Hot-desking – The End of The Road?

November 22, 2016

Chris Kane – A Workplace Provocateur

Hot-Desking is a phrase that scares the living daylights out of a lot of hard pressed office workers.  Not only do they have to endure the tedium of lengthy commutes and the endless challenges of day to day office work but for many they now don’t even have a place to call their own when they get to their place of work!  It is a most unfortunate label – one that should be consigned to the dustbin.

I’m not sure who coined the phrase Hot-Desking in the context of space utilisation and efficiency. Whoever it was should be congratulated for making a gigantic faux pas.  Together with those that continue to bandy this idiom as the catchphrase for flexible working, they demonstrate that they fail to consider the psychological and productivity implications of using a phrase which in my view in is not fit for purpose.  Consider for a moment the actual phrase itself –  what does it say?  Surely you will agree that it can conjure up a range of different images. Take the word ‘hot’ for most people they can associate ‘hot’ as a warning adjective implying; ‘do not touch’ or ‘danger’ For some they remember their childhood years when their parents warned them that they risked getting burned if they touched something ‘hot’ I wonder if this plays out in the minds of office workers when they hear about the introduction of ‘hot-desking?  Could this explain why it is so difficult to engage people on new ways of working and a more agile approach to using our workspaces?

I have been saying for years that this is one of the most inappropriate phrases in the workplace strategy toolkit. Regardless of whatever country or territory it is used in.  I realise that I may be swimming against the tide as the label has now secured itself as a part of modern language – the label is regularly used by many commentators and even the dictionaries have defined it.  It was interesting to find during my research for this piece that the Crown Estate an arm of the UK Government published in 2013 a guide called Principles of Hot-Desking.  It makes for very dull reading.  Of greater interest and relevance and a publication, I would recommend if readers want to understand the shift to true agile working is Smart Working – a code of practice published in 2015 by the British Standards Institute.  It does not mention nor define ‘Hot-Desking’

Moving on to the practical aspects of why we need to dispense with this label.  Agile or smart working in the 21st century is all about people and place.  We cannot ignore the human and physiological and indeed psychological aspects of how work CAN be done today compared with how we worked in the last century.  Now for many corporate real estate, property, and workplace folk this may not make sense.

When rolling out a workplace strategy and one employs terminology such as Hot-Desking will this encourage staff, say for example, to move from offices to open plan (another great idea!) The last thing one wants is for the people impacted by a move to flexible working to be put off by language which to them is inappropriate and sends a signal to them that in psychological terms they are just a number, that management don’t care about them.  I have seen many examples where staff react negatively to the introduction of flexible working; – “this is all about squeezing space and getting more out of me. Why should I care and why should I collaborate with this move?”.

So how do we make sense of all of this?

Firstly, we must recognise that we need to let go.  For most people office work is still governed and operated on principles based around how we did things in the last century.  We’re now well into the second decade of the 21st century and the way we can work today is changing in front of our eyes.  The old ways of standardisation and applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach no longer make sense.  When it comes to workplace strategy we need to adjust our approach and ditch labels such as Hot-Desking.

Secondly, we need to better understand the evolving nature of business and indeed organisations.  In too many cases we focus too much on the design, furniture and aesthetics rather than some of the more obvious and simple aspects of enabling people to do great work.  If there’s one thing I learned from my years of helping the BBC move to a more agile organisation – its shift from analogue to digital; was that workplaces must provide a range of work settings. In the case of the BBC the strategy was the right working environments for the most creative organisation in the world with no mention of the dreaded ‘Hot-Desking’

Thirdly, we must broaden our horizons to not only focus on counting desks and the physical aspects but embrace the people and productivity dimension.  By just focusing on efficiency we are only looking at half the story. Having developed the smart value concept for the BBC based on the equation; –

Efficiency + Effectiveness = Value (Business)

–  we secured significant buy-in for our workplace strategy called the ‘Creative Workplace’ It made no mention of ‘Hot-Desking’ Make no mistake it is important not to lose focus on the nuts and bolts aspect.  Whilst cost reduction, space-saving and good husbandry of an office portfolio need attention, the other side of the equation can be just as important.  For many of us trained in the world of the physical workplace we have a limited grasp of the effectiveness aspect namely what the workplace can do to help a workforce to be effective. Given that in many countries workforce engagement is now a major concern, take the USA for example, according to a Gallup survey, current engagement is at an all time low.  Does this have anything to do with the workplace?  Regardless of your point of view, it is essential that we consider the effectiveness side of the equation.

Hopefully, after reading this blogpost readers will take away something to chew on.  We could benefit from shifting our focus purely on the spatial aspects of workplace strategy whilst also re-considering the use of language which is totally and utterly counterproductive.  It is all about building an understanding of the needs of the business and aligning the workplace strategy to best meet those needs in these ever changing and turbulent times. Workplace solutions which were well-meaning such as space efficiency yet communicated through incongruent out dated labels such as ‘Hot-Desking’ have had their day. We need to consider the much wider people agenda including engagement wellness and indeed mental health along with the emerging considerations surrounding sustainability.  We need to be able to consider the changing nature of work, of workforces and of the workplaces required to house them. We need to up our game and consider how we can operate in the 21st-century using language and applications which are fit for purpose.