UBS rein­vents in­vest­ment bank­ing workspace

No lap­top, no phone, no desk, no prob­lem. ‘Thin desks’ lauded as wave of the fu­ture

Toronto Star - - BUSINESS - CHAD BRAY

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.”

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

At the new UBS of­fices, em­ploy­ees can log onto their vir­tual desk­tops at any com­puter in the build­ing or at home.

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