05. Getting bugged by hot-desking

Hot-desking – where do I start? The latest money saving idea that means office workers are not allowed their own desk anymore but everyone has to fight over the communal computer monitors in a big open plan workspace. Goodbye family photos and postcards that make work a little bit more bearable. Hello soulless corporate mono-culture. As for having a place to store all your paperwork (or even your favourite tea bags), forget it.

Of course, workers hate it. As well as dehumanising the work environment, there are health and safety issues. If no one is guaranteed the same computer every day, is a brand new DSE risk assessment supposed to take place every single day? If workers now have to carry all their documents with them wherever they go, is this a new manual handling hazard? And as anyone who has had to share a public computer with hundreds of other people will testify, what about communicable diseases? That keyboard you are tapping away at isn’t just used by you, it’s been sneezed over and had food crumbs spilled on it by god knows how many people. Oh and by the way, the cleaners are under strict instructions not to clear rubbish from the desks.

As is often the case, lots of people are moaning but what is the union going to do about it? One of my favourite tactics was from a group of safety reps in a north London council who decided to get their members involved by using an idea from off the telly. Who remembers that reality TV programme, ‘How clean is your house?’, where Kim and Aggie used to do a deep clean of someone’s home. Most weeks seemed to involve taking swabs of the built up grime from a manky cooker in student digs. The swabs would then be sent to a lab and the cultures grown in a petri dish. In the last scene of the programme a list of harmful germs and spores would be revealed – all of which would be potentially lethal. We did ‘How clean is your hot-desk?’.

Every rep got trained up in how to correctly use the swabs and the week before the quarterly safety inspection, an email was sent telling members that the union would be conducting a safety sampling exercise. All on the same day, the safety reps went out and people were queuing up to get their desks swabbed. Everyone was talking about it. One of the safety reps was a lab technician in a 6th form and the swabs were taken back for the A-level chemistry students to practice with. This is all perfectly legal under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations, and if your workplace does not have access to a chemistry lab, then the regulations require the employer to provide facilities and assistance in this kind of thing.

It takes a while for the cultures to grow but as you can imagine, the union was being contacted by their members almost on a daily basis to find out what the results were. It’d been a long time since publication of a report by safety reps had generated quite so much interest amongst the workforce. Full colour photographs of bacteria are not a pretty picture. Alongside a list of long Latin names and their possible health effects, the next union safety newsletter caused uproar. At the next meeting of the safety committee, hot desking was the first item on the agenda.