Hybrid work

Balancing the flexible “hot desk” floor plan with employees’ desire for routine.

New hot-desking software doesn’t necessarily change the human behavior of wanting what’s familiar
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Netflix/Seinfeld via Giphy

· 4 min read

As employers hesitantly summon workers back to offices amid yet another Covid wave in the US, some employees are returning to find that their home-away-from-home-slash-personal-junk-storage area—aka their permanent desk—is now a bygone relic of the Before Times.

According to a February survey from Steelcase, a furniture and design company, assigned desks have decreased since the start of the pandemic. “Globally, 15% of employees working for large organizations (10,000+ employees) have lost their assigned desk; overall, regardless of the size of the organization, 10% of employees have lost their assigned desk, compared to pre-pandemic,” the survey found.

While hot-desking has been around since the 1980s and employers can now leverage technology to make the model more appealing, some organizational psychologists say employees still want a consistent workspace.

Hot-desking can be a headache. Hot-desking today (or hoteling, as some call it) is often more structured than the pre-2020 model, which was based on a military concept called “hot-bunking,” where soldiers slept in shifts, rotating in and out of shared bunks.

In February 2020, right before Covid shuttered offices worldwide, Wired reported on the trend’s rise and attitudes toward it from UK-based workers. Jess Baker, a business psychologist, told Wired at the time that the model could cause employees undue stress. “It can adversely affect the many staff who have to be on-site and need to know they’ve got everything they need where they need it.”

Alison Hirst, director of research students at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, told HR Brew via email that hot-desking was harder when offices were busier. “People could potentially have to wander over a very large area full of relative strangers looking for a free desk, and then have to sit among strangers, which can be quite uncomfortable.”

Indeed, some employees have expressed frustration over losing their assigned desk; as one worker told HuffPost last summer, “I definitely felt a connection to my workspace when I was able to leave personal items on it. It was my area. I felt grounded…Now I find it hard to focus. It could be me just getting used to working in the office again, but not having a dedicated, personal workspace makes it difficult.”

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Hirst said that employees are drawn to sit in the same seat every day because “a routine is useful. If I sit in the same place, that is one thing I don’t have to think about or reinvent every day.”

Changing times. Technology has provided structure to the otherwise ad-hoc system and some organizations are using hoteling software to track Covid vaccination status or understand how office space is utilized by employees, Digiday reported.

Hot-desking apps can show employees where to sit or be used to reserve a section of the office ahead of time, explained Alex Haefner, head of product at Envoy, an office management software company. He told HR Brew that Envoy’s customers, which include Slack and Warby Parker, can use the software to create “neighborhoods” for each department or quiet spaces for people that need to be head-down.

Haefner suggests that employers also offer desk amenities like monitor setups or desks with lockers that “make sure [employees] actually find what they need to do work…for example, your engineering teams might need dual-monitor setups, and they might need adjustable desks.”

Hirst agrees that a neighborhood approach could reduce some of the problems that can arise from not having an assigned desk, “so that you are almost guaranteed to be sitting in the same general part of the office alongside people you work with.”

But despite all the software to make hot desking more appealing, Hirst notes that people will still gravitate to where they’re comfortable. “Offices are under-populated, and so employees can sit wherever they want,” Hirst said. “And surprise, surprise, they go back to the same places every time.”KP


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