Why hot-desking is not so hot

Some years back, a friend who worked as team leader at one of the big consulting firms told me she had to get to work early the next morning to grab the desk she wanted. Hot-desking – regularly moving from one workstation to another instead of a dedicated desk space – had gone mainstream. It seemed like a great idea: she got the desk with a view in a quiet corner, met a range of diverse people each day and broke down some manager-worker hierarchies.

It turns out that she hated hot-desking – and she’s by no means alone. According to recent research by organisational psychologist Dr Rachel Morrison, so do most workers. Dr Morrison, of Auckland University of Technology, asked a range of Australian workers about their experience of hot-desking. The answers surprised her. Many were quite the opposite of what the researchers expected to find.

Rather than building more friendships and increasing collaboration and teamwork, relationships were worse. The study asked people about the demands they experienced in a shared environment (the study also covered open-plan offices). ‘We were expecting to find that people would accrue resources and perhaps make better friends and have increased supervisor support, but what we found actually was that hot-desking and open plan environments created worse quality friendships and lower supervisor support evaluations’, Morrison told ABC Radio National.

‘When people are feeling distracted or experiencing a lack of privacy and not enough social distance, they are responding by withdrawing, so they are trying to create their own social distance by not engaging in a friendly manner with their colleagues, by keeping their conversations quite curt, using headphones’. These are not behaviours that usually lead positive relationships. ‘There is less co-operation, less collegial behaviour when people are feeling stressed by the work environment’, says Morrison.

Hot-desking means we are not able to personalise our working space. ‘Being able to do so fulfils some quite fundamental human need to make a space your own and feel at home there,’ explains Morrison.

However, despite the disadvantages, the trend continues, and Morrison doesn’t see it changing any time soon. ‘It makes financial sense to be able to use space flexibly. Real estate and office space are a really expensive resource for a lot of organisations, so any time you can save money and use the same space several times in a day or for several people when people aren’t there all the time it does certainly save on cost.’

So if you are hot-desking in an open-plan office and feeling irritable and unsociable, you’re not alone. Here are some tips for dealing with this modern workplace reality.

  1. Create activity-based workspaces

Rather than devoting the entire office space to hot-desking, create different spaces for different purposes. Make a quiet space for quiet work, breakout rooms for team meetings and dedicated places for small group conversations and co-working sessions. One company has small, private ‘call rooms’ with a desk, lamp and whiteboard for quiet work and phone calls.

  1. Create ‘I’m busy’ and ‘I’m available’ signals in the workplace

These could be actual physical signs for each work station, or a shared understanding of signals such as that wearing headphones means do not disturb. This is easy to do and you need not even be listening to anything on your noise-cancelling headphones for others to get the message.

  1. Use a mixture of fixed workstations, hot desks and working remotely

Those who are in the office five days a week for most of the day get a fixed space; those who work two or three days, or who spend significant time away from the office, use hot-desking. Have a policy that those who need to get work done that needs a significant stretch of time requiring focused attention can work from home for most of the day or part of the week, depending on the length of the project.

  1. Communicate

Some honest, polite discussion with your neighbours about noise levels or interruptions may be all it takes to keep the open-plan office working. Rather than moaning about them behind their back, have a conversation about what each of you needs. It may lead to exactly the creative shared solution that hot-desking and the open-plan office were designed to achieve.

So what is the future of hot-desking?

‘There are good reasons to have activity-based workspaces’, Morrison concedes, ‘for example, places where people can go to do particular types of work like collaborative work or work that involves high levels of cooperation. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to work closely with others.’

Morrison’s research found that where people are working closely with others in order to do their jobs, all of the negative impacts of hot-desking and open-plan working disappeared. ‘It was when people were working closely beside others but not with them that it became an issue’, she explains.

‘Thoughtfully designed offices that include hot-desking but that also include other breakout places or the ability to book a room when you do need privacy is a good way of having the advantage of both. That will probably be the move that organisations will have to make in the future.’