Hot-desking: Hot or not?

By Robert Half on 21 June 2013

If you’re not hot on the idea of hot-desking, you’re not alone.

The idea of forgoing a permanent desk to move around the office according to the task you are doing sounds sensible in theory, but the trend has plenty of critics.

Andrew Wales, an associate principal in interiors with the architecture firm Rothelowman, says, “We are going through a big shift in workplace design from 10 to 15 years ago. Offices moved to open plan and now we are really moving from an individual desk to the activity-based model, where people come in and choose a place to work.”

There are plenty of benefits for employers. Steve Coster, principal at architecture firm Hassell, says that up to 70 per cent of office space is unoccupied through the day as people attend meetings, go on leave or pop out for lunch or coffee. Hot-desking reduces that waste by reducing the desks provided.

But Coster advises his clients to approach office design as a way to create a strong business. “The physical environment you create can be a strategic tool, but it is often not treated that way. It is treated as a cost to be minimised.”

Poor planning and change management have given hot-desking a bad name. Early efforts at hot-desk design created problems such as lack of privacy and inadequate meeting/team spaces. Staff felt affronted when told to take their pot plants and personal photos home. Some were worried that no desk was just a step away from no job.

“Activity-based working can be unsettling for employees,” Wales says. “They wonder, ‘Am I going to lose my job?’ Or they feel a loss of status from their big desk by the window.”

Leaders also ran into problems with the new office design. Bankwest, which enthusiastically adopted hot-desking, reportedly found staff could not find one another across the 14 floors of the bank’s Perth office. The bank introduced an app called “Locate my Colleague” so people could track each other down. Office designers went back to the drawing board to find solutions to the complaints.

Wales says allowing time for staff to adapt to new ideas is one way to make activity-based working succeed, and thorough consultation is another. One project at Rothelowman included eight months of consulting before the designer put pen to paper.

“We set up small teams across the firm, from management to administration, taking through the proposed changes and really involving them in the whole process,” he says. “There is an opportunity for all the concerns and resistance to the change to come out in those meetings in time to inform and change the design.”

Office furniture and fitout company Schiavello employs a workplace research psychologist, Keti Malkoski, to help companies make sure their office designs are embraced by the staff who use them. Activity-based design has been the hot topic for the past 18 months.

The shift from pure hot-desking to activity-based working is an important one. Some of the space that is saved from hot-desks is allocated to a variety of other spaces where people can get their work done – more meeting rooms, informal nooks, kitchens and big areas for collaborative projects or to house teams for the duration of a project.

And sometimes, if the person or the task does not suit hot-desking, some permanent desks are left. Coster says it all depends on the culture that the business or organisation is trying to create in the office. “Some people take it to the extent that no one owns a space, but you might still allocate desks, as long as you make sure you add other spaces. There is a spectrum of possibilities.”

This shift to a greater variety of spaces, together with the trend of more collaboration and time for people to adapt to changes is helping to make hot-desking hot again.

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