Hot-desking: why musical chairs hits the wrong note


Hot-desking: why musical chairs hits the wrong note

Hot-desking promised so much... savings on office space, better use of resources and better communication. What it actually delivered were unhappy workers.


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‘I spend more time here than I do at home’ is a familiar refrain in all sorts of workplaces, from restaurants to research laboratories. For many of us, the office is indeed a home away from home, and the urge to personalise one’s space is there for all to see, with family photos, pot plants, stickers and favourite screensavers.

This is one of the key problems most people have with ‘hot-desking’ – if we’re not assigned a desk or space of our own, we can’t mark it with emblems of our own identity, it undermines the sense of belonging and prompts feelings of indifference, marginalisation and alienation. 

This has been confirmed by a number of surveys and by the reactions of staff in workplaces where desk-sharing has been proposed. A recent study of 1000 Australian workers found that shared work environments (with hot-desking at the extreme end of the continuum) correlated with an increase in distractions, uncooperative behaviours, distrust and negative relationships. At the same time, perceptions of supervisory support decreased.

Feelings of 'homelessness'

Another study found that hot-desking led to feelings of ‘homelessness’ and had undesirable consequences in terms of the additional work required to search for a place to sit, set out one’s work, adjust the workstation and pack up again afterwards. 

Motivations for the introduction of desk-sharing and other flexible working arrangements are primarily driven by cost considerations. With office space a major expense for organisations, and a significant proportion of the desks or workstations empty at any given time – due to staff being on leave, sick, at meetings or otherwise away from the office – hot-desking was seen as an opportunity to make more efficient use of space. Hopes were also held out for an increase in communication, collaboration and innovation, as workers found themselves sitting near people they had not previously associated with.

In practice, however, these hopes were not generally realised, and more often than not, any advantages were outweighed by the unintended disadvantages. 

Desk-sharing does appear to suit some people – notably, those who work mostly away from the office.

But for most office-based staff, hot-desking has typically aroused a chorus of complaints. Employees of the Australian Tax Office are a case in point. In August 2017, it was reported that plans to introduce hot-desking for the ATO’s 20,000 staff had resulted in an internal revolt and talk of a challenge in the Fair Work Commission. 

Staff objections included not wanting to ‘play musical chairs’ every day, time wasted hunting for a desk in the morning and packing up at the end of the day, difficulty finding colleagues, and a disinclination to clean up after people who leave a workstation in a mess.

The introduction of hot-desking is also reported to create tension between staff who can arrive early and select the ‘best’ spots (eg a desk near a window), and other staff who cannot arrive early due to childcare responsibilities, meetings or for other reasons. The latter are obliged to search for a vacant space, which may be nowhere near co-workers they like or need to collaborate with. The need to sit alongside relative strangers who are absorbed in their work reportedly leads to feelings of social isolation, a decline in teamwork and erosion of morale. Or worse – if the stranger spends a lot of time on the phone and has a penetrating voice, distraction and irritation are the likely result.

Take-home message for employers

Ideally, workplace layout and arrangements should be designed to support commitment, productivity and well-being. Considering that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach does not seem to work very well, it may be that the best compromise is a combination of traditional, allocated desks for office-based staff; separate areas for collaboration, meetings or other particular activities; and also the scope for some staff to opt-in to hot-desking arrangements where it suits individual needs and preferences. In this way, employers may be able to reap the benefits of both schemes – more efficient use of office space, without the loss of morale and team cohesion. 

As has been observed by others, the conditions most conducive to networking, collaboration and innovation emerge in large part not from shuffling staff around but from the mindset of the people and the workplace culture, together with the attitudes and example of top management.
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