Confessions of a hot-desk hater

Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of flexible working and offering staff remote working options. Those are vital to the future of work. However, this is for anyone who ever found themselves in the middle of a hot-desking office experiment…

Desk perfection via Sabri Tuzcu on Unplash

Why are desks important?

As well as being a handy place to rest your computer, desks allow for self-expression. This is important in the working world where a person can feel like a faceless employee number. We’ve all known colleagues whose innate tidiness knows no bounds. Their desks are minimalist art. They never have a chewed biro marring the pristine territory of their workspace. They notice and complain when the cleaner moves their mouse a millimetre to the right. We’ve also all met those whose desk resembles a skip filled with assorted junk. The papers, books and mugs balanced in organised chaos. Underneath they appear to have a full wardrobe and assorted pairs of shoes. They may sleep there, who knows? Different folks, different desks.

Desks I have known

The second reason desks are important is they are usually situated in teams. Above is the desk I sat at in 2013. All members of the team had our own projects. We often travelled to meetings in different locations. But we returned here, to our base camp. There was a tea and coffee round, a snacks table and always someone around to have a chat. Conversations about rubbish commutes, lunch plans and longed-for holidays. On the face of it, that sounds insignificant. Yet the feeling of belonging came into its own when we went through difficult times in our lives. It’s very hard returning to work after a bereavement or a relationship breakdown. It’s a tiny bit easier if you see a friendly face asking how you are and making you tea. This stuff matters.

It never occurred to me what a benefit the environment was until I worked in a hot-desking space. Desks were no longer allocated to people. The idea was that we sat wherever we could find a space that day.

Hot-desking pain points

I was managing a team and a large part of my job involved training, mentoring and development. At first there were several free desks so we could usually find space to sit together. But soon the office became busier because all teams were growing. Getting desks was a daily race won or lost by 9am, like trying to secure a sun-lounger in Benidorm. I would receive updates on my way to work so I knew the status before I even got there.

When we couldn’t find desks, we would sit in the communal kitchens with our laptops. This sounds relaxed, but have you ever tried explaining the expenses system over the noise of the coffee machine? And the rumblings of the dishwasher? Whilst ignoring the fish and cabbage dish that a colleague is inexplicably microwaving at 11am? I have and I wouldn’t recommend it. It was particularly difficult inducting new starters, because they needed a place to return to each day to orient themselves.

I’ve always found it helpful to have stuff around me at work (as illustrated). Useful diagrams, inspiration from my current projects, reminders of info I need in frequent tasks, a holiday snapshot, the odd cat calendar :-) But hot-desking policies clear personal items every day. Even with lockers to store things, in practice you stop keeping anything personal because it’s too much effort to restore daily.

The problem there is that visualising processes is important in many roles, particularly anything design related. Research results; mood boards; style guides; personas; customer experience maps; sketches; wireframes; the ubiquitous post-it notes. All information that keeps teams on track. You digitise your documents of course, but finding them creates an extra barrier to getting up to speed each day. You can’t look up at the wall to refresh your memory. Details get lost and forgotten, buried in Sharepoint.

Communication can also suffer when your team sits in different places. It’s the little things (micro-interactions?) you lose. I missed making a cup of tea for someone and having others reciprocate. I missed being able to ask questions and get quick feedback on ideas. I missed the ease of making lunch plans. With hot-desks, you may not know the people you sit next to at all. This makes it tricky to have the same, or indeed any, daily face-to-face interaction. Hot-desking can undermine a collaborative and social culture.

My solution was to become nomadic at work. I could be found roaming the office looking for members of the team to see how they were. It helps everyone if managers are accessible in the workplace. People can ask informal questions without having to schedule a meeting. Hot-desking made that difficult. I tried hard to be accessible online all the time, but when I was in meetings or focusing on a task, I might have to (gasp) go off-line. Simple questions were saved for one-to-one meetings that had to be formally scheduled. I lost connection with peers who weren’t sure where I was based.

What did we learn from this experiment?

Hot-desking didn’t work well for the type of work we did and the nature of the team in this instance, although it did work for colleagues in different roles. The positive outcomes were we created new ways of working. We set up monthly collaborative workshops in larger office space to facilitate sharing and learning. We took over meeting rooms for projects and came up with concepts of information walls (these will be familiar to veterans of UX / PM / agile as information radiators and war rooms). And of course technology helped a lot, although much as I love Slack it can’t deliver a cup of tea yet!

What if hot-desking is the only option?

Ask your staff what they need to do their jobs. Introducing hot-desking can be part of a shift to a more flexible working culture. Some staff may prefer to work from home more and they might be happy with a part-time desk.

But be aware of the social ties and nuances of workplace culture. Note that a switch to hot-desking won’t work for every type of work and every individual. Think about how staff will be supported in their jobs if they don’t regularly sit with the same team. If it negatively impacts productivity or retention, the cost / benefit of removing permanent desks may not be in your favour. And review the confessions of hot-desk haters every now and then!

Product & UX Consultant. Founder of Creative Product Consulting. Feminist. World traveller. Empathy & cats.

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