The benefits of hot desking

Many workers are now adopting this new approach, but what makes it so attractive?

A laptop, notebook and cup of coffee on a dark wood desk

Up until the outbreak of COVID, hot desking was rapidly growing in popularity. It is a working arrangement where an employee has no assigned desk and instead can choose to use almost any workstation or surface during different parts of the day. 

While most of us are currently in lockdown and working from home, hot desking will likely continue once we return physical offices. It may even become more of a priority for some, as a desire among staff for continued remote working could see organisations shift to more flexible office environments, which may mean that less desk space is required, giving employees greater flexibility.  

There is an obvious financial benefit to hot desking, with research by Vodafone suggesting UK businesses could save £34 billion a year by embracing hot desking. 

What is hot desking?

As we've mentioned, hot desking is simply the use of non-allocated workstations, meaning no employee has a fixed workstation. Rather, workspaces can be used by any employee, from any department or level, on any given day.

Typically, hot desking environments occur in businesses that operate a BYOD policy or hand out equipment such as laptops to individual employees, eliminating the need for a regular fixed station.

Hot desking and the coronavirus pandemic

Hot desking can provide a number of benefits for an organisation and its workforce. However, before we delve into them, it’s important to be aware that the practise may be at odds with local guidelines imposed by governments of countries and areas which are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although many workers are now returning to the office, if only on a part-time, hybrid-model basis, social distancing measures should still be in place in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, frequently changing seats and desks, especially with those who don’t display any COVID symptoms, might put other employees at risk. This is why companies which had previously relied on hot desking might want to temporarily assign permanent seating options, at least until the number of positive cases decreases.

In the UK, official guidance from the government, updated in mid-August 2021, states that “workstations should be assigned to an individual if possible”. However, it also acknowledges that this might not always be a feasible solution, especially when using only every second or third desk in order to maintain space between employees. 

This is why the guidance adds that, if the workstations “need to be shared, there should be ways to clean them between each user”. A hot desking organisation needs to be able to identify who will be responsible for wiping down each workstation with sanitising products, as well as provide the equipment to be used for sanitation. On top of that, it should also provide “hand sanitiser in multiple accessible locations” as well as “regular reminders and signage to maintain hygiene standards”.

What are the benefits of hot desking?

Decluttering

We're all guilty of letting the everyday detritus of working life accumulate on our desks. Whether it's empty coffee cups, piles of papers, or just fun knick-knacks, our workspaces can quickly become cluttered.

Hot desking forces employees to be more ordered and minimalist, and although it means they can't add their own personal touches to their desks, the end result is a cleaner and more organised workplace. People often say a tidy desk equals a tidy mind and this really does ring true for some people in a hot desking environment as, with clutter removed, they can focus on the task at hand.

Onboarding

With the world forced to work remotely, onboarding has become a little bit tricky, but with hot desking, new employees - or those hired during lockdown - won't have much difficulty adjusting to the office. Initially, office spaces will be subject to strict social distancing measures, but by the time new employees will be brought back, they would have already been using the various systems and services - most of which are needed for hot desking. 

The eventual introduction to the office will just be a matter of meeting co-workers in the flesh and finding a seat - everything else will have already been done. 

Getting to know your peers

Sitting in the same spot every day, surrounded by the same co-workers, might not be up everyone's street. It's also difficult for some people to simply strike up a conversation with others they pass in the building or maintain friendships with employees of other departments.

Hot desking encourages the healthy mingling of staff outside the one office party held a year and affords new opportunities to learn about other people's skills. Forging inter-organisational networks has a proven benefit on confidence and development, so if this is a knock-on benefit of hot desking, it can only be a good thing.

Owning your environment

Happiness is the key to productivity. If a workforce is happy, motivated and positive, it's likely to have a positive impact on their working day. But people have different needs in order to feel happy and although working outside of your most comfortable environment may be daunting, having the flexibility to move around and sit where you want is hugely empowering.

It also means you can choose which type of environment you want to work in and when. Some people may thrive on conversation and discussion, while others prefer quiet and calm. With hot desking, you can choose which environment suits you best to result in greater levels of productivity for you as an individual, which in turn benefits your organisation.

Modernising infrastructure

Although hot desking encourages employees to move around the business, their experience still needs to be the same regardless of where they work. To facilitate this, companies are moving the entirety of their internal business systems to the cloud, allowing employees to access everything they need remotely. HR, payroll, printing services, even joining meetings and chatting with colleagues, can and should be available from anywhere in the building. Importantly, employees will no longer need to rely on that dodgy fourth-floor printer.

Reducing overheads

As traditional work environments typically created a specific spot for each employee to work in, those areas would go unused when that person was out of the office or off work that day. Hot desking allows businesses to significantly cut down on all that wasted space, as not every employee will need to be provided with a traditional desk every day. This not only cuts down on equipment costs but can allow companies to downsize their operations into a space that is more affordable, while still maintaining a productive workforce.

Giving employees autonomy

Hot desking is as much a cultural change as it is a physical one. As workers are able to change what their day-to-day environment looks like, it allows a great deal more flexibility when it comes to their social and home lives. Whether they're attending an event, or simply need to be back in time for the school run, employees are afforded greater choice when it comes to working remotely when they need to. With hot desking, people are no longer tethered to their desks.

Are there any downsides to hot desking?

While there are clearly a number of benefits to hot desking, it's important to be mindful of any downsides, too.

The biggest one is the fact that not everyone enjoys the flexibility of being able to sit in a different place every day. Some people like the comfort of knowing their surroundings and who they will be sitting next to and shaking this up can prove unsettling. It's important that organisations, and managers, in particular, are aware of this and able to have the necessary conversations with affected staff members so they feel supported and heard.

Isolation can be another side effect of hot desking. It tends to follow the first-come, first-serve rule of selecting a desk. That means, in practice, the early bird always catches the desk of their choice, while those held up by transport delays, in meetings - or just working a different shift pattern - miss out. It can be disheartening to commute some distance to an office only to find you have to sit in a different place, or on a different floor, to the rest of your team.

This aspect can mean that some employees just don't bother coming into the office as much, their attitude being that they may as well be anywhere if they can't physically sit with their co-workers and interact with them face to face. This can create an unhealthy level of absenteeism where employees who once felt motivated and part of a unit now feel cut off and disconnected with no sense of belonging.

The mental health impact of hot desking also needs to be carefully considered and managed by organisations. Indeed, a recent study of more than 1,000 office workers found that 80% of employees feel modern workplace seating models, such as hot desking, are not helpful to positive mental health and wellbeing.

"There are growing issues in the way businesses are currently managing and looking after their workforce causing an alarming need for companies to rectify this situation and enhance employee wellbeing," said Christopher Burke, CEO of Brickendon, the consultancy behind the research.

"Managing this can be a minefield, and in its current state hot desking is very much flawed, and worryingly affecting employees' mental wellbeing. It's an important issue requiring urgent attention."

More than two-thirds (69%) of workers also said they had anxiety about not knowing where they were going to sit on any given day, according to the study. Furthermore, far from realising the promise of increased productivity, some employees are actually being hindered by a move to hot desking. Some 84% of those surveyed by Brickendon said they spend, on average, five minutes a day searching for somewhere to sit, while 38% spend more than 15 minutes doing so.

Simon Constable, a contributor to Forbes is slightly more downbeat when it comes to whether an organisation should or shouldn't embrace hot desking, entitling a recent column How hot desking will kill your company.'

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"If you hate your company, its employees and the shareholders then go ahead and introduce the latest management fad: Hot desking," he wrote.

"It's a better way to destroy the firm than inviting Russian hackers to rob you blind. The bigger the company, the faster the damage will occur with hot desking."

Constable suggests that hot desking means companies don't value employees and that it's increasingly hard to find the people you need to speak to because you simply won't know where they are located on any given day.

While Constable agrees there are some exceptions to the above - such as small organisations with few employees - he argues the negatives far out way the positives when it comes to hot desking.

"If you see a public company introducing hot desks as a way to add flexibility or save money across the board, then be afraid for investors. Why? Because the profits quickly suffer in a dysfunctional company," he concluded.

Ultimately, every organisation is different and every employee is unique, too. As such, companies must tread very carefully when it comes to changing any working practice - whether it's to do with sitting, lunchtimes, office location or anything and everything in between.

It's also incredibly important to ensure all relevant stakeholders are involved in the discussion. This shouldn't just be limited to IT – indeed, HR, facilities and others should be brought on board.

Finally, it's critical that employees themselves are asked what they think – before, not after the fact. That way a great deal of the issues can be ironed out before then become big business barriers.

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