Unintended Consequences of Hot Desking

Is your company considering hot desking as it returns to the office in a hybrid model? Hot Desking is a flexible workspace arrangement similar to hoteling. It saves companies a lot of money. It can also have unintended consequences.

As companies are planning their back-to-work hybrid models, hot desking is becoming an idea that’s being explored again. I say again because it’s not completely new. I first experienced it in the early 90’s when I worked for a global consulting firm. Colleagues of mine experienced something similar when their companies developed broader telework options over the past decade or so. Hot desking is similar to hoteling. In a hoteling model, individuals reserve space prior to coming to the office. Pure hot desking removes the reservation system. Individuals choose a workstation that best meets their criteria when they are in the office.

There are benefits to hot desking. On a macro level, it provides flexibility and cost-savings for the company from a facilities perspective. Optimally, space will be used based on what kind of work needs to be done that day. If a team needs to do highly collaborative work, they could grab a collaborative workspace. If someone needs to do work that requires more individual focus, they would choose an individual workspace. Facilities costs are adapted to the hybrid model, saving the company money and leveraging the desire for flexibility.

On the flip side, it can have unintended consequences on engagement, productivity, and team performance – all predictors of increased revenue and higher returns. When I think about the execution of this model, based on my 30+ years exploring how to create organizations that allow people to be as engaged and impactful as possible, I wonder about potential unintended consequences:

  • Is it detrimental to diversity, equity and inclusion? Humans are naturally social creatures who tend to think of the world as groups we belong to and groups we don’t. When given a choice, most people will gravitate towards people they are familiar with or who seem, in some way, to be like them. Will this natural propensity actually get in the way of great diversity, equity, and inclusion? Even putting aside the most obvious forms of diversity, could hot desking make it easier to exclude the team member who is shy or difficult to get along with, or allow certain people to choose those workstations that give them greater visibility to senior leaders or decision makers just because they got to work first?
  • Will hierarchy undermine the model? Even the flattest, most egalitarian organizations have a degree of hierarchy. In the hot-seat model I experienced in the consulting firm, partners and managers had dedicated offices. Consultants were able to use one of the manager offices when we were in the office, which was somewhat infrequent. Of course, if all the manager offices were full that day, there was a problem. Let’s fast forward to 2021 and a purely hotseat model.  What happens if a senior leader arrives at the office to find that the type of workspace they need is already filled? If you modify the hot-desk approach and have advanced reservations for space, is it first-come, first-serve or do some people get priority? If hierarchy influences the decisions too much, does it lower trust and feel unfair? These are two key components of high performing organizations.
  • What impact will the need for confidentiality have? Some people in organizations have highly confidential information and highly confidential conversations. Think HR or Finance. It is reasonable that these roles would require dedicated spaces of their own. People managers also often need to have confidential conversations. Do they also get dedicated spaces? If not, how will your model account for that need? Will managers be expected to schedule space based on planned confidential conversations? That works some of the time. Does your model have enough private space for unplanned confidential conversations that can pop up at any time?  Otherwise, it forces managers to choose between delaying important conversations and having them in a semi-public setting.
  • Does it penalize those who can be less flexible? If someone chooses a space when they get to the office, the ‘prime’ spots typically go to those who arrive earlier in the day. Does that penalize those who are tied to a particular train schedule or need to drop a child at school or simply prefer to come in later and work later? Does it create a less equitable model for some, at least on the days they are in the office?

These are just a few potential unintended consequences that need to be considered if hot desking is part of your hybrid model. We can help you think through your model and get your team ready for Day One.

What other potential consequences could you see?