In the age of the mobile workforce, “hot desk,” flexible desk or hoteling systems have emerged as a way for organizations to conserve office space and create a more dynamic work environment by doing away with assigned desks and instead having employees reserve desk space as they require it. Along with other aspects of the open office trend, hot-desking has been criticized by some occupational researchers who say that employees forced to share working spaces can be less productive, more distracted, and have worse relationships and more conflicts.
Ethnographer Alison Hirst spent three years studying the open-plan, hot-desk environment from the inside, and recently published the findings of her study. At the Conversation, Hirst discusses what she learned about how a hot desk system can affect certain employees more adversely than others:
Hot-desking tends to affect different employees in different ways. There is often a subtle division between those who can “settle” and reliably occupy the same desk every day, and those who cannot.
Settlers arrive first, choose their preferred desk, and by repeating their choice over time, establish this desk as “their” space. Settlers can secure the best desk space (often near the windows), can furnish their desks with all the materials and equipment needed for work, and can sit near their closest colleagues. These routines are advantageous. Contrary to popular belief, these kinds of habits enable creativity because they enable us to put mundane matters (like finding a seat near to people we know) into the background and direct our attention onto problem-solving and innovation.
Employees who for various reasons (such as childcare responsibilities or part-time status) arrive later in the day don’t have a similar choice of desk space.
Because some desks have already been taken, the staff to desks ratio is effectively increased. If you find yourself in this situation, your search for a space, encumbered by your possessions, proclaims your uncertain status. Then, once you have found a free desk, you have to unpack all your work things and set yourself up before you can begin productive work (and then repack it all when you leave) – spending more time every day on low-level subsistence activity.
You will also be sitting regularly alongside relative strangers. It’s not acceptable to introduce yourself, because that would interrupt them. Instead, the normal manner is what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “civil inattention”. This is the practice of signalling to others nearby that you are not available for communication with them, despite your close proximity – it’s the kind of manner most people adopt on a crowded commuter train. In the workplace, this can feel incredibly isolating.