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Hot Desking

For many organisations, the cost of accommodation is a major proportion of their total costs. When you add to the basic cost of providing the space (rent and rates or building purchase costs), all the other costs associated with providing space (heating, lighting, fittings, furniture, services, etc), making space available for any service or anyone can be seen as significant cost.

Once, offices were things you just had to have. Then, in the 50s and 60s we saw the move to open plan offices because of the space saving involved. There was strong debate about the merits of open plan and cellular offices and the concept of office landscaping was introduced to make open plan offices more aesthetically pleasing and therefore pleasant to work in. Some attention was placed on basic workflow analysis and proximity priorities according to processes and procedures in use. This was about as far as space management went.

Someone then noticed that many office staff actually spend considerable time away from their offices - at customers premises, at meetings, on site, at conferences, etc. Valuable space was devoted to people who simply weren't there for much of the time. This is especially true of sales force personnel, who may be at their desks for only 10-20% of office time, but it also applies to many consultants and contract workers.

This realisation lead to the phenomenon known as 'hot desking'. The concept comes from an old navy practice in warships, where to save valuable space, bunks were shared by sailors who were on different shifts. Hot desking refers to the sharing of a desk/seat/workstation arrangement by more than one member of staff.

Of course, most personnel will resist the concept. They have 'earned' their right to the status associated with the right desk in the right place and feel that they will lose control over their base work without the security of their own desk. This is not an argument against the use of the technique - just a plea to consider the human side of the issue and to ensure that appropriate support is given to the matter to make sure it works, both for the individuals and for the organisation.

There are a number of different levels on which hot desking can be operated. The extent to which different levels are employed depends on the nature of the work undertaken, the degree of outworking and importantly, the regularity of such outworking, enabling firm patterns of usage to be established for any shared facilities.

One level is simply to indicate that specific desks/chairs are shared, on some rota basis, by two or more people. This ensures that each individual always uses the same desk/chair (this is important to some people in maintaining a sense of identity and security).

At another level, there can simply be a pool of desks/chairs. Individuals book one in advance according to their needs at any given time; a practice quite common with pool cars.

Some systems have desks with interchangeable drawers and/or filing systems so that each user picks up his/her personal storage as he/she arrives and inserts it into the desk infrastructure.

Modern telephone systems enable each user to have his/her own telephone number which can be forwarded to their mobile number when they are on the road. Naturally, an alternative is for them to continue to use their mobile phone when in the office but this may prevent them from using some of the established telephone services. At some future time, when we all have our own permanently issued personal number which follows us around from system to system wherever we are, this will all be resolved.

Stored PC profiles, with or without the additional security of smart personal identity cards can allow access to specific facilities. For example, a PC can be attached to a card reader and can automatically deliver to a shared PC the interface and electronic desktop preferred by the user whose card has triggered the user, and access to the user's personal filestore. This means that a user can work at any PC as if it were his/her own personal computer.

It is apparent that making hot desking work is more than a simple matter of drawing up the rota. Users need to be sure that they will receive all their former support services without any extra inconvenience. They can then concentrate on their work instead of their work environment.

The office needs to be designed with hot desking in mind, with appropriate furniture to allow fast switching between users, applications, and perhaps even equipment. The office must be a flexible space - especially its cabling, telecommunications, furniture and filing.

Hot desking can work and can make office space flexible and highly productive. Users can work in a hot desking environment as well as they did in their own personal, dedicated office space - all it needs is forethought, planning and a little imagination.

August 2000

The phenomenon moves on - and new terminology has entered the lexicon to distinguish between flavours of flexible working that support hot desking. For example:

cubicles and caves are both terms used to refer to private places within an open plan office, formed by screening and/or partitioning, to offer (a degree of) privacy or quiet. They have the advantage of being demountable, increasing flexibility and lowering relocation costs. where cubicles/caves are adopted on the hot desking principle, storage should be discouraged or provided in a mobile form.

hotelling refers to hot desking whereby workers ring in advance to pre-book the area and support facilities they need for a work session; these facilities are then arranged by a concierge to minimise downtime.

motelling is similar to hotelling but does not involve pre-booking; workers simply turn up and arrange their facilities on the spot.

guesting is rare (as yet) but refers to mutual arrangements between two (or more) organisations who will provide hot desks for each other's employees (because, for example, it makes sense on a geographic basis).

Thus, though the principle of hot desking remains the same - there is a wider range of ways in which it can be facilitated.

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