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Hotdesking, the Latest Office Trend to Annoy Employees

Photo: Ojo Images | Getty Images

Aiming for that corner office, or any office at all for that matter, is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Now, it’s all about hotdesking, in which employees change their workstations day-to-day.

These days, management enthusiasm for the non-territorial office is growing, particularly in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It’s also catching on in the U.S.

According to a 2010 report by New Ways of Working (New WOW), based on a survey of 103 organizations and including Fortune 100 companies, six out of 10 respondents said they were ditching fixed desks and switching to hotdesking.

Why the shift? One reason the hotdesk concept is now sizzling is that advances in technology allow for it. With a smart phone and notebook or tablet computer, the world’s an office. The need for office space continues to shrink, say Regus officials, the world’s largest provider of flexible workplaces.

It’s also cheaper. The standard office uses only 30 percent to 45 percent of its space on an average daily basis. With hotdesking, many offices can cut the amount of space they use in half.

Regus, founded in Brussels, offers a network of hotdesk locations in 88 countries, as well as virtual offices and meeting rooms. Currently, 42 percent of its £1.04 billion ($1.7 billion) revenue comes from the Americas, mostly the United States. The company earned net income of £191.5 million ($306 million) in 2010.

“As the concept of ‘virtuality’ gains ground, monetizing agility and creating a robust business case for changing the way we work will become essential,” said Mark Dixon, group chief executive of Regus in a statement.

A typical day in a non-territorial office might go like this: Mary arrives at work and goes to her “team anchor point,” the place co-workers in a department share for relaxing, holding meetings, and storing belongings, sort of a coffee room with lockers. Mary hangs her coat in her locker and removes her “hotbox,” a handheld or wheeled trolley file box containing her files and supplies. She’ll have brought her own computer and phone with her, or they might be secured inside her locker.

Next she might check a list to see which hotdesk has been assigned to her that day, wander around in search of free workspace in whatever part of the building she’d like to hang out in, or go to the specific spot she’s booked in a process called “hotelling.” Hotdesks aren’t always literally desks—they can be workstations simultaneously being used by others.

If Mary works in a field where confidentiality or intense concentration is important, she might be surrounded by “pink noise,” a low, barely audible hum emanating from the ceiling to mask the conversations of others. After adjusting the chair height, she’ll take anything she needs from her file box. The station she’s sitting at might have a laptop dock, as well as a keyboard and screen. Sockets for her phone and laptop might be set into a special desk lamp designed for hotdeskers.

The lamp and hotbox are part of the burgeoning hotdesking accessory business, offering a wide variety of lockers, files, and collaborative phone and video-conferencing systems (which allow workers to use the same number and voicemail wherever they are).

Companies from Siemens to Proctor & Gamble to Microsoft , from Australian banks to London lawyers are trying it out. Britain’s Yellow Pages has even closed its offices and operates from Regus sites around the country.

Hotdesking is an obvious fit for salespeople who spend most of their time on the road, but it also it works for firms or government agencies where employees often meet clients off-site.

Scotland’s Glasgow City Council recently adopted the plan. It’s been touted as bringing down walls figuratively as well as literally between government and the public. The British Council Offices’ 2011 Guide to Fit Out stated that open-plan offices “boost staff interaction, improve concentration and increase the sharing of knowledge between colleagues.”

Many employees, especially younger workers, or those who work partly from home, love non-territorial offices: 84 percent of 200 office workers preferred such work environments according to a survey by Project Office Furniture, a UK firm specializing in “desking” — the term for those work surfaces previously known as “desks.”

But it also makes the ritual of “personalization” of one’s office obsolete: Wheeling that “World’s Greatest Dad” mug from place to place in a file box just isn’t the same as keeping it on its own cherished spot. Others find the uncertainty stressful.

When Arizonan Dianne Wilkinson worked at a private university in which open-plan stations were switched regularly, she found it too disorienting.

“Many of the employees were much younger, so there would be joking and bantering all day long,” she says. “I like working in silence and had a lot of multi-tasking to balance, so it was hard concentrating. I liked the team feeling — but I think it’s challenging for anyone who’s worked for decades on her own.”

In 2007, a British emergency ambulance service operator sued his employer in one of the first hotdesking lawsuits, charging that the lack of a regular workstation gave him panic attacks, and therefore discriminated against social anxiety sufferers.

He lost, but an appeals judge has given him the go-ahead to take it to an employee tribunal as a disability case.

Other dissatisfied hotdeskers have stubbornly tried to regain a bit of personal space. As the UK’s callcentrehelper.com notes, “Hotdesking soon turns into permanent desking. People come in every day and always sit in the same space. And before too long you start to find that they add in all of their personal effects like calendar, magazines, photos, mugs and other general items.”

They will not go quietly, dragging their files on wheels behind them. Management analysts report that workers at some hotdesk offices complain of dirty mugs, damaged computers and food stains left on desks.

A 2008 study by Australian academic Vinesh Oommen concluded that open work environments resulted in loss of privacy, loss of identity, low productivity, various health issues and low job satisfaction.

But advocates say that as more young people enter the workforce, that will change. “There is much recent evidence to suggest that younger members of the workforce work better in teams, rather than in isolation,” said Charlie Toogood, Birmingham (UK) director of GVA, a commercial property management company. “In contrast, more senior staff prefer to work alone.”

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