Hot-desking on the hot-seat.

“Few aspects of office life are more dispiriting than hot-desking — the penny-pinching ploy that strips people of their own desk and casts them out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots.” 

— Pilita Clark, Correspondent, Financial Times

I’ve blogged before about so-called “open office” layouts and how they’re disdained by many employees. But even with all of the unpopularity of open office layouts, there’s another office concept that appears to be even more despised: “hot-desking.”

Hot-desking is a concept that came into being more than a decade ago, and it takes the idea of “open offices” a step beyond. It’s a design in which workers are not assigned to a regular desk or cubicle, but instead find whatever desk is available to them on any given day.

If you read the literature from five or ten years ago, you’ll see all manner of compelling reasons being proffered as to why hot-desking is a worthwhile concept. One rationale is that hot-desking fosters “agile working” and more collaboration among employees — at the same time making communications between workers more effective and thereby enhancing the exchange of information.

Reading those advocacy pieces, there are numerous references to employees finding hot-desking to be “liberating,” “motivating,” “energizing,” and so forth.

Advocates of hot-desking appear to equate it the practice of working “wherever” — just to long as the work gets done. “Wherever” can mean at home, in coffee shops, or anywhere around the office.

If all this seems a little too neat and tidy, the your suspicions are warranted. Because some observers are onto the real reasons companies adopt hot-desking work environments — which is to save on office space and its associated costs.

Is it any wonder that hot-desking is promoted by top executives, finance and facilities management personnel more than any others?

Alison Hirst, PhD, a research specialist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, who has experienced hot-desking personally, clues us in on what’s actually happening. She spent three years carefully studying one organization that moved to a hot-desk environment:

“Like many companies, it had switched to hot-desking to reduce property costs and enable precious office space to be used flexibly. In the language of facilities management, an office building can be ‘crunched’ by increasing the staff-to-desks ratio, and it can be ‘restacked’ as teams and departments are moved around like boxes.

But in this bid for cost-cutting, a number of employees are made to feel underappreciated at best and unwanted at worst. There is often a subtle division between those who can ‘settle’ and reliably occupy the same desk every day, and those who cannot.”

In Hirst’s observations, “settlers” are able to arrive at the office early choose their preferred desk. By repeating their choice over time, it effectively establishes this desk as “their” space — whether it be because of its preferred location near to windows, or near to their closest colleagues.

Those who cannot arrive sufficiently early — such as part-time employees or those with childcare responsibilities — are left to hunting around for a suitable workspace, often far removed from the colleagues with whom they need to work most closely.

Last year, business author and journalist Simon Constable penned an opinion piece for Forbes with the provocative title “How Hot-Desking Will Kill Your Company.” In it, Constable contends that for most companies, the drawbacks of hot-desking vastly outweigh any benefits. Constable, who also has personal experience working in a hot-desking environment, makes these salient points:

Hot-desking signals that employees don’t matter — companies like to say that their employees are their single best asset. But when an employee isn’t even offered a permanent desk, it sends a completely opposite message.

Super-quick meetings won’t happen — Brief impromptu meetings are a vital part of office efficiency. In concentrated work environments with relevant teams of employees, such micro-events are important but don’t interrupt much of the workflow because of the proximity of the workers involved. If having short 3- or 5-minute meetings will require summoning people from all over the building, that super-quick meeting will soon become a frustrating 15 or 20 minutes, eating away at productivity. Which means they’ll rarely happen at all.

Inefficiencies add up quickly — The combined total costs of small-but-incremental negative effects adds up. The larger the office, the worse the impact is likely to be.

Rank hypocrisy — Employees notice that many of the biggest advocates for hot-desking are the people who have dedicated desks for themselves — and often their own individual offices with doors. “Hot-desking for thee but not for me.”

Fortunately, I work in a small office where everyone is not only locationally proximate, we even have walls and a door for when privacy is needed for meetings or concentrated creative/copywriting time without distractions. Closed-door activities may only happen once or twice per week, but they increase work efficiencies. I consider our situation fortunate not to be forced into open-office or hot-desking scenarios.

What are your thoughts on the hot-desking concept? If you have personal experiences, please share them with other readers here.

3 thoughts on “Hot-desking on the hot-seat.

  1. As administrative functions are increasingly outsourced, employees are frequently grateful to work at home. It saves time, wardrobe, commuting expense and facilitates child care.

    But in the office, hot-desking fails on psychological grounds. People have preferences in life. One might like the workflow or even the view from a particular desk. Another might be eager to escape a neighboring worker’s annoying voice, obsessive socializing, or dismaying personal habits. One might want to be seen by everyone, while another prefers to hide out from prying eyes and noise.

    Hot-desking fails for the same reason one-size-for-all socialism fails. Executives who don’t understand this might learn something from working for a taxi company and having to drive the car assigned to them. They would quickly learn to bribe the dispatcher and be reminded by Orwell that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others … “

  2. Yep. A sure-fire way to make an employee feel unappreciated is to not even guarantee them a place to sit. If they want to take their laptop into a common space or sit on the lobby sofa, I guess that’s fine. But don’t make that their only option.

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