People & Human Resources

ATO in hot-desk stoush as union warns planned setup could cause everyday chaos

Emma Koehn /

Workers are preparing to fight a plan at the Australian Taxation Office that could see staff forced to adopt a hot-desking office setup, in a case that shows just how controversial the practice can be in organisations.

The Canberra Times reports the Australian Services Union plans to go head-to-head with the ATO at the Fair Work Commission over the policy, with the union saying there has been little warning about the plans and hot-desk setups don’t fit within the remit of the enterprise bargaining agreement covering tax office workers.

Speaking to SmartCompany this morning, Australian Services Union Tax Branch secretary Jeff Lapidos says a pilot hot-desking program has been completed at ATO in Melbourne, and there are concerns the new ATO branch in Gosford, New South Wales, which is slated to be up and running by January 2018, will prioritise shared and hot-desk working spaces.

The Gosford office is still in fitout stage, and Lapidos says the hot-desk plan was only communicated in July of this year, despite assurances from the ATO this wasn’t going to be the plan for most workers.

“It’s not so much the chaos of the setup of this, but the chaos of every day, as people look for their desks,” Lapidos says.

The union for tax office workers says the newly issued enterprise bargaining agreement that covers ATO employees does not allow for hot-desking, and Lapidos says staff who have been in the Melbourne hot-desking trial have reported the arrangement is not suitable as a permanent setup.

“The [desks] are small, they’re close together, they’re not set up for permanent positions,” Lapidos says.

However, in a statement to SmartCompany, an ATO spokesperson said feedback from trial participants using activity-based workspaces at the tax office has been “very positive” and “revealed an overwhelming support for the layout offered in an activity-based workspace”.

“An activity-based working environment will provide staff with more efficient access to a wider range of facilities where they can choose the environment that best supports their work. All staff will have a desk and facilities to store personal items,” the spokesperson said.

The Australian Services Union says it will complete talks with the tax office and is currently drafting a submission to the Fair Work Commission should the issue have to go to arbitration.

Hot-desking still trendy, but evidence foggy

Director of HR Staff ‘n Stuff Deborah Peppard tells SmartCompany hot-desking is still a popular option for offices, but she hasn’t seen any compelling research that shows the practice actually boosts productivity.

“I haven’t seen any research that it does [boost results], and when it comes down to it, a lot of jobs are about doing your own tasks instead of collaboration,” she says.

Earlier this year, research suggesting shared work spaces can in fact disrupt worker morale and productivity prompted HR experts to tell SmartCompany the best office setups are driven by staff input.

Peppard agrees, highlighting that while SMEs might not be able to accommodate all staff requests, it’s important to at least ask for feedback before making any changes.

“You end up with a better decision if at least people can voice their opinions,” Peppard says. 

One of the challenges when discussing hot-desking or other workplace arrangements is a fear from management that they will be unable to process and respond to the individual opinions of their teams, Peppard says.

The ability to process feedback is a skill that is definitely lacking among leaders in some small businesses, but SMEs must push beyond the fear, she believes.

“People are concerned that by opening up the discussion, they will be raising all these issues. People have a fear of being disagreed with and opening these things up.”

However, in the quest to build stable revenue growth, small businesses should realise the most productive workers will be ones who have been consulted about workplace arrangements, Peppard says.

“If they can onboard and consult with their team, they will come out with a better outcome,” she says. 

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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