Hot-desking: hot or not?

Hot-desking may be the height of fashion, but it could be sharpening elbows at work, says Peter Ames.

by Peter Ames
Last Updated: 23 Feb 2015

Hot-desking is a heated topic, one that’s fiercely debated by the workforce. Loved by bosses and nomadic workers, it is often hated by those who face a daily scramble to find a free workstation.
It’s thought the origins of the term may be in the military tradition of ‘hot-racking’. On submarines more than one sailor would be assigned to a berth or rack to save space, much like landlubbers working in offices playing musical chairs and desks.
Nowadays implementing a hot-desking policy does more than set your business apart as modern and trendy (or trying to be anyway). There’s a strong business case for it, too, particularly in major cities, where office rents are higher.
Hot-desking encourages people to work flexibly, from other locations, by removing the expectation that they have a desk. Some advocates also argue it makes your staff more creative and productive, by encouraging them to talk to employees in other departments they wouldn’t normally work with.
But how does it go down with employees?

Theory One

Hot-desking is a way to free up desk space to make for a more efficient, cost-effective business model. In other words, a company only has as many desks as is needed.  After all, not everyone is in the office at the same time, are they?
In practice: What happens if too many employees decide to turn up at the office on the same day? Your employees’ time is money, so your business’s output is hurt if your people have to hunt for that elusive desk space. You also risk your staff becoming increasingly frustrated and disgruntled.

Theory Two

Hot-desking helps foster a more collaborative approach to work. Rather than sitting next to the same colleagues every day, you encourage interaction across different teams, resulting in a friendlier, more creative vibe.
In practice: Humans are territorial creatures. We like our own space and we don’t like change. Okay, you could argue, it’s good to talk to new people, it encourages the spirit of cooperation. But it can lead to sharp elbows and resentment when you’re constantly trying to secure a desk. Cue all sorts of quite literally dirty tricks, like sweaty gym kit and damp towels left draped over chairs.

Theory Three

Hot-desking positively supports and encourages that much-desired flexible working environment. Rather than being chained to the same desk every day nine to five, employees can start and finish at different times. It’s management’s way of saying, we trust you to get the work done.
In practice: The snag is it’s more difficult for supervisors to keep a handle on what their team is working on. Although digital dialogues are increasingly replacing face-to-face conversations there is a limit - nothing beats sitting around a table and talking.
It’s easy to see why employers like hot-desking. They claim it saves money. But in my opinion, it can waste employee time. Hot-desking is also supposed to promote collaboration, but I’d argue that not having your own desk weakens any sense of team-building. There’s even a potential hygiene issue: employees are at higher risk of infection as many workers fail to wash their hands after a trip to the toilet (definitely not hot).

Ultimately, it depersonalises the work environment, causes disruption, and risks making workers unhappy – which no boss wants.

Peter Ames is head of operations at office space search engine, Office Genie.

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