Hot-Desking, Hot or Not?

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In an age where employees are demanding flexibility and mobility as part of their commitment to their employers, hot-desking, in conjunction with remote working, provides possible solutions.

However, just like remote working gives rise to issues of productivity and trust, ever since the introduction of hot-desking in the 1990’s, its success has been debated.

It appears that for every positive, there is an accompanying negative. For example, on the positive side, the concept of hot-desking is egalitarian in that all desks are equal. Although this reduces the ability to mark status and can subsequently breakdown office hierarchy and its negatively associated consequences, hot-desking also reduces the ability of users to represent their positive ‘identities’.

Similarly, hot-desking can increase opportunities to meet new people, exercise choice and experience a greater sense of freedom. However, it has also been associated with feelings of isolation and lack of team cohesion.
Aligned with the evidence to date on hot-desking, Schiavello’s workplace research psychologist, Keti Malkoski, has concluded that one size does not fit all, and that hot-desking may not be the complete solution for all employers adopting flexible working solutions.
“The success of hot-desking as a workplace solution will depend on the diverse needs of the users in the workplace; their work and even personal needs,” she said. “For instance, the work requirements which lend to flexible working solutions such as hot-desking include knowledge work; locations independence; defined outputs; and defined milestones. These work requirements are unlikely to be present for every individual and team within every organisation.”
The ultimate solution may include incorporating hot-desking as a component into a holistic flexible working strategy in addition to other workplace sharing solutions – a holistic approach which balances the people, technology and space needs as required.
This is the approach adopted by IBM, which uses hot-desking as just one component of workplace flexibility. IBM Australia conducted an internal study in 2005 that revealed that there were a great number of employees who had very mobile work patterns, so there was an opportunity from that for the business to improve both employee satisfaction and space utilisation.
Belinda Reynolds, diversity and workforce lead for IBM Australia and New Zealand, explained that desk space is allocated to those employees who need a permanent workspace, in much the same way that the technology is allocated to employees.
For example, if an employee comes into the office five days a week, they would certainly have a permanent desk. Alternatively, someone who only comes into the office 2-3 days a week might utilise the hot-desk policy.
“Say it’s someone in our HR or communications team – we have a number of desks allocated to employees from that business unit and that’s much the same throughout the company. What we find is that employees come into the office and then they gravitate and find desks near their teams,” Reynolds said.
Brian Bissaker, former CEO of Colonial First State, is an advocate for hot-desking, and told HC that he likes to set himself up with his laptop in a different area of the business, to get a sense of what’s happening in that section, and to gauge engagement/culture.
“I describe myself as a shop floor leader. This [new CBA open plan office] building adds to that style, but even prior to that I really enjoyed getting in amongst the shop floor and talking to people. I want to test the culture – what’s really going on out there, how people are feeling. I try to adopt a style that is quite down to earth and open, approachable and accessible. That’s purposeful – I want all of my people to feel like they belong,” Bissaker said.
In hot-desking cultures, actual ratios of desks to employees, hot-desks to assigned desks and teamwork performed locally to teamwork performed remotely varies across organisations.
Experiences with hot-desking also vary.
Reynolds, for example, feels that hot-desking actually enhances team effectiveness. She cited her own example of recently sitting near colleagues she hasn’t worked with for several months. “I was able to catch up with one of our HR partners and someone else in another area, find out what was happening in their area, and get to know them. Then if I need to reach out to them [in the future] I’ve got that strengthened personal relationship with them. We find that hot-desking is something that actually increases integration and getting to know the people in the team.”