Hot-Desking: Verdict On Shared-Desk Policies

Pod chairs, ping-pong tables, “Zen” studios peppered with bean bags and bars serving cocktails: welcome to the new corporate culture, complete with funky new design features to attract Millennial talent, and supposedly increase engagement and productivity.

Amongst the sleep pods and the swinging chairs is one trend in particular on the rise: hot-desking. A recent survey of 400 multinational corporations found that two-thirds plan to implement a shared-desk policy by 2020.

The idea is a co-working space where no one gets a desk to call their own. It brings the managers out of their glass-walled offices and prevents a situation where top level staff are segregated from more junior staff. It’s also been touted as a fast-track to greater collaboration, working to break down barriers between departments. But perhaps the more accurate reason hot-desking has become so popular is due to sky-rocketing office costs. With a workforce increasingly working remotely, it doesn’t make sense to have a designated desk for everybody; hot-desking provides a way to cut down on office space and reduce costs.

But does it work?

Results and attitudes are mixed. Some work psychologists support the collaborative aspect of hot-desking, highlighting the fact that it encourages employees to get to know everyone in their team, and fosters a better understanding of each other’s roles. Plus, you get a different view and different people to chat to each day, which breaks up the often-monotonous office chat.

In theory, this sort of informal, anti-hierarchy work space sounds great. But a recent study of 1,000 Australian employees found that shared-desk environments had a number of problems. Distrust, distractions, uncooperative behaviour and negative relationships were all cited. And contrary to bulldozing the walls between top level and junior staff, the study also found a decreased perception of support from supervisors.

Studies like this one aren’t alone in poking holes through the glorified veneer of co-working spaces. But all the research points to a main problem: that in practice, hot-desking becomes something better described as “lukewarm” desking.

In reality, employees sit in a “preferred position,” inevitably leading some people stuck in the corner, and others who never sit next to their bosses, meaning – as the study found – some employees feel less supported by their managers.  This is especially true in large organisations where ordered seating at least ensures each department sits closely to managers and bosses.

All this leads to stressed out employees, worrying about getting in early enough to nab a sought-after seat and feeling neglected throughout the day. The inevitable result of this is a growing pushback against shared work spaces. You only have to google “hot-desking” to find a slew of articles advising on how to avoid hot-desking anxiety.

And then there’s the noise pollution - there’s a reason it’s called “watercooler” chat – and the fact that shared spaces leaves no room for personalisation, or, you know, just leaving an unfinished project on your desk. Is it any surprise that employees are fighting back against having to use lockers?

Hot-desking can be liberating for staff but only if properly implemented. Employers should take heed of the ample research that proves too many people cramped into one space stifles creativity, and instead look to creating spacious and divided shared areas. Employees should be encouraged to make proper use of hot-desking, moving seats regularly and swapping e-mail conversations for in-person ones.

While new office design features hold novel appeal, most employees just want to do their jobs to the best of their ability. No doubt this should be prioritised above anything else.