Escaping the hell of hot desking

Hot-desking is a scourge on modern work. That’s the only conclusion you will draw by reading ‘The hidden hell of hot-desking is much worse than you think’ (published in the FT on 28 July 2019) and dozens more like it that continue to appear in national media and top business titles. The piece contends that organisations are using the guise of agile working to excuse their cost-saving prerogative. In reality it is a penny-pinching ploy that “strips people of their own desk and casts them out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots,” or so we’re told.

The trouble is, they have a point. And if the workplace design and management world don’t get their heads around why, they should expect more of their proposals and strategies to be deftly challenged by both journalists and their readerships.

The workplace design and management world should expect more of their proposals and strategies to be deftly challenged by both journalists and their readerships

Pilita Clark’s FT article stance is an empathetic one. She clearly feels for workers who are not allowed to decorate their non-existent desks with family photos. By the same token, she airs an element of sympathy for businesses battling extortionate real estate rates, and her article even recognises that traditional assigned desk settings can result in poor use of space.

The piece suggests that the colossal waste of money that comes with unused workstations is on a par with the productivity killers that accompany agile environments, such as noise and the time spent trying to find colleagues. Summarising data from a British study, the piece explains that “people doomed to hot-desking waste an average of two weeks a year just looking for a place to sit”. Regrettably she omits to tell us that this research was conducted by a workplace management app called HotDeskPlus.

The crux of the FT argument is that one can’t put a monetary figure on “these wretched systems” that relegate employees to prisoners. It is more a question of ethics. Hot-desking, Clark concludes, is an attempt to control costs and behaviours; and the long-standing rationale that agile working enables employee empowerment is just a nice way to pretend it isn’t.


What agile really means

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Clark raises a good point about semantics in airing her suspicion that for many companies going agile simply means hot-desking. Agile working. Hot-desking. Activity-based, flexible, mobile, remote, home working. The workplace world is awash with casually applied adjectives. Let’s face it, even corporate real estate professionals confuse these terms, so what hope do business journalists have in getting their heads around the nuances? Loose definitions aside, ignoring the incontrovertible fact that almost all of the workplaces that might be labelled as “agile” exist in many different settings, in many different guises, and for many different purposes is short-sighted.

NOTE: Hot desking (sometimes called "non-reservation-based hoteling") is an office organization system which involves multiple workers using a single physical work station or surface during different time periods.[1] The "desk" in the name refers to an office desk being shared by multiple office workers on different shifts as opposed to each staff member having their own personal desk. A primary motivation for hot desking is cost reduction through space savings—up to 30% in some cases.[2][3] Hot desking is especially valuable in cities where real estate prices are high.[4] Research has demonstrated that while there may be cost savings in office space hot desking has significant negative impacts on both productivity and staff morale.[5]