How “Hot Desking” Amplifies the Open Office Trend

Offices are increasingly becoming more communal places, to the point where some are choosing to get rid of permanent desks altogether. But both research and anecdotes about the “hot desking” phenomenon find the benefits for employees mixed.

Does it matter if you don’t have a place of your own at the office—and if so, how much?

The phenomenon of hot desking or desk-sharing—effectively, moving employee desks based on the activity that needs to be done that day or when that person is in the office—has gained momentum in some offices, but it’s also gained many of the criticisms of the open office. In fact, some critics see it as an extension of the worst parts of the open office.

“Because I can’t sit in the same seat two days in a row, I always feel mildly panicked in the morning about finding a spot where I’ll be comfortable,” Fast Company contributor Allison Duncan wrote of the phenomenon last month after being exposed to it at a new job. “On my first day, it was like being the new kid at school by a multiplier of 100, and it’s been especially hard to learn my colleagues’ names when they don’t ever sit in the same seat.”

Despite those critics, the hot desking trend has become popular. One frequently cited study by the commercial real estate firm CBRE found that of the 400 multinational companies it studied, roughly two thirds anticipated moving to a shared-desk approach in the next three years.

Even the federal government is getting in on the action, with many agencies cutting down on the amount of space per person by having employees who mostly telework rely on shared desks, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

While the lower cost of shared spaces is a factor, the perceived productivity boost is another one. Meanwhile, entire major companies, such as WeWork, have essentially been built with shared desks as a guiding principle. And the trend, in many ways, reflects the ever-popular desire to have working environments that look more like coffee shops than stuffy offices.

But there is evidence that desk-sharing has its problems as well. As The Conversation notes, recent studies have found that shared-desk environments can have a damaging effect on employee relationships—leading to distrust with coworkers and lower supervisor support. Additionally, it can affect employee morale as well.

“Some studies have suggested that having a permanent desk may not be as important as the overall layout of the office, or the freedom to personalize that space,” Bond University business lecturer Libby Sander explained in a 2017 blog post. “But employees without an assigned desk complain of desk shortages, difficulty finding colleagues, wasted time, and limited ability to personalize their space.”

Advocates for shared desks see an opportunity to create moments of spontaneous creativity and perhaps even to make coworkers more familiar with specific teams. But if things are handled the wrong way, there’s room for things to backfire.

(JohnnyGreig/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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