How to survive hot desking

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If you work best having a routine in a predictable environment next to people you know, you may soon find going to the office unsettling.

That’s because many employers are starting to use so-called “hot desking” — also known as “hoteling,” “dynamic seating” or “agile seating.” Translation: Employees have to reserve a desk or team room every time they come to work on site.

If the system is poorly set up, employees may be left feeling untethered, like they’re trying to snag a seat in a crowded waiting room, potentially next to some stranger with irksome habits. And they will spend real time not getting work done but instead inefficiently wandering around looking for colleagues who used to be within earshot.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Hot desking is not new. Pre-pandemic, a lot of management consulting firms used it for employees who spent the majority of their time at client sites but only some days working in the home office during any given month.

But post-pandemic, the strategy is taking hold in a wide swath of industries as employers try to adapt to a hybrid work model and reduce their real estate footprint.

“All across the board it’s happening. Everyone is doing a version of [hot desking],” said Carlos Martinez, co-managing director and principal at Gensler, a global office design and planning firm.

The primary goal for many employers is less to cut costs (although that is certainly a priority for some) than it is to repurpose the office to better reflect how people work now.

“We think of it as a liquid workplace … a boundaryless workplace,” said Sanjay Rishi, the Americas CEO of Work Dynamics at JLL, a global commercial real estate services firm.

In exchange for having largely unassigned seating at work, employees have the opportunity to work remotely more often, Rishi said. “Flexibility is very important to people. They get it. They say, ‘I’m not in the office 5 days a week. That’s the tradeoff.’”

Still, intellectually accepting that such a tradeoff is worth it doesn’t mean employees will embrace hot desking if it becomes harder to get their jobs done.

While every employer has to assess what works best for their specific culture, there needs to be clear communication with employees about why the company is switching to a hoteling system in the first place.

And real thought needs to go into the physical layout.

Ideally, Rishi said, individual teams should be assigned to their own area within an open plan office. And within that area, there should be a mix of what he calls “me spaces” and “we spaces” to allow for both individual work and collaborative work between team members.

That not only allows teammates to easily interact, but also informs others in the company where they can be found.

If that’s not possible, the reservations software program should at least make it easy for people to see who has reserved the available work stations on any given day. “Once you’re coming to the office, it’s important to know who is sitting where,” Rishi said.

That can also be helpful for younger workers who may want to sit near an executive or someone else they want to observe and learn from.

Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at strategy firm Culture Partners, was working with a department in a large company that operated out of an office with about 60 people.

While she wasn’t consulting with them about hot desking per se, she witnessed its failure in the course of her work there. “It was just wildly disliked,” Kriegel said.

The reason, she explained: Tenured employees became territorial about the desks they’d chosen and other employees knew not to mess with the social hierarchy.

“Certain employees could go against the rules,” Kriegel said. And it created resentment.

That kind of anecdotal example illustrates a point Martinez makes to his clients: You never want to alienate any group of employees when changing the structure of the workplace.

“The idea of choice and variety is super important. Everyone should feel like they have what they want when they come to the office,” he said.

That’s also why employers embarking on the switch to hot desking may want to customize the options to best suit different employees’ needs. For instance, some might want or need a permanent desk because they’re on site far more than others. Or, some might benefit from sharing a desk with just one other colleague who will be in on different days.

Noise in open-plan offices has always been a top complaint when designers haven’t taken care to create some acoustic privacy through use of sound-absorbing materials and locating collaboration spaces out of earshot of individual desks.

In fact, Martinez said, some of the early missteps in the creation of open-plan offices was putting collaborative spaces right next to individual work stations, and putting cushions on top of individuals’ filing cabinets inviting people to sit and chat (loudly) next to colleagues at nearby desks.

Creating acoustic privacy is especially critical in a hot-desking situation where people may be sitting next to new colleagues with different work habits and varying levels of courtesy regarding volume control on the phone or holding conversations or meetings nearby.

Plus, people taking part in meetings held in open spaces may be less willing to contribute if they worry about being overheard by others, Kriegel noted.

Switching to hot desking should be viewed as a work in progress by everyone.

“Don’t stop experimenting,” JLL’s Rishi said. “Check in with teams to see what’s working or not.”

In its 2023 global workplace survey, Gensler’s researchers suggest employers should design the office in ways that make it a destination of choice for employees who perform work that can be done remotely. The best workplaces, they wrote, “will … offer diverse and adaptable spaces where employees can self-curate their desired individual workplace experiences.”

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