HOT desking, the idea that a desk in an office is used by my many people whenever they find it free, has mushroomed in use over the past decade. This is despite growing evidence that it is often highly unpopular with workers – and possibly bad for them too.

“The idea behind hot desking is simple: you could save a lot of money by reducing the amount of expensive office space needed by sharing the many desks that are unused while people are away in meetings or working elsewhere,” said Isla Galloway-Gaul, managing director of Inspiration Office.

She explained that while these cost-saving ambitions are admirable, the second-tier effects of hot desking haven’t been fully considered – especially by companies that haven’t adapted their offices to accommodate a style of working that is unfamiliar to many.

“We’ve noticed that workers often have to spend time finding somewhere to sit and can spend as much as 20 minutes a day on average looking for a spot. Clearly, this is unproductive and particularly impacts (on) those who have arrived later to work. It can mean that once someone has finally found a desk, they are already quite stressed even before the workday has begun.”

While hot desking suits some people, it can adversely affect those who have to be in the office each day and need to know they’ve got everything they need where they need it. Not knowing where the people you need to collaborate with are sitting can also impair productivity. “Often a query can be solved much quicker by simply going over to a co-worker’s desk, rather than relying on email ping-pong. But that can’t happen if you’re wandering the floor trying to find them,” said Galloway-Gaul.

“In many workplaces now, poor acoustics and lack of visual privacy are a major concern,” she added. “But they’re fixable.” Hot desking doesn’t have to be a complete disaster, and employers could be doing a lot more to make it work better for everyone. For example, they could consider acoustic treatments for noisy open-plan offices and ensure there is a decent balance of collaborative and private work areas.

“Rows of open-plan space with hundreds of desks are not appealing to anyone. Companies need to rethink how people move, create and collaborate – and then translate that into a thoughtfully designed space.” Galloway-Gaul recommended that companies use light-scale, light-weight, easily movable furniture. It allows teams to feel empowered to take over the space and easily create one that best suits their needs.

Another suggestion is to combine furniture and technology in a way that encourages equal contribution by all team members. “Companies also need to enable privacy and control over the environment by providing ‘safe haven’ spaces where new ideas can incubate,” she concluded.

Isla Galloway-Gaul is the managing director of Inspiration Office, an office space and furniture consultancy.

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