The horrors of hot-desking

Forced flexibility has its downsides.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2019

There’s a distinctly modern logic behind hot-desking. By unshackling workers from their fixed spaces and rigid departmental silos, freeing them to sit wherever they please, you create a collaborative, flexible, fast-moving and oh-so-millennial environment of serendipitous exchange. 

The far more significant fact that hot-desking dramatically cuts office rental costs and forces staff to clear out their piles of sentimental schmalz and email print-outs from the 90s is less likely to make its way into the MD’s town-hall speech.

In some ways that’s a shame, because these are desirable things for a competitive business operating at a time when workers are increasingly calling for greater flexibility. But hot-desking can be problematic. 

It fundamentally overlooks the fact that people are temperamentally different, and require different environments in which to perform at their best. While some are more than comfortable with the idea of working from a different seat every day, among fresh faces, for others the idea of spending the first hour in the office traipsing around the 2nd floor looking for a spare bench is not only uncomfortable but unproductive. 

Human beings are ultimately territorial creatures who want to have a place to call their own and that they can personalise. Just as importantly, they want to know they’ll be able to sit as a team. 

If the hot-desking policy feels forced, or unfairly enforced (i.e. throwing out important papers or confiscating accidently left mugs, in the name of keeping clear desks) it can have a negative impact on morale, cause confusion and send the message that personality is something to be left at home.

The US office furniture maker Steelcase advocates a more middle-ground approach. Take a tour around its Munich based LINC innovation centre (as Management Today did a few weeks ago)  and you’ll see a workspace designed to cater to the spectrum of needs present within the average company, from the most reflective introvert to the most bombastic extrovert. 

Different-sized meeting rooms line the edges of every floor, each furnished with a variety of fittings and lighting frequencies. Individual work pods are littered throughout the building and a central staircase - roughly 50 per cent wider than average, passing directly through all four stories without turning back on itself - is intended to encourage chance exchanges between passing colleagues.  

Most importantly, among the movable desks and clear plug-lined tables, you’ll find designated ‘hub’ areas, where teams can permanently base themselves when they need to be together to work on projects. 

The clear mix is important, says Monika Steilen, Steelcase’s EMEA director of corporate communications, because it gives people the reassurance of having a "home", while enabling them the freedom to be as flexible as they want. 

"Space shapes behaviour, which shapes culture," Steilen adds. 

Of course it helps if you design and build all of your own internal finishings (as Steelcase does) and have enough space for both fixed and flexible, but there’s a lot to recommend having a balance that gives workers a choice about how to work.

Having a totally rigid siloed structure stifles creativity, but swinging too far the other way can cause as many problems as it solves. 

Image credit: CBS Photo Archive / Contributor via getty Images

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