Hotdesking might actually be bad for you

Few would contest that having freedom in your job is a good thing. And most would also agree that freedom is being able to work from wherever you choose. So ipso facto, hotdesking must be as good as if not a better idea than even that mindfulness program your managers keep trying to get you to do.

At least it would appear that way. At some companies like the BBC, around a third of their employees are “hot desking” every day. With the other “cold-deskers” assumingly gathering dust in their clutter-filled coves, held back by their bitterness for not wanting to give up the corner desk and exterior view they earned.

An office used to be the equivalent to the factory floor for IT and telecoms jobs. It was an address where there was physical space with your name on it that, no matter how dull the work, you knew you could go to every morning, hide out there in the afternoons, and get done whatever you needed to get done.

But thanks to hot-desking, you can now go into your office and not even know where you’re going to spend your morning, never mind if you’ll even find a seat if you go home for lunch. There’s no doubt freedom in this way of working, but is real freedom at work not having a designated place to do it? In this way, you could say the same about being able to send emails whilst standing in the hall or having a meeting on your lunch break.

Unless it also delivers a tonne of other advantages, the amount of disruption and uncertainty that hotdesking brings can’t be good for you.

What is hotdesking

Go into any office today and it’s likely to be much different from the “cubicle farms” of the 1980s. The almost knee jerk reaction to the claustrophobic 6 by 6 cells is one large, continuous, open-plan space with rows and rows of unassigned “hot desks”.

Open-plan offices were introduced in the bid to flatten hierarchies and increase informality among white-collar workers. But you don’t have to read any of the numerous studies and reports to know they haven’t exactly lived up to this ideal.

Hotdesking is one way to make sense of the move from cubicle farms to open-plan orchards. Companies are working more and more with freelancers and contractors, and so assigning them a permanent desk isn’t practical. This is the same for staff like the sales team who spend their time mostly on the road or those who’re lucky enough to work from home two or three days a week.

The constant flow of people in the office, whether due to different hours, tasks, or absenteeism, means that up to half of desks may not be in use at any given time.

In this way, hotdesking becomes a mere way to make the open-plan office even more efficient. By cutting down on fixed desks, companies save on space, equipment, utilities, and improve their bottom line.

Costs aside, though, the major selling point of hotdesking is meant to be how it can create the conditions in which serendipitous connections and conversations can take place. Whether in a small scrappy start-up or large established organisation, hotdesking can supposedly improve communication, spark new relationships, and build stronger bonds across the wider business.

With such a boost in teamworking and moral, you can imagine how everything from productivity to innovation and future prospects can shoot through the roof. That is, if that’s all there was to it.

Hotdesking for the coldhearted

In a survey by Workplace Unlimited, hot-desking was ranked fifth out of six office designs, beating only private offices as the worst type of workplace environment.

Hotdesking is basically just a cooler sounding name for a prolonged game of musical chairs. Expect in this version, you lose pretty much every time you play.

Losing can be as simple as landing a crappy chair in a dark corner, purposely left because it’s beside where Sandra from marketing always sits, because you were one of the last to arrive that morning.

But losing is also something that happens on a larger scale. Despite the main point of hotdesking being to improve communication and collaboration throughout an organisation, in practice, it can do the exact opposite, decreasing face-to-face interaction and increasing the use of email.

Needing to take a little walk to find the chief accountant isn’t such a bad thing. But when they change their damn seat every day and literally could be anywhere in the building, then it makes more sense to add to their growing pile of unread email.

It’s these little moments of lost time and added inconvenience where hotdesking really loses out. Grabbing the right seat can become like a frantic daily fight to place your towel on the best sunloungers by the pool before breakfast. With leaving at the end of the day being like the uneasy moments of checking you have all your belongings and haven’t left anything behind before departing an Airbnb.

When you can’t even communicate well with your team and you feel like a tourist in your own place of work, the whole reason for doing the commute and being at the office starts to crumble. Hotdesking is revealed as the stingy company’s solution to giving their employees freedom to work from wherever they want. After all, apart from electricity costs, there’s little difference between hotdesking and remote working but the resistance to change.

How to make hotdesking cool

If you work in a small team and see the same faces every day, then hot-desking might work out. But in a company of 10 or 50,000 people, then you’d likely have less disruption finding and working from a different coffee shop each day.

Hotdesking works on small scales because you still feel like you have your “home” whilst also maintaining some freedom and flexibility. You get the benefits of having a stable place to come to work from every day, but avoid having to give up your sense of control and autonomy, which are both key to staving off chronic cubicle syndrome.

Going from fixed desks to a first-come-first-serve free-for-all is clearly not the way to introduce hotdesking. For it to work well, it needs an organised plan to be in place, including who’s going to sit where and on which days. Rather than defeating the purpose, this structure can help you get more out of it other than as a means of increasing efficiency or saving money.

Hotdesking doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. It can, for instance, be a good way for members of other teams to find out more about what it’s like in different departments or to jobshare with new roles. The point should always be to increase flexibility, not by forcing it as the best way of working over another, but by offering it as an option alongside existing ones.

Freedom is being able to work from wherever you choose, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of giving up the security and reliability of having your own space.


Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.