From going on an office wide desk safari to living out of a locker and ditching those photos of loved ones at your workspace, here’s how to make hot desking work (or convince HR to give you your desk back)

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Hot desking. It sounds kind of sexy, but the reality can be less than inviting in practice. Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice in an office of allocating desks to workers when they are required or on a rota system, rather than giving each worker their own desk”, hot desking is thought to have originated as a working style in the 1980s, with the idea borrowed from sharing bunks (‘hot bunking’) in the navy.

More and more businesses are adopting hot desking in line with leaps and bounds in technological development, increases in flexible working among employees and sky high city rents making office space ever more costly, and therefore limited. The BBC (a hot desking establishment) estimates that hot desking can slash 30 per cent off of office expenses, and while roughly a fifth of British businesses currently have a hot desking policy in place according to research  carried out by Vodafone, the practice could save UK businesses a whopping £34 billion a year. If that’s not enough to get you playing open plan professional musical chairs, I don’t know what is.

Ah, but wait. While hot desking does have benefits other than bringing in more moolah for your boss, it’s certainly not always the easygoing modern working utopia it could initially appear to be, and its success both culturally and on the ground/ in the office is highly dependent on employees’ working schedules, style and habits, and the needs, preferences and personality types of individuals within the four walls of a company. Not everyone will be overjoyed to have to settle for the bean bag when they’re last into the office, and not having a drawer to call your own can leave others distraught. Here are some pros and cons of hot desking, with hot tips from workers who both love it and loathe it, and some points to put to your line manager if hot desking is firing you up in all the wrong ways.

Why hot desking is hot

It can boost creativity

New surroundings are typically credited with getting creative juices flowing, and at the risk of sounding like a cheesy Insta guru, “man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore” (kudos to Andre Gide for that). The shore in this case being your comfy old desk surrounded by the usual faces. Getting out into the wilds of your open plan office and sitting at a desk with a new perspective, next to new people and that’s literally outside of your comfort zone can refresh your thinking, spark formative conversations and ideas and prevent you from getting too cosy in your day to day role.

It prevents elitism

An anonymous media hot desker told me that this is one of the most refreshing changes brought about by a new company hot desking strategy:

“There are no marble desked corner offices or interns working on the floor in the fashion cupboard any more. Top bosses sit next to juniors, everyone’s contributing equally to make the company a success and as a team we mingle more. I think it’s increased mutual respect.”

Whether you’re sat next to the CEO on the sofa in a breakout space or solving a professional conundrum thanks to the fresh insight of the new work experience student, inclusivity can only be good for business.

It makes you more organised

A clear desk rule is essential for making hot desking work, and enforced tidiness can bring about benefits in working habits.  Well Aware  workplace wellbeing expert Anna Percy-Davis  cites that fact that you’ll have “an inability to collect clutter” as a perk from a productivity and calm work environment point of view, while another nameless hot desker admits that’s it made her “far more streamlined and tidy. I no longer have defunct and meaningless ‘desk crap’, and the fact that everything is neatly stored in my locker stops me hoarding anything I don’t need.” Any workplace based messiness resentment also fades fast once everyone is subject to the same clear desk protocol, which is another plus for HR harmony.

It can improve focus

Anna reckons that a clear desk fosters a clear mind:

“When you are encouraged to adopt a minimalist style in terms of desk environment, it can really inspire neat, simple, minimalistic thought. Keeping things clear and simple around your desk can help you be clear and simple in terms of your thoughts too- it’s brilliant for bringing about powerful, strategic thought.”

Basically, if you’re not up to your eyeballs in old post it notes and abandoned gym kit, your concentration potential will probably skyrocket.

There’s another benefit to hot desking in terms of attention span too, as our insider hot desker attests to the fact that rotating desks and office locations is akin to getting a coveted secluded spot in the Uni library: you can check out of the day to day chit chat among colleagues, find a light flooded spot by a window or a particularly zen looking plant and get your head down with no distractions. Your boss may not even be able to find you. Bliss.

It facilitates flexible working

Whether you’re tweaking your hours to make time for parent’s evening, have an afternoon appointment you’d rather not broadcast to your team or simply need to instigate some work-life balance boundaries , hot desking can make it easier to tailor your work schedule to your needs without feeling tied to your desk or as if you’re letting the side down by simply not being in the building. In short, it makes agile working and getting the job done a priority over presenteeism, which can only be a good thing.

It’s sociable

If you embrace it, hot desking can be sort of nuclear networking , as has been the case for one of Anna’s clients:

“I have a client who spends much of his time working from home or visiting business partners and he finds the hot desking situation fun, as he has the opportunity to meet new people in the organisation all the time. He admits that it’s improved the social environment of the office as well as helped him to literally and figuratively tidy up his working life quite extensively.”

Also, you’re far less likely to get lumped with colleagues you don’t click with. You can find your lunchtime tribe for a social hit and return to a desk of your choosing depending on what’s on the agenda for the afternoon. The increasing numbers of us working from laptops also means that roaming around is all the easier, and with wifi everywhere from the coffee corner to boardrooms, meetings can be as formal or as relaxed and sociable as is required.

And why it’s not…

It’s impersonal

This is issue number one according to Anna:

“The most obvious drawback of hot desking is that you do not have a space you can call your own. Having no personal space in the office can feel alienating.”

With no picture frames, momentos, motivational desk notes or just the bits and bobs that make you feel calm, centred and comfortable, your workspace can become bare and more than a little clinical. Losing control of your immediate environment can be disconcerting, and turning your office cocoon into more of a bus stop situation can impact on everything from your output to your feelings of worth and loyalty to the company. Which leads us to...

It can increase stress levels

Whether it’s the early morning competition to score the best desk, resentment when you end up on another floor from your team next to the loo, or the sheer frustration of having to cart your files and possessions around with you wherever you go, being a professional nomad can be exasperating at times. There’s also the potential that, if your company is making cuts to resources, you’ll land up with no desk at all, which is certainly trying if you’re on a deadline.

Logistics aside, working in an unfamiliar environment, without your work wingwoman or within a bubble of noisy strangers, can make getting the job done more challenging and nerve racking. Research conducted by  Unison  found that 90 per cent of hot desking workers found it stressful, and of my very unscientific survey of hot desking friends, only two were firmly pro hot desking as a working style, with many reporting feeling constrained rather than liberated in the daily hunt for a desk.

It’s disruptive

Need to round-up the team or get a colleague’s input on a client call? You may find yourself on a wild goose chase for co-workers if you’re physically separated from your immediate work crew. One hot desker I spoke to found the practice segregating rather than innovative:

“I really can’t bear it. I find the splitting up of teams ridiculous, and it ruins our previously well established ‘flow’. I like to know where to go if I need to speak to a manager, I’m more efficient when I have all of my paperwork in an orderly, designated space and I far prefer the familiarity of set desks. If you have a particular and methodical way of working, it can throw everything up in the air.”

It can lower morale

Anna encourages companies to fully discuss and consult any hot desking proposals with employees before instigating it as a working practice, as the consequences on staff welfare can be profound in her experience:

“I have had one client who, after years of working at their own desk, was put into a hot desking situation when the company was taken over by a larger firm. She was given very little opportunity to bond with the new organisation or understand the culture so she left after only a few months.”

Feeling isolated from your team, unable to call on your manager for support or generally just out on a limb can damage working relationships and make you feel marginalised, even if all is well on paper.

It can be unhealthy

Don’t be deceived by clear desks- according to  Initial Washroom Hygiene , shared desks pose a far greater risk of bug build-up and bacterial contamination, with hot desking environments 18 per cent higher in microbiological activity (i.e, more germy). Shared computer mice were the biggest culprit, coming up 41 per cent higher in microbiological activity than fixed desk mice. Given that 49 per cent of us also eat at our desk, surfaces offer up quite the bacterial buffet too, showing 32 per cent more microbiological activity.

Initial recommends upping your hand washing game, regularly disinfecting surfaces and desk equipment and getting a hand sanitiser on the go to negate any hot desking hygiene issues.

It’s not just germs that can pose hot desking health problems either- if your desk space isn’t ergonomic or you suffer with back pain, poor eyesight or any other health issue that requires a particular desk setup, hot desking likely won’t suit you. Obviously this is a vital topic to raise with your manager and HR, but slumping over a desk that’s too low or squinting at a screen that’s too far away will do none of us any favours in the future. If you are hot desking, making sure you’re sitting comfortably from the get go.

How to do hot desking right (...or get your desk back)

On the ‘reclaim your desk front’, one friend of mine who used to work at a hot desking ad agency revealed that a blanket employee rebellion was pretty effective:

“The official line was that we had to hot desk, but everyone just sat in the same seat every day anyway. It felt totally pointless and incohesive, so we just didn’t do it!”

That’s one way to let your feelings about hot desking be known, but if staging a literal sit-in isn’t feasible, encourage your employer to run a company wide survey if they haven’t already to assess general opinions on the setup and whether it would work for your business.

You could propose a ‘warm desking’ middle ground, where colleagues rotate around a smaller area of the office, or take advantage of the dawn of flexible working and take your “office” elsewhere for part of the week where possible to take the edge off of any internal hot desking quibbles. Asking your employer to improve facilities and technology in communal areas could make hot desking a smoother and more pleasant exercise, and ample storage and locker space will prevent you from having to move house everytime you need to catch up with a colleague. Flexibility where health issues are concerned is non-negotiable, and Anna emphasises the importance of both employer and employee putting in the effort to make hot desking work:

“This strategy tends to be adopted as it can be a significant cost saver for the company so it is really up to the individual to turn such a situation into an opportunity and for the company to ensure individuals still feel valued and supported even if they don’t have their own personal space in the office.

“Companies do need to be mindful of ensuring that employees who are hot desking are made to feel part of the team and are actively valued in terms of their place in the organisation. Checking in with staff regularly who are hot desking is key, as is ensuring that there are regular opportunities for these individuals to feel part of the team, whether it’s during meetings, social activities, group training or days out.”

A bit of old fashioned team building never goes amiss.

10 wellbeing tips for a happier, healthier office

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