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Here’s What Happens When You Take Away Dedicated Desks For Employees

Office design as we know it is evolving to include more flexible options. But what happens when you don’t have enough seats for everyone?

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BY Jeff Pochepan - 10 May 2018

Here's What Happens When You Take Away Dedicated Desks For Employees

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Recent years have brought a lot of changes to the office, particularly as technology grows and younger generations begin to eclipse older employees. One trend that has taken hold is hotdesking, the practice of having no assigned workstations, and where employees share desk space with others.

To Hotdesk or Not to Hotdesk?

The concept is based on data that says as much as 40% of an office's dedicated desk space sits unused on a given day. Employees are on vacation, work a flex schedule, or are stuck in back-to-back meetings.

With their desk sitting idle, is it an efficient use of space and design?

Some think not, and many offices have adopted hotdesking as an alternative.

Fewer desks serve the same number of employees. With many offices becoming activity centered--using furniture such as large presentation tables, or small groups of armchairs where employees enjoy portable devices--if all the actual desks are in use, there are plenty of other places to find comfortable workspace. Studies have also shown some employees--particularly millennials, who are the first generation to grow up with smart technology--don't like being tied to an assigned seating arrangement, and are more productive flowing from space to space as the work dictates.

But how do you know if hotdesking is the right move for your company? Let's look at the perks and pitfalls.

The Perks of Hotdesking In Your Office Layout

You save overhead. If a workforce of 100 has, on average, only 80 people in the office on a given day, those 20 empty desks take up space and are not being efficiently utilized. A hefty portion of the office overhead is dedicated to office building space and maintenance. By trimming furniture and hardware costs, some of that wasted space can be better used as a meeting room or project development space, saving money and benefiting the bottom line.

Your employees socialize more...and that's a good thing. Employees who sit beside someone different every day interact more, converse with a greater number of departments, and can find inspiration where it wasn't possible before. More socialization with a wider variety of people can lead to greater company cohesion, and a realization of better collaboration.

Employees optimize the space for productivity. Employees are more apt to select a space that meets their needs for the day. A lot of conference calls on the schedule? Perhaps a small meeting room or less-crowded alcove would serve their purposes. Collaborating with colleagues to meet a big project deadline? That would be better done in a room with presentation software rather than huddled around a single desk. When your office design allows for employee flexibility, your workers who thrive on mobility and independence are happier and more productive.

And Now...The Pitfalls of Hotdesking:

Employees feel uncomfortable looking for space. Not everyone, however, works well in such a flexible environment. Studies are beginning to show hotdesking can take a toll on employees. From the anxiety of wondering if they'll have a desk for the day, especially if they're late due to traffic or a doctor's appointment, to the politics of sharing space with others, some employees would rather not participate.

It can take longer to get settled. Hotdesking can shake up routines. If half an hour after arrival is spent finding somewhere to work and get connected, that's not efficient. The most critical thing you can do is ensure your technology is up to date so people can plug in, sign on, log into the phone's cloud-based storage to activate their extension at that day's desk, and get to work. If it's not easy, everyone's day begins with stress. Not ideal.

Hygiene is a huge factor. Where one person eats at their desk, another may never, and will resent the crumbs. Shared phones pass germs around. One worker's sniffle on Monday becomes the whole office's nasty cold by Friday. Mandating cleaning standards and provide hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes in a multitude of locations to stave off some of this. Otherwise, if Jack has to clean Janice's pretzel crumbs out of one more keyboard, he's not going to be happy.

Employees may form their own rules around "stuff." Humans are social creatures, and in the absence of specified rules of behavior--such as going to a specific desk every day--we will form our own rules. Watch out for clique-forming and territoriality. People who thrive on routines will naturally gravitate to the same spaces, and if someone encroaches on what they've begun to think of as "theirs" even without desk assignments, it can build resentment. Not to mention, people who work well with a subset of workers will naturally continue to try to work with those same colleagues, and for some, that means exclusion from the "cool kids table." You also have to keep your thumb on the pulse of your company culture. The fastest way to drain employee morale or job satisfaction is to foster an intolerant or even hostile environment, especially for marginalized groups. Turnover will be high if people feel they don't have a safe place at work.

Hotdesking removes employees' ability to personalize. Even adults need a little familiarity in the form of a picture of their family or a trinket that speaks to their identity. By having no assigned desk, employees can feel lost and untethered, leading to stress and feelings of being under appreciated or overlooked. Some employers mitigate this by providing lockers where workers can store their favorite desk calendar or the drawings their children made, but carting those around every day isn't always ideal, and belongings can begin to show wear and tear when moved that much.

Ever get that satisfaction when you finally, finally get your office chair adjusted to the perfect height and angle, with exact 90 degree elbows? Tomorrow, that's all out the window, because that's not your chair. You might be on a couch, because more people are in the office than expected, and you've got a meeting first thing. Ergonomics are important, and if you're in the office chair that likes to tip--and every office has that chair--you might be the unlucky one. Employers need to ensure all the equipment and furniture is in working order and can easily be adjusted.

Want To Try It? Get Inspired By This Company.

For Deloitte's Amsterdam location, the building they call The Edge takes space efficiency to the next level: human efficiency. Employees have an app on their smartphones tied to the building's network, and each day begins with an assessment of the worker's schedule. From there, the building picks the best desk to assign and sets the lighting and temperature controls to the employee's preference. The parking garage recognizes their cars when they arrive and leads them to their parking space for the day. Along with choosing the work location that best suits their schedule, the technology incorporates efficiency with comfort, where the coffee machines know when to brew and even how people prefer their coffee. Even the onsite gym uses technology, turning the kinetic energy from people working out into usable electricity. It's one of the greenest buildings in the world, too, completely solar powered.

With the building solving some of the uncertainty around 2,500 employees hotdesking with 1,000 workstations, it's a more seamless transition into the realm of workspace sharing.

But the cost of such a building is beyond the budget of many companies, so until smart building technology is more accessible, employers who implement hotdesking need to be clear with their policies surrounding technology and furniture replacement, cleanliness and hygiene, and even headphone usage for high traffic areas. It can only help smooth the transition.

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