Economy & Business

Hot desking

22 April, 2021

Is it a sign of an agile, dynamic company or a further devaluation of the employee as an individual?

By Mike Jewell

People wearing masks while working

“If you hate your company, its employees and the shareholders then go ahead and introduce the latest management fad: hot desking. It's a better way to destroy the firm than inviting Russian hackers to rob you blind.”

Simon Constable, writing in Forbes magazine, June 2019

When I was seconded to Market Facts in Chicago just after the millennium, my boss said he would arrange for me to have an office, no problem. After two weeks in an open-plan cube, I approached my local contact and asked when I would get my entitlement. She said slightly patronisingly “but you know offices are only for vice presidents.” There was a pause, then the realisation dawned, “Oh…you are a vice president!” Apologies gushed forth and 30 minutes later I was inspecting my domain and putting my stamp on my home-from-home, ruffled feathers smoothed over, status within the hierarchy duly affirmed.

Personal space in the office has always been sacred, especially once the move to open-plan designs became entrenched and personal offices were reserved for the upper echelons of management. Those below VP level, with no walls, doors or name plates to differentiate their workspaces, had to stake out their territories in other ways: personalised mugs, hand-written labels, novelty stress balls and carefully curated displays of family photographs.

Now, even that ability to personalise is being eroded, as “hot desking” – where there are no assigned desks, but employees select any vacant workstation when they come into the office – is seeping insidiously through corporate premises. As well as walls, office workers are having to ditch their desks, take their personal items home and start to share spaces with their co-workers.

And this trend is reaching ever further into the deepest recesses of the corporate landscape. This month the CEO of banking behemoth HSBC – whose culture has been compared to Britain’s imperial-era civil service – shook the organisation to its foundations by announcing that top managers in its Canary Wharf HQ in London have been booted out of their private offices and now hot desk on an open-plan floor lower down the tower. Noel Quinn himself, the CEO, is leading the way.

Let’s be under no illusions about why companies have been moving to hot desking. It has purely been driven by the desire to cut cost. Forget the twaddle about “encouraging greater collaboration” and “creating a more fertile environment for exchange of ideas and innovation”. I’ve had that nonsense rammed down my throat as a justification for hot desking. Those may indeed be some of the outcomes of switching to a more mobile workplace, but the driving force is the promise of reduced overheads, period.

To be fair, the potential savings are substantial. Research has shown that, in many offices, up to 40% of desks may be empty on any given day and analysts reckon that hot desking can reduce running costs by 30%, so it’s easy to see why increasing numbers of companies see it as such a compelling way to go.

Over the years I have been called many things, (usually just out of my hearing), including “Luddite” and “dinosaur” and the recurrent theme is that I may be somewhat resistant to change. It should be no surprise then that my view of hot desking is that is the embodiment of the Dark Side, just another corporate initiative to squeeze even more out of the downtrodden employee. Fortunately, before I began penning this article, I decided to don my researcher hat once again and see how other people feel about hot desking and, if possible, what their experiences have been. I was fully expecting universal condemnation of the whole idea, but, as is so often the case, reality is much more complicated and there are many different angles to take into account in forming an informed opinion.

After consulting a number of former colleagues and business contacts in Taiwan and further afield, it is clear that the concept of hot desking holds considerable appeal for many office staff, particularly younger ones.

“I personally like the idea, you just have to keep it clean and organised all the time, which can be challenging.  I’d love to try if I could, it saves space and cost for the company too. I like the idea because…a new routine everyday probably helps my brain development!”

“I think it’s nice if it’s an open environment - not cubicles but done tastefully like in a more modern workspace. I’ve heard my co-workers like this idea too! Especially because we don’t have many meeting rooms, that extra space would be used to accommodate more large meeting rooms.”

“To a person who likes trying new things I think it’s great! However I think it also depends on job functionality — like if you need to discuss work with co-workers, it might be easier if you sit close to them (unless there are a lot of other meeting spaces)

It’s great for meeting new people I guess and keeping your workspace simple because you probably can only bring the stuff you need.”

“I would like to try hot desking if I have the chance! Sitting beside different people and having more chance to get to know colleagues from different departments – don’t need to wait until sports day!”

One consistent theme coming through in these comments is the appeal of the added variety in the daily routine offered by sitting with different colleagues. It does not necessarily mean extra benefit for the business, but it does give people the chance to look outside their own silo and build a broader range of contacts across the company, with more of the precious social contact that has become so highly prized during global lockdowns and long, enforced periods of WFH.

Other contacts expressed an opposite view, coming out against the idea.

“Well, I’ve never experienced hot desking before, though I think it’s a trend, but people might need some time to get used to the idea. The bad thing is, somehow, employees may lose the sense of belonging because there’s no “my desk” in the office. People like to put their “signature” around their working space to make them feel comfortable and at ease in the office. And you may need to come to the office soooo early for those “hot spots” in the office.”

“I think there are more disadvantages than advantages. Having to be concerned with securing a desk just adds pressure, difficulties with brief impromptu in person meetings, always sitting next to people you don’t know and no personalised space (I know people who like to decorate their little work area). I can’t think of any good points.”

“I have no experience for hot desking, but I don’t like it because I have many personal belongings and documents to be allocated. And if I need to spend extra time to find the good seat, it would bother me a lot.”

“From my own perspective, I don’t like that. The worst part is that you have to clean out all the stuff after a tiring working day and rearrange everything on the next one. Also, you cannot “decorate” your seat, and it makes it hard to feel like you are part of the company.”

“I need my personal space so I can feel a sense of belonging and focus. Hot desking is like working in a public library.”

The negative views encompass both practical concerns and, more significantly, a feeling of insecurity with the possibility of a loss of connection to a major anchor in people’s daily lives. So, overall a mixed bag of expectations among those who have yet to experience hot desking.

Those I spoke to who have worked under this type of regime, however, expressed very few positive comments. Indeed, some of their companies have already abandoned hot desking, including the Shanghai office of my former employer, reportedly because fixed desks allow the company to monitor who is in and out of the office much more easily!

So far hot desking is felt to be hindering, rather than helping the efficient completion of daily work, while the hoped for cross-department collaboration has failed to materialise. As one friend wrote:

“What kind of collaboration were they looking for? Do they think a researcher sitting with a finance person will suddenly help to revamp the expense procedure?”

A software developer in New York explained how the daily frustrations far outweigh the fun of sitting with different members of staff.

“To me the benefit is having the flexibility to change seat when I need to refresh my mood. However, working at a new desk means I have to set up the peripherals I use (laptop stand, keyboard, mouse) every time, which may involve switching between mac and windows and is inefficient.”

Along with the practical annoyances, not all employees seem willing to embrace the mobility concept but prefer the emotional security of returning to the same seat every day, creating friction around the office. A senior executive summarised his experience in this way:

“In terms of collaboration, it doesn’t really work for us, since we’re structured by teams. The positive side is more space for meeting rooms, more fancy space, but we also found some people always occupied the meeting room, even if they did not have meetings. Most people didn’t like [hot desking]. And after Covid, many people are using MS Teams for meetings. It is very annoying when having online meetings in open space and another problem is lack of privacy.”

Returning to the same workspace day after day has been observed widely in hot desk environments and underlines the importance to many workers of having a space to call their own, to reinforce their sense of belonging. A young lawyer in Canada told me of the feelings of being in limbo he experienced while combining hot desking with WFH in his first few months of employment.

“I found I didn't feel a sense of connection or permanence. My workstation was always in flux. One day at home, one day in this office and another day in that office. As such, I also felt like my productivity was affected.

Since then, I have been assigned my own office. Being able to set my documents out across my desk in "to do", "ongoing" and "complete" piles, or to leave personal items such as chargers, water bottles and decorations has made me feel more connected. The offshoot of that is that I feel I can dip in and out of my workflow more easily.

I think there is something to be said about having a space that is "your own" as an employee. I guess I am the sort of individual who likes to stay with my desk, rather than play hot potato with a number of desks.”

Hot desking – here to stay or a passing fad?
Up to this point, I suspect companies have looked at their office space just as a single cost line and sought solutions that addressed it in isolation, without factoring in the broader issues of the changing nature of work. However, the Covid pandemic has put the entire way of working under the microscope and accelerated the process of workplace change almost beyond belief. The discussion now is about the future of work as a whole and hot desking is just one of a host of interconnected variables.

All the buzz currently is around remote working and the extent to which that will endure beyond the end of the pandemic. WFH became a necessity overnight for many, but the general expectation is that it will remain a significant feature of the business environment, resulting in a major reimagining of the role and shape of companies’ offices.

McKinsey has projected that 20-25% of workforces in developed economies would be able to work productively remotely for 3-5 days per week. By extension, this means that a majority of tasks will continue to be completed in offices, but already many companies are adopting strategies to accommodate the inevitable growth in remote working. Back to HSBC. “We will have a very different working style going forward that will be much more hybrid, where colleagues can part work in the office, part at home,” said Noel Quinn.

According to the Financial Times, other financial services firms are also adapting their strategies. Britain’s biggest mortgage lender Nationwide offered a full-time WFH option to any of their office-based staff who want it. Lloyds is testing out hybrid working after 77% of staff said they wanted to continue working remotely. Standard Chartered signed a global agreement with IWG to allow many of its 95,000 employees to work from “near-home” locations in IWG’s shared office premises rather than commuting into cities. Elsewhere, ABN AMRO are selling off their headquarters premises and Facebook and Twitter have stated that employees can work remotely permanently, if they so choose.

The new, hybrid model of working, referenced by HSBC and favoured by many organisations, including some here in Taiwan, will clearly result in the need for much less office space and, in Robert Walters latest annual salary survey, 22% of firms in Greater China expressed an intention to downsize. In the UK, estimates vary, but a significant proportion of businesses will look to reduce their office footprint, with the big banks leading the way – HSBC want to jettison 40% of their global real estate, Lloyds 20% and Standard Chartered 30%.

It is only to be expected that optimisation of office space will also include desk sharing. Global consultancy WSP anticipates that a typical office will have desks for 60-75% of their workforce. HSBC’s goal is more ambitious, just 50%. Therefore, despite the largely negative experiences with hot desking so far, some version of it is likely to become the norm in most offices.

In implementing this type of change there is a commensurate responsibility on companies to ensure that the change does not inhibit employees’ ability to get work done. They must ensure that all of the frustrations and annoyances I heard about in my conversations are removed. More than that, though, they must ensure that the entire workplace environment is purposely designed around the wellbeing of the staff.

It does seem that businesses are gradually waking up to the need for radical redesign of the office, with – hopefully – the eventual disappearance of the one-size-fits-all rows of characterless desks.

AECOM, an international infrastructure consultancy, expects workplace design to be increasingly centred on developing a community base that supports comfort, creativity, productivity and job satisfaction.

“A workplace purposely designed around wellbeing must reach beyond the physical and environmental aspects of wellbeing, such as noise, light and indoor climate, to include social and psychological dimensions.

Designs should address the wide range of factors that comprise a person’s wellbeing: encouraging them to move around the office, including using the stairs; and providing large and small spaces for socialising, relaxing or quiet chats. In addition, the spaces need to be ergonomic and at a human scale, engender a sense of pride and belonging, and provide welcoming, comfortable team areas that express team identity.”

Change, especially this fundamental, is always difficult, but people will adapt, given time and the right support. I had a long conversation with a close friend about this and he agreed that people will adapt in time. He defined the likely pattern of behaviour in the long run, identifying three groups within the workforce.

“You’ll have ‘the regulars’ who come in most of the time. They establish their ‘own desk’ almost immediately.

You’ll have ‘the occasionals’ who use WFH but less than their full allowance, and they very quickly learn to respect the space established by ‘the regulars’. ‘Occasionals’ are very respectful and tend to confirm with others whether a seat is “taken”

Then you have the ones I personally call ‘the PJs’.

They would work at home, in their pyjamas, full-time, if it was up to them. They would come in only when it’s needed and they really don’t care where they’re sitting.

BUT teams will still sit together.”

So, now I have come to the end of my review, do I still think hot-desking is the embodiment of the Dark Side? Well, no. I still believe too many firms introduced it in the past without giving proper thought to the needs and wants of their staff. They relied on the goodwill and stoicism of their people, in the vain hope that fancy spin from the top would be sufficient to win over hearts and minds, rather than investing fully in a thorough reimagining of the total office environment. However, I can see the need for a wholly new type of office design – incorporating shared workspaces and conceived with the employee’s wellbeing at its heart – in the vastly different world that is likely to emerge from the pandemic.

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