The Hot Desk Is the Hot New Thing—Does It Work?

The Hot Desk Is the Hot New Thing—Does It Work?

As technology has enabled more knowledge workers to work from anywhere, fewer of them need to be in the office every day. This sea change in the way people work has driven the rise of the coworking market, where vendors like WeWork are now even selling their flexible workplace solutions to large corporations. Back in March, Jeanne Sahadi at CNN Money spotted a rising trend of “hoteling,” in which employees don’t have individually assigned desks but have to reserve them each day they want to come into work (or in a “beach toweling” system, take them on a first-come, first-served basis), which saves employers money on expensive office space. Sahadi talked to an employee at EY about how the flexible desk system works there:

Maryella Gockel has worked at global consulting firm EY for 35 years. She said she hasn’t had a permanent office for the past decade. As a member of a global team, Gockel often works from home, in part because she has to be on early morning and late night calls with colleagues in different time zones. Of course, creatures of habit may not love the “work wherever” arrangement. …

If you work in the office at least three days a week, often you’re allowed to make a long-term reservation for the same space if you want, Gockel said. At EY, the only stipulation is that whenever you’re not there, you have to make that space available for someone else’s use.

In April, Denver Post writer Emilie Rusch toured the new Denver offices of commercial real estate firm CBRE, which also did away with assigned desks, even for senior employees, as part of the company’s “Workplace360” transformation:

In Denver, the previous work space was traditional, a sea of cubicles and perimeter offices. Approximately 50 percent of production employees were in private offices, with square footage doled out based on title thresholds, [senior managing director Pete Schippits] said. Now, team members sit at unassigned desks in “neighborhoods” based on their business units. Each employee has a laptop, headset and one file drawer.

The walled-in spaces that do exist are mostly made of glass. Areas with a lot of work stations have clouded ceilings, while communal areas have trendy open ceilings.

“I spent the first half of my day at a work station, and then I was in a focus room for a conference call and spent a little time downstairs at an open table because I had a couple of one-on-one meetings,” Schippits said.

The latest high-profile adopter of the flexible desk policy is the Swiss bank UBS, whose new London offices Chad Bray highlighted at the New York Times last week:

Many of its employees at 5 Broadgate in the City of London will no longer be tied to the same desk every day with a telephone and desktop computer. Instead, the company has deployed so-called thin desks throughout the building. Phone handsets were replaced by personal headsets, and employees can log onto their virtual desktops on computers at any desk in the building or at home. There are no laptops to lug around, and their phone numbers follow them from desk to desk or to their mobile devices. …

The elimination of fixed desks is not a new concept — it has proved particularly popular among technology companies and start-ups — but only in recent years has technology made it more viable for larger companies. It is still a rarity, however, in investment banking. Citigroup is one of the few companies that has a similar setup, at its new headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

This practice is also known as “hot desking” and it is in some sense the next evolution of the open office concept, and is subject to some of the same criticisms. Recent research into the effects of shared working spaces found that employees in shared work spaces, including hot-desking arrangements, formed lower-quality relationships and cooperated less effectively than those who had their own space. A hot desk system can also deprive employees of the chance to personalize the design and organization of their workspace, but some psychologists believe that what employees really value is autonomy and control over their work environment.