That is possibly the most painful aspect of this transformation in the working culture: The end of worker territory, the goodbye to personal coffee cups, family photos, and quote and horse calendars all signalize that things are going to get uncomfortable for nostalgists.

Clean desk policy instead of your own coffee cup and family photos

In the age of mobile working and digital networking, the desk is increasingly becoming an anachronistic luxury for everyone. Employees are at “their” desk more and more rarely. They are with customers, in seminars or meetings, on the train commuting, in a traffic jam or at home, but they are almost always in “home office” mode no matter where they are. In a working world of flat hierarchies, virtual meetings and continuous changes, static structures, fixed working hours and bolted-down desks are becoming redundant – if not counterproductive. A laptop with the right software replaces stacks of paper on the desk. Desk sharing is a factor for success. It promotes transparency, flexibility, creativity and productivity. It reduces operational costs, improves communication and coordination, and increases motivation and job satisfaction. Particularly in the areas of work of so-called “smart workers”, it has incredible efficiency potential.

Bald eine Rarität? Familienfotos am Schreibtisch, (c) DeathtoStock

Bald eine Rarität? Familienfotos am Schreibtisch, (c) DeathtoStock

That being said, the transition from the private to the functional desk has to be communicated and managed well. Older employees in particular easily feel insecure and uprooted when they have to give up cherished items, routines and their own desk including their piles of paper, nodding dog and family photos. The bullpen with its standardized workplaces is not very popular; it is seen as stuffy, tight and cold. And who doesn’t just want to look for a different desk every morning but also run the risk that the game of puss-in-the-corner will become something like musical chairs where the slowest person can’t find a place? While economists emphasize the benefits of open offices and desk sharing, industrial psychologists, company physicians and sociologists remind us of the “emotional costs” (Jan Slaby): tension, stress, loss of commitment and connection, not to mention the hygienic and ergonomic problems – a challenge for occupational safety.

Untidy desks may be a sign of indiscipline and inefficiency but also convey feelings of home and humanness. According to John Rockefeller, only petty thoughts come from petty buildings – but big thoughts cannot be produced by office architecture and furniture design alone.

Desk sharing at Siemens means self-determination at the workplace

Jana Kugel, Head of HR at Siemens, makes a point of explaining her clean desk strategy well. In the Siemens offices, employees should be able to work where, when and how they want. They can put everything on the desk that is precious to them – as long as it “isn’t alive or shouldn’t come to life” and is then put away tidily in a locker in the evening. According to Ms. Kugel, self-determination at the workplace should make employees “happier and therefore more productive”, and that is a win for all sides.

Desk-Sharing und Clean-Desk-Policy sollen für mehr Flexibilität sorgen

Desk-Sharing und Clean-Desk-Policy sollen für mehr Flexibilität sorgen

In any case, the clean desk policy should not degenerate into brainwashing. “We have to reeducate people a little bit,” says a Siemens spokesperson, “but they quickly understand that freedom isn’t being taken away from them but given to them.” Freedoms such as the ability to choose between functionally fully differentiated room types: zones for concentration, communication and creativity, thinking retreats, sound-proofed telephone boxes, lots of meeting points and zones for withdrawing. Open spaces or single rooms, private or functional desks – it is wrong to see these as alternatives. The future of work is a combination of the two organized by intelligent space management concepts and a social intranet.

According to a Fraunhofer study about “Office 21”, the future of work is more like a lounge than a classic open-space office. You work where there is space and if somebody opens their laptop in the café, then it doesn’t even look like work. The offices open to the outside world and that also applies to workplaces. The old, mouse-gray kitchenette has long been replaced by bright, colorful lounges with coffee machines, foosball tables and child daycare – and not only at Google. In the new Siemens headquarters, the ground floor is public and equipped with cafés and shops, and even on the upper floors, ties are being seen as compulsory less and less and being on first name terms is becoming more and more normal. Ideally, a Siemens employee doesn’t take care of the plant on their desk anymore but rather the community olive tree. This is now called social collaboration.