Alright, I know I write about offices but allow me to fill you in on a secret: I’ve never had an office job. Ever. I’ve scrubbed down bathrooms at a movie theater, baked Mickey Mouse-shaped pretzels at Disney World, slung cocktails in lavish Manhattan bars, juggled heavy equipment on various film sets, and even taught a university writing class. But all of my jobs since then have been remote. I’ve never peered over a cubicle or had a conversation at the water cooler. My office is ten paces from my bedroom. There’s no dress code, no key cards, no fake thermostats to contend with, and my only co-worker is my cat. Maybe that’s why I’m utterly fascinated by office trends and the enigmatic jargon that always surrounds them. One that’s particularly catching my attention is the current renaissance of the “hot-desking” craze, a concept that seemed so depressing when it came and fizzled out in the 1990s, but it’s a trend that’s finding its niche within the post-pandemic office.
Free-address. Agile. Bespoke. Fresh.
Those are just a few examples of hot-desk buzz words. Whatever the label, the idea is the same. Instead of assigning employees to their own desks, multiple workers use a single workstation at different times. A workstation might be a desk, a cubicle, or any other type of work surface, but it’s typically some form of a communal table.
When I first heard about this concept a few years ago, it seemed more of a canary-in-the-coal mine that some serious company penny-pinching was afoot. Typically, whenever office amenities start disappearing, it’s a subtle sign that a business is in some financial trouble and is likely gearing up for layoffs. Did your company suddenly stop offering free coffee in the break room? Start polishing that résumé. Is there never any toilet paper in the bathroom? Get a recruiter on speed dial. But a company getting rid of desks? It sounded like a grim harbinger.
Hot-desking was indeed a cost-cutting venture when it resurfaced just a few years ago. In 2018, Luke Cristou of Verdict wrote that hot-desking “reduced the costs of operating an office by as much as 30 percent.” We already know that office space is a huge expenditure for companies, so on the employer side of it, any design method that would eliminate excess real estate in the name of optimizing space had its appeal. The idea that forcing people to work alongside one another, without walls or partitions, would promote employee collaboration was a fringe benefit at best. Still, proponents of hot-desking claimed that it was what made the shift “evolutionary.”
Though hot-desking was touted as a step in a collaborative direction, there’s admittedly something dehumanizing about taking away the one space where employees could call their own, the one surface where they didn’t have to compete for space, the one bastion where they could proudly display personal photos and their kids’ macaroni art. To, as Financial Times writer Pilita Clark put it, “cast them out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots.”
Clark’s venom for hot-desking, when she penned her op-ed in 2019, was so noxious that I’m surprised my computer didn’t melt as I was reading it. Apparently, the trend was worse than I had initially imagined it to be: it sent a message to employees that they didn’t matter if the companies they worked for wouldn’t bother giving them their own place to sit. Instead of gliding into their designated workspace right away, workers spent an average of two weeks per year searching for a seat. “That did not count the time it takes to set up a computer, adjust a chair, and figure out where the people you need to talk to might be perched that day,” added Clark. It seems that companies who made the switch to hot-desking may very well have bled out all the money they saved in space savings to lost productivity.
Then came 2020. Offices shut down like the rest of the world. Months of Zoom meetings and social isolation trickled on as businesses scrambled to figure out how to reopen while keeping in line with lockdown protocols. Hot-desking suddenly became a popular tactic for offices transitioning to a hybrid workforce. However, the trend got an upgrade.
Since lumping employees next to each other at one table was in direct defiance of social distance mandates and office managers needed to know which spaces needed to be sanitized before another employee could sit there, hot-desking evolved into “hoteling.” Many employers implemented smart building technology that allowed employees to book workspaces ahead of time, taking wandering around for a seat completely out of the equation. Plus, depending on the app or software the company used, employees could actually locate a particular colleague and reserve a spot next to them whenever they needed to collaborate with each other. Ironically, in giving employees back a speck of control from the hot-desking free-for-all, the increased collaboration that hot-desk evangelists preached about could actually happen.
Offices that are following a hybrid work model are usually operating under capacity, meaning that employees won’t waste time aimlessly looking for a place to sit. But there are still some consequences to removing any trace of an employee’s personal touches from where they work. “The personal knick-knacks we keep on our desks are actually important for coping with negative emotions experienced in the workplace, like stress and anxiety,” says HRM editor Kate Neilsen. Creating a personal space in an otherwise public workplace environment improves cognition, resulting in increased mental resources and the ability to better cope with the pangs of poor privacy. But one could argue that space personalization may not be as important in the context of a post-pandemic office, where there’s significantly less people around and you’re only obligated to come in a few a week.
Hot-desking was not seen as a viable option by many companies back in 2019. Perhaps that was because the concept hadn’t fully matured yet. Rather than forcing people to find a place to sit in a crowded office they should feel like they are checking in to their own personal workspace. The next phase in the evolution, “hoteling,” seems to rectify all of hot-desking’s grievances. Communal seating may have finally found its, ahem, seat at the table, but this time around it is more convenient, more personal, and more like a work environment I (and my co-worker) would like to use.