The rise and fall of the hot desk: say hello to activity-based working

Hot or not? Collaborative workspaces are increasingly common for offices, but also have implications for the employer and the employee. Arne Kuilman/Flickr, CC BY

Office space is one of the largest costs associated with running a business, which is why hot desking, where employees choose from a selection of available work sites rather than having an assigned workspace, has gained popularity since the 1990s.

Greater collaboration is an essential ingredient in the creative process, and one of the arguments in favour of the adoption of hot desking in organisations. But research on information processing suggests employees need space to concentrate without distractions, and interruptions inhibit creativity. Open work spaces may actually undermine creativity by normalising group behaviours towards structures and boundaries.

Frequent desk relocations can also waste time and generate additional work, and the noise associated with more open work spaces can increase distraction, mental workload, fatigue and stress, all of which can negatively impact productivity.

One of the major criticisms of hot desking is that it reduces the opportunity for employees to express their identity and personality at work, which in turn can decrease job satisfaction, commitment and engagement, factors that have been shown to be positively associated with performance. It has also been suggested hot desking may contribute to a sense of loss and marginalisation thus negatively impacting mental well-being. When managers take control of an individual’s work space, workers can feel psychological discomfort and begin to identify less with the organisation.

The good news is that regular online communication helps maintain organisational attachment in hot desking environments. The bad news is that employees are wary of surveillance systems used to manage dispersed workers, and they may even increase counter-productive behaviours, such as only putting in as much effort as they feel inclined to. There is also evidence to suggest hot desking can result in distinct social structures and even indifference between those employees who settle, versus those that move regularly. Managing employee behaviour in this environment requires an awareness that two distinct cultures may emerge.

Health scares

The negative health implications associated with hot desking are often exaggerated, although perhaps rightly. Multiple user keyboards have been found to have five times the bacteria of single-user keyboards, although one would hope policies such as BHP’s “office environment standard” can go some way to diminishing the associated risks.

The negative effects associated with sedentary office jobs are however well established and it’s just possible that making employees walk around to find an available desk, find each other, and perhaps find themselves, could have beneficial health implications.

It’s apparent from the literature to date that different job roles require different environments. Hot desking works best when there are clearly defined inputs, outputs, and set goals, and in many cases these are unlikely to be sufficiently defined for every employee and team within every organisation.

There’s also evidence to suggest that employees have different preferences, for example, goal orientated environments align most closely with the preferences of conscientious individuals. For organisations and managers this means fitting the person to the job and to the workspace.

Activity-based working

Activity-Based Working (ABW) is one possible solution which is gaining momentum both in Australia and world-wide. ABW has moved beyond hot desking by creating multiple areas tailored to work tasks such as “hubs” for team working and collaborative areas for brainstorming and meetings.

Undoubtedly some of the challenges associated with hot desking will continue to be evident with ABW and the question as to whether the benefits outweigh the costs will still need to be answered. It’s possible ABW environments will become the norm in certain sectors and that there will be work spaces to fit the needs of every work role and every employee.

Global companies such as Microsoft and Google have experimented with ABW, closely followed by companies in the professional services sector such as PwC and KPMG. Companies in the financial sector, such as BankWest, Macquarie Bank, NAB and the Commonwealth Bank have also started to adopt ABW. More recently government departments have been getting in on the action, often using office refurbishments, to integrate the shift to ABW.

While the jury is still out with regards to the financial return of ABW, there are a number of other benefits including a reduction in sedentary behaviours, attracting talent, and retaining high performers. Ultimately it’s about matching individual employees and specific work tasks to work environments and technologies that support those activities in order to enable greater efficiency and effectiveness.