Pilita Clark: We will pay for our hybrid work freedoms with more hot-desking

If people are only coming into the office occasionally, it makes for a lot of underused space

In Spain it has triggered legal action. In Canada it has riled office workers. In Australia it has rattled civil servants and in Britain it is irking union leaders.

The cause of this far-flung frustration? The steady spread of hot-desking in a pandemic that threatens to turn the personal, assigned desk into an ever rarer commodity.

Hot or shared desks have been high on worker hate lists ever since they began their insidious slide into corporate life more than 20 years ago.

Unsurprisingly, people disliked the tedium of racing their colleagues to find a desk that needed adjusting and made you feel like a worthless cog.

Not much has changed. Last week, when a LinkedIn poll asked if people enjoyed hot-desking at work, 75 per cent of respondents clicked on “no”.

An even larger share of British office workers expressed the same view last year in a university study that also suggested the idea that people grow to like hot-desking over time is rubbish.

Yet demand for “flexible working spaces” is on a roll. A report this month from the JLL property group says 37 per cent of organisations globally have post-pandemic plans to increase their use of co-working or flexible space.

Some have already started. Envoy, a software group that makes an app you can use to book a hot desk, says desk reservations jumped by as much as 60 per cent a month last year.

You might ask why employers would introduce such a proven agent of misery at a time of chronic worker shortages from San Francisco to Sydney. Yet even a life-long loather of the hot desk like me can see why it is happening.

Underused space

Before Covid, office property in big cities was so expensive that underused space cost companies an estimated £4 billion (€4.8 billion) a year in London alone.

Now, those same businesses are introducing hybrid working so people can work some days at home and some in the office, which is precisely what most employees say they want.

But if much of a workforce is only coming into the office two or three days a week, it makes for a lot of underused space. Enter the hot desk, with predictable results.

A desk of one's own is a sign that you are valued by, and belong to, an organisation

A Spanish company that tried desk-sharing ended up in court last year after unions objected to what they argued was a serious change in working conditions.

That claim was rejected but it may not be the last.

Employees in Canada are reportedly miffed about returning to work to find they have to use an app to book a hot desk in hybrid work set-ups. The same prospect has upset government workers in Canberra.

In London, union bosses say hot-desking has undermined ministers’ edicts for civil servants to go back to the office because there are now fewer desks than staff.

I sympathise. Pre-pandemic, too much hot-desking was done by mindless cost-cutters who ignored the price of alienating and wasting the time of staff.

But Covid has made me think again. First, because the rise of remote working makes the cost of unused office space a bigger problem. Also, when I have returned to my old, assigned Financial Times desk between lockdowns, the experience has not always been ideal.

My area has sometimes been so devoid of bodies I may as well have stayed home. At times I voluntarily hot-desked, just to be closer to colleagues who were the main reason I was there. Admittedly, my desk is in an especially distant wing of the building. But in a hybrid set-up, I can see this could be a common dilemma.

There is an answer, of sorts. If shared desks, and chairs, are easily adjustable, simple to reserve, close to generous storage space and generally better organised, hot-desking might become more popular.

But it won’t be cost-free. A desk of one’s own is not merely more convenient and ergonomically sound. It is a sign that you are valued by, and belong to, an organisation. Once it goes, so does a measure of loyalty to the business.

At a time when the pandemic has stretched organisational ties to once unthinkable lengths, I suspect it will still be best to keep the idea of the hot desk on ice for as long as possible. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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