Hot-desking Isn’t Crash Hot

black and brown chairs and tables

I listened to a wonderful episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Cautionary Tales, this morning. Titled Office Hell: the Demise of the Playful Workspace, it told the story of the highly successful US advertising agency Chiat/Day who in the early 1990s remodelled their office space to do away with offices and cubicles and replace them with stark, “zany” open spaces in the hope that it would lead to an explosion in creativity as employees had more chance meetings with each other.

It was a disaster. You can read about how it affected employees in the 1999 article Lost In Space by Warren Berger.

The research that best explains this outcome was done by Haslam and Knight in 2010. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, the authors asked participants to perform an hour’s worth of office tasks (for example, checking documents and processing memos) in one of four different kinds of office space.

The experiments showed that while an attractive environment increases worker productivity, even more critical is employee autonomy. Employees are happiest and most productive when they control the look and style of their work areas. Even apparent bonuses such as comfy hang-out rooms and luxurious decor can alienate workers when they are imposed by management without genuine consultation.

It reminded me of my own experience within a large company when we were moved to a new building across the city where, presumably to save money on office space, we were told we were now hot-desking. For those unfamiliar with the term, hot-desking is a workplace practice where employees do not have a fixed desk or workstation, but rather share a workspace with colleagues on a rotating basis.

I’d gone from having my own desk at my previous office to having to work at a new desk every day (and having to clean that desk space every evening for the person who would be using it the next day) and I hated it. Like the employees at Chiat/Day who developed workarounds to their conditions, I soon began arriving at work at 7:30am daily to ensure I got the same desk.

What I was feeling was not uncommon and organisations considering implementing a hot-desking policy should pay heed. Studies have shown that employees who have a fixed workspace feel a greater sense of ownership and control over their environment, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and engagement. In contrast, hotdesking can lead to feelings of insecurity and lack of control over one’s workspace, which can decrease employee engagement and productivity.

Hot-desking can also make it more difficult for employees to form meaningful relationships with colleagues. When employees are constantly moving around the office, it can be challenging to build strong working relationships and develop a sense of camaraderie. This can lead to a lack of collaboration and teamwork, which can ultimately harm the productivity and effectiveness of the entire organisation.

Furthermore, hot-desking can also have negative impacts on employee wellbeing. When employees do not have a dedicated workspace, they may experience higher levels of stress and anxiety due to the lack of privacy and personal space. This can lead to decreased job satisfaction, higher turnover rates, and increased absenteeism.

So while hot-desking may seem like a cost-effective solution for maximising office space, it can have significant negative impacts on employee engagement, productivity, and wellbeing. Organisations considering a hot-desking policy to improve the bottom line should also consider the potential negative impacts on their employees and how that may negate any savings they make introducing the policy in the first place.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.


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