Hot Desking: How to thrive in the agile office environment

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While recognizing that most nonprofits and charities face funding restrictions requiring them to have to make the best of their existing physical office spaces, we wanted to look at the challenges faced by employees in different types of office design, and to learn how people can thrive within them - you can a read our companion pieces on surviving in a traditional office as well as an open office design.

While the open concept office was a 20th century invention, the 21st century has put its own stamp on the geography of work with the adoption of agile offices.

As the name suggests, an agile office is one that flexes and changes according to the needs of its employees and their work. While this can include working from home or from a third space, including co-working spaces, most often it means developing a shared desk environment, or what is commonly known as hot desking.

In a hot-desking environment, a workplace is set up with a variety of desks and other seating and working arrangements, with employees choosing their space for the day, sometimes on a first-come-first-served basis, but also based on their needs — or what is called activity-based work. Ideally this allows flexibility so that employees working together on a project can sit close together for the duration of that project, allowing ease of conversation and collaboration. When those same employees need to concentrate, they shift where they work to more isolated, quieter spaces. It also allows them to sit with other teams as their work demands.

Not only is this approach flexible but it can be very cost-effective, especially in organizations where staff may not sit at their desks all day: an organization that uses hot desks can fit more employees into a smaller space.

While this approach is not yet widespread in the nonprofit sector, it is certainly a growing approach to office space – with a recent survey of multinational corporations finding that two-thirds plan to implement shared-desk workspaces by 2020 – and with this approach being especially popular in the start-up community, including among social enterprises.

Despite the enthusiasm for this type of office design, there are reasons for caution. A recently published Australian study found that shared-desk environments led to distrust, distractions, uncooperative behaviour, and negative relationships, as well as the perception of a lack of support from supervisors. As might be expected, employees also struggle with desk shortages, difficulty finding colleagues, and not being able to personalize their space.

Research also shows that this approach can create tension between people who regularly work in the office and those who don’t, and that “...co-worker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open-plan arrangements, when compared to those with their own offices or who share offices with just one or two others...[and] significantly worse when compared to those who mainly work at home or on the road.” At its worst, according to UK-based ergonomics company Posturite, which helps organizations set up their space, hot desking can lead to low morale, the spread of germs, lower productivity and people leaving an organization.

But agile work can also be done well, including when it comes to hot desking. As Posturite says, “It is about freeing your workforce, unshackling them from their desks and allowing them to use best judgement when it comes to the day's work environment.” Zied Etleb's social enterprise Curiato works in a hot-desk environment hosted by start-up incubator Velocity. Staff rotate between the desks based on their needs and on who arrives first at work in the morning. He says, “Some naturally choose the same space each day, while others like to switch things up depending on their work or how they are feeling. Some spaces we vie for because they have the best desks and the most comfortable chairs.” Because Curiato works with partners around the world, most of their documentation is kept online rather than in filing cabinets, although in addition to its eight desks, the company has shelves and filing cabinets (some locked) for communal equipment and documents.

While Etleb acknowledges that this approach suits their organization, one that is oriented more around results than process, he also says that it works for a variety of personality types and approaches to work. “One of our employees is an engineer who doesn’t like chitchat. More extroverted people respect that and let him maintain his focus.” Writer Carolyn Sun who experimented with hot desking suggests that individuals need to know themselves, their colleagues and their work needs in such an environment. She advises:

  • Strategize who you sit next to: know who is a talker -- and your own tendency to talk.
  • Don’t sit near highly trafficked areas if you have an urgent deadline.
  • Sit near someone you’re working on a project with for faster communication

The larger challenge, he says, is for extroverts who might be distracted or choose to procrastinate by talking with team members about what they are doing.

The Curiato team has developed respectful processes for their work culture. Because the space is open, any telephone or in-person conversation longer than a brief answer is taken to a contained room. They have also adopted the headphones-as-signal-for-quiet system, with an unspoken understanding that interruptions are only made for mission-critical reasons. They have also figured out the optimal ways of arranging desks to encourage or deter conversation: with some desks grouped facing one another and others facing the wall to encourage concentration.

Finally, in recognizing that this type of space arrangement can lead either to team-building or relational tension, Curiato is committed to not only holding regular team meetings, but also regular social events to build employee camaraderie and morale. Sun concurs: “As someone who is hyper-concerned about productivity, I can forget the importance of slowing down and getting to know my fellow co-workers - especially the newer ones - beyond a superficial level. I definitely got more warm-and-fuzzy time with a wider group of colleagues, and I enjoyed it.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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