Business First | Hot desking: does it really work?

Hot-desking is revolutionising modern business, but is it worth it?

04 Jan 2016 –– News
Does hot-desking work for your business?

Origins of the office

And no, I don’t mean the series with Ricky Gervais’ famous dance routine.

The word ‘office’ originates from the Latin ‘officium’ which loosely translates as 'bureau'. The term was more focused on the group of officials than the room in which they worked. However, the Pantheon is a perfect example, the Romans were some of the first to realise the importance of having a building from where their officials could orchestrate the operations of the various official institutions – government, taxation etc. – that they were responsible for the running of.

The term ‘hot-desking’ on the other hand, is thought to derive from the military term ‘hot-racking’ which was used primarily on submarines where several sailors would share one berth to save space.

What is hot-desking?

Hot-desking is the practice of a business removing personal desks to save space and reduce costs. So rather than each member of staff having a desk they sit at every day, some are removed to make space for something else, and the desks that remain become available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Hot-desking shouldn’t be mistaken for hot-podding and other similarly named schemes – often used by small businesses, or employees of larger businesses working remotely – where a series of workspaces are made available in a shared area by an office provider, in a similar fashion to an internet café, but with access to all the business facilities that would be available to full-time tenants.

Does hot-desking work?

Well, there is a strong business case for it. With some businesses reporting cost savings of up to 30% when they implement the space-saving technique of hot-desking in their office spaces. The reduction in space that's needed allowing them to either move to smaller offices, or utilise the space they save differently and save on the additional costs that these uses would otherwise have incurred.

What are the benefits of hot-desking?

According to employers and various workplace specialists - people who make their money from redesigning office spaces (make of that what you will) - the benefits of hot-desking are many and varied.

Hot-desking saves costs. It can lead to an environment that encourages creativity by boosting opportunities for workers to talk to colleagues they wouldn’t normally talk to; leading to a better team ethic and an increase in productivity. It can help to create a more inclusive, and thus happier, workplace as a result of the breakdown of traditional ‘silos’ or teams within the office.

In addition, it’s in fashion. A lot of big firms employ similar techniques in their offices. So it must be right … right?

The pros and cons of hot-desking

There are two schools of thought when it comes to hot-desking. In the main (but not exclusively) these can be broken down in to the employers’ opinion vs. the employees’ opinion.

Hot-desking as a way to save space

Employers’ opinion

Hot-desking frees desk space and allows a more cost-efficient and effective use of the office space available. The company provides only as many desks as are needed – modern, flexible workforces mean not all staff are in the office at the same time, so this makes sense.

Employees’ opinion

Granted, not all the company’s staff are always in the office all of the time. However, for most companies, office based staff still remain prevalent. What happens when there are more staff than desks? Time wasted searching for a workspace leads to the company losing money through reduced productivity. The business also risks its staff becoming frustrated and disenchanted – feeling undervalued. The bosses whose idea the hot-desking was all have their own desks and offices…

Hot-desking as a way to increase collaboration and creativity

Employers’ opinion

Introducing a hot-desking policy encourages a quicker and more collective attitude towards work. It engenders increased communication across different teams and provides a more creative and inclusive working environment in the office.

Employees’ opinion

We all like our own space and people don’t like change (regardless of the pseudo-philosophical ‘quotes’ that can be wheeled out about this, it is true). Despite the fact that it is good to talk to new people, this isn’t necessarily the right way to encourage it; team-building days would be preferred. The reality of hot-desking is a bunch of disgruntled staff who feel they ‘own’ nothing at their place of work and are constantly stressed over whether or not they will be able to find a desk. Hot-desking also encourages some people to employ underhand desk-retention tactics of the ilk of leaving sweaty gym kit on chairs. Not nice for anyone.

Hot-desking to encourage flexible working

Employers’ opinion

In the modern world of work, flexible working is a preference of many staff. Hot-desking helps to capitalise on this and provide a flexible working environment in which staff aren’t metaphorically ‘chained’ to a single desk and are able to start and finish at times that are more suitable for their healthy work-life balances. Hot-desking and flexible working shows staff they’re trusted.

Employees’ opinion

Not having the guarantee of sitting in the team you work in can lead to difficulties in carrying out work that involves the whole team. Being isolated from line managers can lead to further difficulties when it comes to collaboration and reporting. People still like to have face-to-face opportunities to talk to and work with their colleagues.

Is there any evidence to support hot-desking?

The evidence that supports the opinions of the proponents of hot-desking is actually fairly scant. There is certainly more research that suggests that hot-desking in fact damages both morale and productivity more than it improves them.

Although there are plenty of people, Paul Statham, the Chief Executive of workplace technology specialists, Condeco amongst them, who purport that hot-desking is definitely the way forward and staff not only enjoy it, but technology can allow them to rediscover a feeling of ‘ownership’ in the workplace.

He believes that hot-deskers could use a live, interactive system to sign in and out of workspaces. Helping them to reclaim ownership of the areas used for their jobs.

He says: “This is all about the connected office and allowing people through their mobile devices or tablets to actually find the space they need and use it but still being efficient with the space.

“This will allow companies to expand within the space they currently own rather than relocating. Action which is not just about the cost of the real estate, it’s also a big upheaval for the business. If you can utilise an extra 20% on every floor without causing anyone discomfort, the efficiencies you are adding are phenomenal.”

Evidence against hot-desking

Contrary to the completely objective opinions of people whose aim is to sell workplace technology, the vast majority of evidence suggests that hot-desking is neither good for staff morale and creativity, nor is it good for productivity – with some surveys showing that more than 25% of companies suffer a dip in productivity as a result of implementing a hot-desking policy.

In addition to this, a survey carried out by Unison in 2012 showed that:

  • 90% of respondents said it had a negative effect on morale;
  • 90% said it increased their stress levels;
  • 80% said they do not have the same access to peer support; and
  • only 15% felt that flexibility and efficiency had increased

Furthermore, research carried out by Dianne Hoskins of Gensler, a US office design firm, which took in over 90,000 people from 155 companies across 10 industries, found that ‘knowledge workers’ (skilled white-collar professions) need four things to thrive:

  • Focus (individual work involving concentration and attention to a particular task);
  • Collaboration (working with others to achieve a goal);
  • Learning (acquiring knowledge or skills through education or experience); and
  • Socialising (interactions to create trust, bonds and values, collective identity and productive relationships).

The results of her research went on to illustrate that the most significant factor in increasing productivity in the workplace isn’t the ability to collaborate, but the ability to focus (who would’ve thought that being able to concentrate could be so important).

The research also found that focus is the one thing that new styled hot-desking type environments makes hardest.

She said: ''Co-worker interruptions, auditory and visual distractions all combine to make focus work the modern office's most compromised work mode''.

Her research also discovered that workers who are able to focus more effectively in their offices are also:

  • 57% more able to collaborate;
  • 88% more likely to learn; and
  • 42% more able to socialise

Thus, meaning: they are more likely to be creative and productive in their workplace.

Does Hot-desking have implications for hygiene?

In a word, yes.

Take a look at the interactive graphic in this BBC article for some startling figures.

Is hot-desking here to stay?

In the short term at least, the answer seems to be, yes. Although there are signs of the fad that started in the ‘90s becoming less popular.

Perhaps none more significant than the fact that the American creative agency who helped to pioneer the idea have abandoned hot-desking – they brought back the desk-per-person model after their staff rebelled.

So is hot-desking right for my business?

Some people thrive in a hot-desking environment. A lot don’t. Before committing to this kind of workplace in your office, try running a survey with your staff. Even test the idea on a focus group first to see if productivity improves.

Whatever you decide to go for, Business First has the office solutions to fit your business, with offices to rent at affordable prices with flexible leases. We can even help you to design the workspace that will get the most out of your team.