UBS reinvents investment banking workspace
No laptop, no phone, no desk, no problem. ‘Thin desks’ lauded as wave of the future
LONDON— A desk is like a home away from home for many in the working world.
Family photos, trinkets from a vacation, an extra pair of shoes or spare chopsticks are just some of the things routinely left lying around in what has become personal space.
But that comes at a price for companies, particularly in cities like London or New York, where the cost of real estate is at a premium, and at a time when workers are more mobile than ever.
In its newly opened building in central London, the Swiss banking giant UBS is looking to change how employees view their relationship with their workspaces.
Many of its employees at 5 Broadgate Cir. will no longer be tied to the same desk every day with a telephone and desktop computer. Instead, the company has deployed socalled thin desks throughout the building.
Phone handsets were replaced by personal headsets, and employees can log onto their virtual desktops on computers at any desk in the building or at home. There are no laptops to lug around, and their phone numbers follow them from desk to desk or to their mobile devices.
“For me, it’s opening up and allowing people to work in different ways on whatever project, whatever activity they’re working on,” said Andrew Owen, managing director for UBS group corporate services in London. “Being chained to a desk in a singular environment is restrictive.”
The elimination of fixed desks is not a new concept — it has proved particularly popular among technology companies and startups — but only in recent years has technology made it more viable for larger companies. It is still a rarity, however, in investment banking.
The trading floors at UBS in London still have a more traditional setup, with groups of employees heading to the same set of desks each day to view three or six screens of trading data. But that could change.
“The trading desk is our next port of call to achieve user mobility,” Ashley Davis, managing director for the UBS corporate centre in London, said.
By having a more mobile setup for its employees, UBS believes it is able to use its existing real estate more efficiently. The company is using a ratio of one available desk for every 1.2 employees who work in the new building in London. There are common areas where employees can gather for project meetings or work if the company finds itself at full desk capacity on any given day. Most days, though, someone is travelling or on vacation.
UBS executives insist the shift is not all about costs.
“I would be wrong to sit here and say there isn’t an economic efficiency dimension,” Owen said. “In and of itself, that’s not the reason to do it. It would fail on that basis. It has to be of value to our staff and our structure in the way we operate.”
UBS spent two years preparing workers in London for the new mobile desk concept and addressing their concerns, Owen said. By the end of 2017, the company expects to have 72,000 thin desks globally.
“Working together, talking to each other, working in a more agile way. People are probably not so fixed anymore in their working environment,” said Harald Egger, UBS’s head of group corporate services and sourcing. “They work much more in projects.”
At the new UBS offices, employees can log onto their virtual desktops at any computer in the building or at home.