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Is Hotdesking on the Way Out?

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Image: Aleksandr Davydov - Alamy Stock Photo
Much of the workforce loves to hate hotdesking. Most recently, this Wall Street Journal article (paywalled) quoted a corporate executive who declared hotdesking, “an interesting experiment whose time has passed.” Could we really witness the death of hotdesking?
Probably not, though it depends on what you mean by hotdesking.
Hotdesking sometimes gets used interchangeably with hoteling or office hoteling. These terms share the basic premise that, in an office where some or all employees work remotely at least one day a week, workers on a hybrid schedule are not permanently assigned a desk for their exclusive use. The difference between these terms is that hotdesking is often used to describe a less tightly controlled environment that uses limited or no reservation function: It may be truly first-come, first-served. In contrast, hoteling generally is implemented via a reservation system where employees can book a particular desk some time in advance.
It’s easy to see why hotdesking, strictly defined, would be unappealing, portending chaos and employee mutual recriminations in a kind of musical desks environment. But even in hoteling environments with better tracking and organization, employees often report that finding a desirable place to work on peak in-office days (i.e., Tuesday – Thursday) can be difficult and discouraging.
Humans are creatures of habit, and research confirms that this extends to how workers are likely to behave in a workplace without assigned desks. In its 2022 report, “Hybrid Ways of Working: Rebuilding Ourselves for the Hybrid Era,” audio and video device manufacturer Jabra surveyed 2,800 knowledge workers in six countries and found that 69% agreed with the statement, “If I didn’t have a regular, permanent workspace, I would still try to sit and work in the same spot every day.” Furthermore, 38% agreed with the statement, “If I didn’t have a regular, permanent workspace, I would feel less loyalty and commitment to my company.”
So, employees want consistency, and whenever they come to the office, they want as good a desk as they can get themselves into. On the other hand, enterprises likely will continue to resist any return to providing a desk for every employee, no matter how infrequently some actually use them. So where does this go next?
You have to look at hotdesking/hoteling in the broader office design context, where the assignment of a desk is just a part of the employee’s experience of the office, said Dan Kirschner, global head of growth and business development at commercial real estate firm JLL. “The primary driver to an enabling work environment really comes down to choice, and optionality,” he wrote in an email exchange with WorkSpace Connect. “Employees don’t have the same needs throughout the day, so the binary consideration that employees either love or hate hotdesking is somewhat overly simplified.”
Workstations themselves have to be an appealing part of coming into the office, Kirschner said. This may mean enhancements like sit-to-stand desks or dual monitor setups, as well as fundamentals like seamless Wi-Fi and proper ergonomics. In addition, Kirschner said employees need “simple access to a variety of enclosed spaces, from phone booths for private meetings or conversations, to small huddle rooms for gatherings of two-five people.”
As long as these private spaces are available when needed, Kirschner believes that more open areas will promote the kind of team atmosphere that employers say is the purpose of the hybrid office. “If everyone is hiding in an enclosed office or under five-foot panels, and you can’t physically even see who is present, employees will be effectively ‘lonely’ when in the office, and not bother to make that commute next time,” he said.
Furthermore, employers — and employees — must deal with the financial realities of the workplace in the hybrid era (especially in uncertain economic times). “The efficiency of the layout and footprint used must be a key consideration, so that the capital investments required have both a qualitative and quantitative return on investment,” Kirschner said. Enterprises have to do both: “Create the desirable, critical optionality and choice in the workplace, and drive efficient use of capital investments.”
In other words, people may hope time has passed for hotdesking and hoteling, but for most enterprises, some form of desk sharing will likely have to be a part of the larger design solution for an office. It’s part of the tradeoff to get the amenities and features that are meant to attract people back there in the first place. So while enterprises will need to continually refine their approach to and implementation of some form of desk-sharing, it seems unlikely that hybrid offices will have the luxury of providing a permanent desk for workers who only come in a few days a week.