Who thought this would be a good idea? Here are three ways that hot-desking is hurting your bottom line.
For someone who lives to the age of 80, 26 of their years on earth will be spent sleeping. They’ll spend around 13 years at work and 11 years staring at a screen of some kind. You’ve no doubt heard such statistics before, but one that might surprise you is that the average employee of a hot-desking organisation can spend the equivalent of two weeks each year looking for a desk.
That’s not the only problem with hot-desking. What was touted as a way to increase employee connections, make the most of office real estate, and facilitate an ‘agile’ workforce has turned out to be a system for zapping productivity and stripping individuality.
It’s chewing into our valuable work time
The startling two week statistic came from research conducted by Atomik Research. The huge caveat is that it was commissioned for a company called HotDeskPlus, an app that allows staff to ‘pre-book’ a desk space in their office, so its findings are most definitely self-serving.
The survey of over 1,000 workers found that those who worked in a company with a hot-desking set-up (no fixed desks), were spending an average of 18 minutes each day trying to find an appropriate work space, and nearly a quarter of respondents would spend up to 30 minutes doing so.
Sixty-seven per cent of respondents felt anxious about finding a spot to sit each day and 44 per cent expressed frustration over the time taken to set up a computer once they finally secured a desk.
Key to understanding how this could happen is the concept of an ‘appropriate work space’. It’s hard to believe that anyone could spend 20 minutes looking for a place to sit and not find one (if that were the case, it would mean businesses were over-hiring for their office space). But it does make sense that it could take 20 minutes to find a preferred or even a suitable spot. Some employees might need to be closer to the bathrooms or away from the radio.
And sometimes these reasons can be quite profound. HRM previously interviewed Ashlea McKay, an employee with autism, who said when she was asked to hot-desk in an organisation it took her an hour each day to adjust to a new environment, meaning she had to work back late most days to make up for lost time.
Obviously this wasn’t working for her, so she spoke to the facilities manager and asked to have a fixed desk. This, along with some other minor adjustments, meant it only took her a few minutes to settle in each day.
Another reason businesses cite for moving to hot-desking is the desire to break down silos and create bonds between staff from different departments. But organisations might be achieving the opposite effect.
If you’re sitting next to a different person each day, are you really going to bother getting to know them? What’s the point if they’re going to be sitting four floors above you tomorrow? Conversely, if you are planning on putting in the hard yards to get to know your desk buddy for the day, how long is that going to take? Once you’ve covered the basics – who are you, where are you from, what are you working on – that’s more time taken out of your day.
So you’ve spent 20 minutes trying to find a work station, perhaps another 10 minutes setting it up and then and maybe another 10 minutes making chit-chat. That’s nearly an hour of your day done before you’ve even opened your first email.
The benefit of having an anchored co-worker near you is that you can get to know them on a deeper level. You know that they think out loud – you’ve learnt to tune it out – and as the person who sits closest to the front door, you’re often the one signing for packages, that doesn’t bother you anymore. But if someone else was sitting at that desk for the day, they might find both to be extremely distracting.
As HRM has written previously, the best way to encourage connections between staff is to do so with pairs, not large groups.
“The average employee of a hot-desking organisation can spend the equivalent of two weeks each year looking for a desk.”
It discourages us from bringing our whole selves to work
Researchers have found that the personal knick-knacks we keep on our desks are actually important for coping with negative emotions experienced in the workplace, like stress and anxiety.
In the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers Gregory A. Laurence, Yitzhak Fried, and Linda H. Slowik suggest that employees expend higher levels of emotional energy when they work in an open plan office because they feel stressed or perhaps monitored, and one way to regain control of their space is by personalising it.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers gathered 87 administrative staff. Half were placed in traditional private offices and the others were put in spaces with varying levels of privacy (different sized partitions, etc). The personal items in each space were counted and they controlled for both gender and seniority (females were more likely to decorate their desks and senior figures were more likely to have a private office).
Those in private spaces reported lower levels of emotional exhaustion, but it’s interesting that of the participants in the less private spaces, those with less personal items on their desks reported the highest levels of emotional exhaustion.
“Creating a place of one’s own in an otherwise public workspace environment should further contribute to individuals’ positive cognitive and affective states, resulting in enhanced mental resources, enabling better coping with the potentially debilitating interferences associated with low privacy,” the researchers write.
Personalising space isn’t just a way to regain control. Some people say it’s how they present who they are to their colleagues or that they use it as a tool to bond with others – “I can see you have a Batman mug on your desk. I too love Batman.”
Also, there’s some science behind the things we choose to surround ourselves with. For example, studies show there are immense benefits to come from simply looking at a plant – lower blood pressure, improved attentiveness and reaction times, lower stress levels and increased job satisfaction, to name just a few.
And researchers from Harvard Medical School suggest that simply looking at a photo of someone you love can cause your brain to become “rich with dopamine”, and studies have shown that higher levels of dopamine equal a deeper willingness to work hard and earn money.
“Researchers have found that the personal knick-knacks we keep on our desks are actually important for coping with negative emotions experienced in the workplace, like stress and anxiety.”
It’s really bad for productivity
Much like how we quickly realised that open plan offices were draining our productivity, hot-desking too is proving damaging for employee output.
In an article for The Conversation, Bond University lecturer, Libby Sanders, cites some interesting local research which showed hot-desking “increased distrust, distractions, uncooperative behaviour and negative relationships. On top of this, there was a decreased perception of support from supervisors”.
One of the biggest challenges for employees working in a hot-desking situation is that certain people need to sit together to do their jobs. When you separate them, you’re adding unnecessary time to their day, whether that be an increase in emails or Slack messages, forcing them to hold off on smaller tasks that require joint input or wasted time wandering between floors to figure out where the heck Gary is sitting today.
To combat this, some organisations implement anchored desk spaces where those who need to sit together can have a fixed space. This might be an HR team who deal with sensitive employee information or an executive assistant and their executive. But most people would have a reason for why they’d want to sit near their manager or team mates. So whose job would it be to determine which reasons were good enough?
Is this the way of the future?
Where hot-desking might actually be effective is for a workforce that hires a large portion of transient staff, as these workers wouldn’t expect a pocket of the office to call their own.
It’s understandable why businesses want to hot-desk. Every company wants to be agile, but trying to become agile by implementing hot-desking is about as logical as trying to become Marilyn Monroe by dyeing your hair blonde. It’s just not that simple.
Hot-desking isn’t the only way to be ‘agile’. In fact, if businesses want to be agile, they need to go beyond aesthetic changes and really embed it into their ethos.Employers should also consult with their people to find out what would actually make their jobs easier. I’d bet my lunch it’s not hot-desking.
Do you have hot-desking in your organisation? If so, do you think it works? Let us know in the comment section.
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