Hot or not? How to pass by the pitfalls and reap the rewards of hybrid hot desking

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19 May 2022

Astrid AllenAstrid Allen, Research Fellow

Now that we are living with Covid-19, many employers are facing a new reality about office space and remote working. For those who employ people who can work from home (albeit the minority of UK workers), some have been exploring hot desking as a new way of creating a more flexible shared office space. However, the inconvenient truth is that hot desking has a bad reputation and is often seen as a way of reducing office space (and the overheads that go with it), to the detriment of staff.

Pre-pandemic, Personnel Today reported that 8 in 10 office workers claimed that workplace seating arrangements (including hot desking) had a negative effect on their mental wellbeing. Research by Dr Alison Hirst (in 2011) found that hot desking led to people wasting time setting up workstations and left workers feeling disenfranchised. Further research for Public Health England discovered that a lack of perceived control and privacy at work, associated with hot desking, may lead to higher levels of absence. Unison guidance, which sets out a series of arguments for opposing hot desking, concludes that ‘while hot desking is supposed to break down barriers, it actually serves to isolate staff because it hinders the building of relationships with colleagues.’

However, the shift in the way we work is making us all re-evaluate hot desking. As shown in our research Work after Lockdown: No Going Back, and despite the views of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Alan Sugar, there is a growing acceptance that flexible home and hybrid working have become the norm for many in the knowledge industries.

The way we collaborate has also changed dramatically. Many employees can work remotely and the default venue for meetings is often online. The office is undergoing an identity crisis – what, exactly, is it for? Of course, some staff do not have the luxury of a suitable space at home and long periods of working from home can be detrimental to wellbeing. However, the change in work practices means that those people who are now returning to the office find themselves sat in virtual meetings thinking ‘I may as well have stayed at home’.

If done well, the benefits of hot desking can include increased levels of autonomy and the opportunity to socialise with new people in ways that encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing and on the job learning. Flexible working specialists, Timewise, also advocate hot desking, suggesting that anti-hot deskers are targeting the wrong problem.

I spoke with IES staff to see what lessons can be learned from their previous experiences of hot desking. Here is what I found:

1: Not being able to find a suitable desk is a chief concern. A lack of availability and loss of ownership of the space can mean that people sometimes struggle to find an operational desk and those arriving later in the day are often relegated to the dodgy desk in the corner. Think very carefully before cutting down your office space, the better the desk to person ratio is, the more people will feel confident about making the trip to the office. Where space is a premium, a good booking system is critical. This needs to be easy-to-use, reliable and allow you to see where your desk is located and where other people are sitting.

2: ‘Desk hogging’ or ‘squatting’ is another pitfall. It is useful to encourage people to change it up, discouraging staff from  persistently sitting at the same desk and negating the positive benefits of mixing with a range of colleagues. A clear desk policy is important to facilitate a shared ownership of the space, making it possible for anyone to use any vacant desk without feeling like they’re sitting at someone else’s.

3: Equipment needs are a major consideration. Most people will need a fully adjustable chair. Adjustable screen height and screen size is also important, so connectivity to a separate monitor may be beneficial. Specific roles or individual needs may mean that personal adaptations are necessary. Critically, hot desk spaces should be well maintained and there is an effective fault-finding process to address potential problems.

4: Adaptability of both equipment and office space is key. Public Health England suggests that a range of different workspaces are created to meet different functions and manage competing needs for quiet concentration, social interaction and confidentiality. Spaces for confidential discussions are recommended, so people can interact with ease in the remainder of the office.

5. The reality is that, for some, hot desking simply does not work. Furthermore, it can be difficult for employees to express their concerns about hot desking, as they may have hidden disabilities or health issues. There is an inclusion issue here and, where employers get this wrong, it can be grounds for unlawful discrimination at a tribunal. Accommodating both those who are happy to hot desk and those who aren’t (or can’t) is important to prevent stigma and ensure that everyone feels included and engaged.

6. While it is important to recognise and accommodate individual needs, a set of agreed principles need to be applied consistently and the wider team consulted, to ensure that unintended consequences can be managed. For example, if five people need fixed desks and choose the five window seats, that may not go down well with the rest of the team! Public Health England guidance suggests that employees must be engaged in a shared vision for how hot desking can work and employers need to take a consultative approach.

Whatever hot desking principles are developed for your workplace, it is essential that they are well communicated, providing clarity around ground rules, expectations and risks. Employers should carefully monitor and review their success, ensuring inclusivity and equality of opportunity for everyone, regardless of where they work. Good luck! 

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.