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.

The closed world of open office environments.

If you ask company managers and CFOs if they prefer “open office” concepts over private offices, you may well get a different answer than if you ask the people who actually work in open office environments.

There are two attractive aspects about open office plans that surely warm the hearts of many business managers. One is the notion that an open office environment encourages more interaction and spontaneous collaboration among employees.

The other is that open office concepts don’t cost as much to build and maintain as do private offices.

So … let’s break this down a bit.

Speaking personally, I’ve visited numerous company headquarters and branch locations where open office plans are prevalent … but what I see and hear isn’t interaction. Instead, it’s more likely to be mounds of white noise with employees sitting at their desks focusing intently on their computer screens.

Any interaction that may be happening is closer to the hushed sounds of a reference library — or even the confessional zone in the back of a Roman Catholic or Anglican church — than it is to any kind of bright, casual conversation with ideation happening all over the place.

This can’t be what managers had in mind – even if they’re shaving 25% or more off of their facilities management budget.

Now we have some new evidence to support the anecdotal evidence. Researchers at the Harvard Business School studied two Fortune 500 companies that made the transition to an open office plan from one where workers had more privacy.  The firms agreed to allow themselves to be the subjects of before/after evaluation.

The research wasn’t done via a survey, which would likely be susceptible to respondent bias (a fear of being honest and saying something that goes against the common managerial POV). Instead, the actual worker behaviors were charted using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones that were worn by the employees for several weeks before and after the office redesigns.

The badges worn by the participants included an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth® sensor and an accelerometer that, when combined with a microphone, could discern when two people had a face-to-face interaction (but without recording the actual words spoken).

The Harvard research also studied before/after data pertaining to the volume of e-mail and instant messenger use by the employees.

Even though other variables remaining the same in the before/after evaluation (the same employees … before/after study periods occurring during the same business cycle), the changes in behavior were startling:

  • Employees spent ~73% less time in face-to-face interactions
  • E-mail use rose by ~67%
  • Instant messenger use grew by ~75%

The research also looked at shifts in interactions between specific pairs of work colleagues, where it found a similar dropoff in face-to-face communications along with increased electronic correspondence (although not to the same degree as the overall research results showed).

Furthermore, the research determined that workers tended to interact with different groups of people online than they did in person, which opens up even more potential concerns about the reduction in collaboration that would be happening as a result of moving to the open office concept.

Speaking in a post-study interview, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein’s conclusion was that there’s “a natural human desire for privacy — and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it.”

In the case of preferred office configurations, people simply don’t like fishbowls. Deskside chats don’t happen, and other face-to-face interaction is severely limited as well.

In other words, open office plans don’t result in increased personal interaction, but they do create a more digital environment.  That seems like the polar opposite of what management wants.

Of course, to reduce a company’s facilities budget, an open office environment remains the preferred thing to do.  So maybe companies need to drop all of the pretense about “facilitating positive collaboration and spontaneous brainstorming.” Just tell employees what’s really behind shifting to an open office concept:  spending fewer dollars.

At least employees might appreciate the honesty rather than the obfuscation …

A detailed article summarizing the research, co-authored by Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, can be accessed here.