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Hot desking and its benefits explained

Hot desking is a workplace strategy that started in the 1990s that offers free seating arrangements to employees allowing them to choose where — and how — they work within a given office environment. Here’s everything you need to know about the workplace strategy of hot desking and what it means for you.

If the office was once a place with fixed workstations, high-walled cubicles, private offices and assigned seating, today’s workplaces look a little bit different.

From open workspaces to closed offices and everything in between, there are dozens of office designs in vogue in today’s workspaces.

But as companies explore new workplace strategies as they weigh how best to bring employees back to the office after COVID-19, many are exploring reconfiguring their workspaces to meet changing employee demands.

And some organizations are taking a new look at hot desking, a popular workplace practice among coworking providers that does away with assigned seating and offers employees the ability to choose where they work within the office.

Why? Because as companies look past COVID-19, many are contending with what the implications of continuing remote policies will be on office occupancy rates — and employee needs in the workplace. Survey data shows employees want to go back to the office for three big reasons: to collaborate with colleagues, attend in-person meetings and have a quiet place for individual work.

Hot desking offers companies one way to reconfigure their workspaces with a focus on collaborative spaces while offering unassigned individual workstations.

So, how does hot desking differ from other workplace strategies? And what are the pros, cons and impacts for organizations that adopt the workplace strategy of hot desking?

In this article, we’ll explore:

What is hot desking? 

Hot desking is an office space practice that allows employees to find and work at any open seat, desk, or workstation in an office. Or, put more simply: Hot desking does away with assigned seating and allows employees to choose where they work in a given workspace.

As a workplace strategy, hot desking has exploded in popularity over the past decade as coworking providers and some enterprise organizations such as CBRE have adopted it as a simple way to provide employee choice and flexibility in the office.

Despite this decade-long surge in popularity, hot desking isn’t a new concept. Businesses first started adopting hot desking in the 1990s — but the initial concept originated in 16th century practice of “hot racking” among naval ships where crew members would use bunk beds on a rotating schedule to save resources.

Like the practice of “hot racking,” hot desking helps companies save resources — and limit costs by up to 30% — in the workplace. Under a traditional workplace model, anytime any employee isn’t in the office, their workstation goes unused. With hot desking, companies can make more efficient use of a given workspace and downsize their office floor plan, if necessary.

How hot desking works

When a company decides to adopt hot desking as a workplace strategy, it removes assigned seating requirements across the workspace and offers address-free workstations for its employees to use.

Organizations will often also invest in designing a variety of unique workspaces that range from private rooms to open workstations, lounge areas and meeting spaces.

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In practice, this means that each employee can pick whatever desk, table, or other workstation they want to work at each day. Ideally, each individual workspace come with personal power outlets, A/V features, and access to communal amenities including a kitchen or a printer.

Hot desking offers office workers the flexibility and autonomy to select a given workspace based on the work they’re doing. For instance, an employee who needs a placed for focused, individual work can choose to work in a private room or at a workstation. Conversely, an employee who needs to collaborate with colleagues can leverage a meeting room or communal area.

Hot desking vs. office hoteling

Often times, people will use the terms “hot desking” and “hoteling” interchangeably, but that can lead to confusion. Workplace hoteling is somewhat synonymous with hot desking but with one crucial difference — employees reserve workstations in advance in a manner akin to booking a hotel room. In contrast, hot desking offers a first come-first-served model.

Since employees must pre-book a workstation under a hoteling model, businesses gain more control over workspace occupancy rates. A hoteling model also ensures that each employee will have a dedicated workspace for the day.

The benefits of hot desking and why it's effective

At a time when many organizations are exploring how to operationalize long-term remote-work benefits for their employees, hot desking is emerging as a practical solution that provides employees with flexibility and agility in the office — and helps companies save money by making more efficient use of their office space.

In short, hot desking offers concrete benefits for companies and employees.

Here are the top three benefits organizations can expect to see when they adopt hot desking as a workplace strategy.

1. Hot desking can help support workplace flexibility & autonomy

Hot desking enables employees to choose where and how they work across the office, granting them a level of flexibility and autonomy that don’t exist in traditional office settings.

This is beneficial for two key reasons:

  • Hot desking gives employees the ability to choose a workplace the fits the type of work they’re doing such as a private room for focused work or a meeting room for collaborative work
  • Hot desking also offers a more flexible office environment that prioritizes employee choice

This second point is particularly important as companies navigate a post COVID-19 workspace. In a survey from CBRE, 73% of companies predicted their employees would balance “their time between the office, home and ‘third place’ [such as coffee shops and coworking spaces].”

This is pushing many companies to begin reconfiguring their offices to meet employee demands for collaborative workspaces and more mobile individual workstations. “As the role of the office evolves to favor teamwork over individual work, [office] design will likely follow suit,” CBRE says. “70% [of surveyed companies] are planning to operate in a significantly ‘free address’ [or hot desking] environment to support a more mobile workforce.”

2. Hot desking can help companies save money

In traditional office settings with assigned seating, any unused workstation is just that — unused.

In contrast, hot desking enables companies to make more efficient use of their space offering enough workstations to meet average demand in the office and shed excess working spaces, if the need arises.

As companies plan for their employees to return to the office, many are considering what the impact will be of continued remote-work policies on office occupancy rates.

More simply, as people continue to spend at least part of the week working remotely, many companies will suddenly find themselves with excess or unused office space.

Hot desking can help address some of these problems by enabling companies to better maximize their available office space and offer employees great flexibility and mobility within the office.

It can also help organizations save money on real estate leases and facility management services.

Some companies have already proven this before COVID-19. For example, the financial services firm Citi implemented hot desking to reduce costs and its overall real estate footprint.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Citi shared that the design for one of its New York locations, "intends for no one to have an assigned desk and there are only 150 spaces for 200 people."

3. Hot desking can increase collaboration & productivity

By its very nature, hot desking forces employees to walk around the office to find a workplace — and often ensures they interact with people they might not otherwise connect with.

Companies have long been in the business of searching for ways to encourage collision between their employees to help foster collaboration, creativity and innovation. Employees also deeply value random interactions with colleagues. In a survey, we found this was one of the top motivators people cited for heading back to the office after COVID-19.

hot-desking-challenges-solutions-explained

As a strategy, hot desking can help advance these workplace collisions and create new connections between employees. But it can also help bolster team collaboration and individual productivity, too.

This is because hot desking forces companies to rethink their office designs, allocating space for collaborative work such as meeting rooms and huddle rooms and space for individual, focused work, too.

By offering a variety of workspaces under a hot desking model, companies can provide a greater number of potential places for their employees to connect, collaborative and perform.  

The difficulties of hot desking and how to manage them

While hot desking has clear benefits for businesses and employees, it can also introduce challenges if improperly implemented.

Key among them: A poor employee experience, potential security issues and difficulty maintaining company culture.

Let’s break this down.

Challenge #1: Hot desking can lead to a poor employee experience

According to a study by Mercer, 58% of organizations say they are redesigning their structures to become more people centric by focusing on the employee experience and their needs in the workplace.

Despite this, only 27% of executives believe their investment in the employee experience will yield long-term returns.

This disconnect indicates that many companies are looking to cut costs with new workplace strategies that fail to fully meet the needs of their employees.

Hot desking is one workplace strategy that can fall prey to this trap. If improperly implemented, hot desking can lead employees to spend too much time looking for a workspace instead of actually working — and can lead to confusion over where to work and productivity hits if the workspaces offered aren’t well designed.

Common issues here include poor acoustics, which is a chief complaint among office workers, and poorly apportioned workspaces. If, for example, a company doesn’t offer enough collaborative working spaces such as meeting rooms, their employees are likely to face difficulties in working well with one another.

Here’s how to make sure hot desking improves the employee experience: Before implementing hot desking, companies should survey their employees to discern the most common workplace needs they have so they can create the right working environments.

Organizations should also clearly communicate with their employees about how best to make use of their new workspaces. Key communication points such as emails, company announcements and workplace signage can go a long way to help employees maximize their time in the workspace.

Challenge #2: Hot desking can lead to security issues

Security, or lack there-of, is another challenge businesses encounter with hot desking. Due to the transient design of hot desking, poor implementations can make it hard for individual employees to securely store their personal belongings.

But in the age of COVID-19, security goes beyond personal belongings and private workspaces. It also extends to health.

Under a hot desking model, employees can choose where they sit — and swap desks as needed. This inherently causes health-related complications in the coronavirus pandemic.

hot-desking-workplace-strategy

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s how to make sure hot desking can improve workplace security: At Hana, we provide secure storage areas for our coworking members — and it’s advisable for companies who adopt hot desking models to offer similar storage areas for their employees, too.

Likewise, we also have implemented a number of health-related measures to ensure workplace safety. These include increased cleaning schedules, social distancing signage, limited capacity in meeting rooms and placemats that indicate what workspaces are clean and available to use. Companies interested in adopting hot desking can — and should — adopt measures like these.

Challenge #3: Hot desking can damage company culture

One of the biggest challenges with hot desking is it can hurt company culture by making it challenging for employees to be physically close to their teams and colleagues.

This takes on an added dimension for companies that are looking to adopt hybrid workplace strategies that will allow employees to choose when and how often they work in the office.

But if it’s properly implemented, hot desking can also improve company culture by encouraging people from different teams to interact and breaking down silos across an organization.

Here’s how to make sure hot desking can improve company culture: A good way to overcome the challenge of team separation while still supporting the goal of hot desking is to create work zones or neighborhoods.

Work zones and office neighborhoods are an attempt to design specific spaces for specific needs. These serve as a recognition that every person has a different working style — some prefer quiet spaces while others prefer active spaces, for example — and different workday tasks call for different environments.

With work zones and office neighborhoods, companies can create unique workspaces and areas tailored to specific tasks and working styles.

For example, a company might create a communal working area or a “quiet” library space. The names of these zones help indicate what the workspace is for — and companies can leverage signage to reinforce each workspace’s designated function for employees.

Take this with you

The workplace is changing – both in design and purpose.

Business leaders and employees alike are re-evaluating how they work – video conferencing, using collaborative software tools – and where they work ­– at home, in a coffee shop, or hot desking.

Hot desking is an office space practice that allows employees to find and work at any open seat, desk, or workstation at an office. Like any new concept tested within a business, there are pros and cons inherent to this workplace strategy. 

As a workspace practice, hot desking joins the growing list of alternative workplace strategies including hub-and-spoke strategies, third workplaces, and activity-based workspaces.

The type of workspace is and will be debated among business leaders. What's not under debate is that the way we work is changing — and companies must determine how they will address new employee demands and expectations.

Learn more about the importance people place on meaningful connection at the office in our latest report, COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility and meaningful connection.

Feb 16 2021

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