Why hot desking fails – and what to do about it

That dreaded word: ‘hot desking’. Takes me straight back to the terror of musical chairs as a child – petrified at the thought that I’ll try to sit down just as the seat is whisked from my behind.

The problem with hot desking is not the idea of making better use of space per se – it’s the motivations and the way it’s implemented and managed that’s to blame.  You can see an efficiency story a mile off – rows of identical, soulless planks of formica with regimented standard-issue screens and equipment stiff and unyielding.

The three main reasons hot desking fails are: 1) one-size-fits-all approach (not all workers are created equal)⁠1 2) lean machine mentality (Facilities perspective) 3) No tech enablers.

What I have heard clients say:

We’ve tried hot desking but everyone hates it. People come in, put their stuff down and disappear for 4 hours.  Meanwhile, a sad and frustrated nomad still hunts for a desk to work at.  There’s a territory and hierarchy that’s still in play.  No cohesive, systemic plan around how the working spaces are meant to support people’s work.

We’re supposed to be hot decking but people just sit in the same place everyday.  Three/four reasons this happens: 1) people are creatures of habit, 2) there’s no need for that person to sit elsewhere, 3) there’s no better alternative to support the work they do and 4) There’s no clear protocol introduced, reinforced and refreshed to remind and embed new behaviours the they become habits…

I use my laptop at home and wherever I like, but when I’m at work, I need my screens.

There are, indeed, many tasks that require the display of a huge array of information.  Yet these tasks aren’t the person.  The person performs the task. By looking at what it is people need to do – how often, and with whom, the spaces and tech that enable them to do those tasks can be created.  For example, team spaces with screen set-ups and also break-out areas and tables for spreading out materials and connecting over – may be more effective than everyone being allocated a desk and doing without those other settings.

So, what to do about it?

Deep Understanding

Find out what people really need.  How to do this?  Don’t just ask – observe!  If you ask people, they’ll tell you they need a bigger desk.  All they want is a sense of security – place to rely on when they want to get their work done.  They also want a sense of  belonging – that they are a valued part of the group – not just a random number that can be cast away at will.

Look at the different activities that your people perform in order to do their work.  For this, I use a simple mapping tool – and lots of post-its! Are the highly interactive activities, such as attending meetings, working closely with team members or communicating with people in other teams?  What about those less interactive activities, such as writing reports, reading and interpreting figures and information, or creating something individually?  Chances are that most of the activities that people undertake are carried out in one of two places: a desk, or a meeting room.  And yet, if you pause to think about it, the activities they perform would be better supported in a variety of different settings.

Find out their fears.  What are people afraid that they’ll miss or not have as a result of your changing what they currently have?  What to they value about their current ways of working and set-up?

Find out what’s missing. People often start to talk about tangible stuff.  But keep asking questions that will get to the core needs behind the physical manifestation they articulate.  For example: “We need a breakout space”.  OK, tell me more. “We need a place where a few people can quickly get together to discuss a problem”  Find out how they are currently overcoming the problems themselves.

Now, look at the working patterns of your people, as well as any visitors to your workspaces. For this, I use an adapted version of a consumer journey and networking map to visually describe the interactions and touchpoint that each worker encounters as they journey through a typical day. Highlight the places where work feels good and people feel they are well-supported. Highlight the ‘pain-points’ – experiences that cause frustration, stress or drain energy.  These pain-points are areas of opportunity.  Focus on these to think of ways to improve the employee experience as they deliver their work.

Spend time understanding the utilisation patterns of the current space.  For this, I use a heat mapping tool that highlights pockets of space that are over-and under-used over the course of a typical/busy day, week or month.

Ban ‘Hot Desking’

Desk sharing doesn’t have to be dull, utilitarian, or feel like a punishment!  Design inviting and comfortable spaces – with your people.  This not only engages them in the change process early-on, they help to identify potential pitfalls and create a shared sense of ownership.  Identifying team areas, rather and a one-1to-one desk allocation or wholesale open-plan agility will help manage a sense of identity and belonging.  Ban the word (and the mindset that accompanies) “Hot Desking”, and approach the design of your workspaces from a balanced set of objectives- not just apace-saving – if ‘increasing collaboration’, ‘improving wellbeing’, ‘attracting new talent’ or ‘supporting innovative behaviours’ become objectives too, then the spaces you design won’t look like a battery farm.

Hack and Trial

Get people to solve the problems with you: Take one of the problems and together, think of at least 10 different ways that the challenge could be solved.  Use prompts/techniques such as: ‘if money were no object’, ‘if space were no object’, ‘if there were no politics or hierarchy here’, ‘if we could use no furniture at all’, if we re-used existing furniture’, ‘if we could create a new space’, ‘if no-one had desks’, ‘if nothing changed physically’.

Settle on a few of the best ideas and mock up the new idea in the cheapest way possible.  If it means moving furniture, do it.  If it means relocating storage and filing, do it.  If it means putting up ply board temporary walls, do it!

Invest in Tech

Technology should be an enabler, not a source of frustration. Working wifi, quick computer boot-ups, accurate meeting booking systems – these all contribute as much to fundamental workplace wellbeing as natural daylight and views of nature.  Enabling people to do their work well means supporting collaboration in physical and digital space.  In realtime and in my time.  Find out what informal technology people are already using to communicate amongst themselves. Look for platforms that will support a dynamic organisation, not chain you to the dark ages.