hot desking

How to turn hot-desking hell into hotelling heaven in 10 steps

The problem with hot-desking

Hot-desking makes perfect sense in agile organizations that put employees’ needs front and center. After all, why on earth would you want a load of desks sitting empty, when you’re striving to create a sustainable, flexible workplace that’s tailored to user needs?

Yet hot-desking has been berated as a ‘penny-pinching ploy that casts people out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots’. These are the words of Pilita Clark, in her opinion piece in the Financial Times.

If a hot-desking implementation is perceived as some kind of sinister institutionalization, resigning employees to the status of ‘inmate’, something has gone seriously wrong. Likewise, if agile working practices are deemed ‘correctional’, what on earth is going on?

Agile working and desk sharing should have entirely the opposite effect. These practices should enable autonomy, flexibility and collaboration: more freedom, not less. Anything else is just missing the point.

How to create hot-desking hell

The truth is, to create the kind of hot-desking hell that Pilita describes – a hell in which people waste two weeks a year just searching for a desk – you need to seriously screw up the implementation.

Rolling out hot-desking purely as a cost-cutting exercise, with no consideration given to the employee experience, nor input from employees – and without the right tools in place to make it work – no doubt will create hot-desking hell.

It’s no surprise hot-desking’s reputation has been tarnished by hellish implementations. The practice has been around for a few decades, long before the war for talent pushed organizations to focus on employee experience. Long before the pace of change, driven by technology, created a universally accepted imperative for flexibility, creativity and rapid innovation. And most importantly, long before tools were available to properly manage hot-desks and mitigate the time-sucking, stress-inducing problems around finding desks and colleagues – problems that need not exist.

So how do you turn hot-desking hell into hotelling heaven?

First of all, let’s consider why hot-desking is a good idea in the first place. What are the benefits of hot-desking or office hotelling?

The benefits of hot-desking

Hot-desking can, of course, cut real estate costs. If an organization is looking to downsize their office space, moving away from a 1:1 ratio of desks per employee makes sense.

Workstations can cost $15,000-$20,000 per year, so accommodating more desks than you need is wasteful: not just financially, but in terms of environmental impact.

However, many organizations don’t want to move to a smaller space. Instead, they want to make better use of the space that they already have.

Imagine, for example, an open plan office where everyone works in close proximity. In such an environment, employees can suffer from anxiety and mental exhaustion, due to the lack of privacy and inability to focus. Open plan offices may easily, in fact, become the ‘chaotic wastelands’ that Pilita describes. When Harvard researchers studied two corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, they found that the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased by 70%, while digital dialogue increased.

Assuming desks in our imaginary open plan office are not fully utilized, shifting to hot-desking would reduce the number of workstations. This frees up space to increase the available square footage per employee. Extra space means people can benefit from a more comfortable place to work; perhaps with extra break-out rooms for impromptu meetings and focus booths for making private calls or concentrating on solo work. What’s not to like?

Yet Simon Constable, in his Forbes article, echoes Pilita’s disdain, saying that that you’d have to hate your employees to implement hot-desking. ‘It’s a better way to destroy your firm than inviting Russian hackers to rob you blind,’ he says.

Criticism of hot-desking

Simon claims that hot-desks are an indication that you don’t matter to the company enough to be given a permanent desk.

His article describes how people in a desk sharing environment are forced to pick a workstation every morning on a ‘first come first served’ basis, leaving many high and dry if they don’t show up extra early to grab a spot, unable to sit near colleagues they want to work with.

He also claims hot-desking has a negative impact on learning and training. If a new hire, for example, can’t find a desk next to colleagues from their workgroup, they won’t be able to get the support they need to be productive; and will waste time walking around trying to find the right people to help them.

Another criticism is that designated seating next to people who do similar jobs, i.e. a traditional departmental approach, has the benefit of being able to find the person you need. ‘You cannot even begin to know where you could find the required expertise, other than by email or phone… finding an in-house expert will now take you hours of work time and years off your life as your nerves become increasingly ragged.’


Again, these gripes scream of a problems that need not exist; and contradict many of the benefits that hot-desking provides when done right.

Simon’s points are, in fact, not a failure of hot-desking itself; they are a failure of hot-desking strategy and implementation. 

Choosing the right hot-desking tool for the job

The good news is that there’s absolutely no need to suffer ‘first come first serve’ fights for space each morning.

And there’s certainly no need show up two hours early to secure a decent spot, like the unfortunate employee Pilita mentioned in her article.

What’s more, employees should be able to find a colleague swiftly and easily – whether it’s someone they want to sit next to for the day, or a knowledgeable colleague whose brains they’d like to pick.

Hot-desking software enables people to book a desk within seconds. If you use a modern hot-desking tool, employees should be able to quickly search for a colleague and book a desk next to them – no hassle, no wasted time.

People shouldn’t even need to be in the office in order to make a desk booking. A desk booking mobile app will allow you to book a workstation on the train ride to work, or from home the day or week before.

More advanced hot desking tools like Smartway2 enable people to book desks through a floor plan view, so you can quickly identify where colleagues or teams are sitting and which desks are booked or available.

A flexible hot-desking system will not only mitigate the risks and pitfalls – it will enable you to boost learning and collaboration; and ultimately provide a better employee experience than traditional seating arrangements.

Desk booking display panels

Desk booking hardware can further improve the employee experience. Desk display panels can glow green if a desk is available, or red if it’s booked, enabling people to see at a glance which workstations are free, then book it on the spot.

Desk booking displays also allow people to ‘check in’ to their desk. As a result, organizations can gather valuable data on desk utilization. That way, if some desks are very popular and others are under-utilized, they can rearrange the space to better meet the needs of employees.

Hot-desking boosts learning and collaboration

Contrary to Simon’s view, hot-desking can actually boost learning, collaboration and productivity.

Researchers at Harvard Business School and Cornerstone OnDemand found that workers’ performance is influenced by whom they sit next to, and that rearranging seating increased organizational performance by 15%, adding $1 million annual profit to the bottom line.

Similarly, a study of a Korean e-commerce company found that when employees responsible for striking deals with suppliers sat next to new people, they 25% more deals.

Facilities Managers can use strategic seating techniques to create opportunities for collaboration and employee connectivity — or “planned serendipity”, just as Steve Jobs did through workplace design. Jobs purposely made sure that the large central bathrooms in Pixar’s headquarters were positioned in the atrium so most people had to take a long walk to use the facilities. He understood that this increased the likelihood that people would bump into one-another, sparking spontaneous conversations.

By using desk booking software, Facilities professionals can experiment with seating arrangements, using employee feedback and space utilization data to adopt a collaborative, test and learn approach to change.

Hot desking pitfalls

The pitfalls identified by Pilita and Simon serve as useful markers on what not to do. Your hot-desking strategy should identify these risks so you can plan for success:

Here are the top seven hot-desking pitfalls:

  1. Time wasted searching for a desk
  2. Time wasted setting up a computer or adjusting furniture
  3. Risk of spreading germs by sharing equipment
  4. Difficulty locating colleagues or locating a seat next to the right people/team
  5. Lack of personal storage space
  6. Inability to bond as a team or build relationships when people are physically spread out
  7. Disagreements about who sits where

Using a modern desk booking system will enable you to avoid many of these problems; as well as providing lockers, making it easy to keep shared equipment sanitized and providing adequate alternative spaces where people can socialize and be productive.

In terms of alternative workspaces, you may want to provide employees with huddle rooms, focus booths, innovation labs, a quiet library… as you create a more agile, activity based work environment.

That’s why it’s a distinct advantage to use resource scheduling software that is both a desk booking system and a meeting room booking system.

How to implement hot-desking the right way

Here’s how to turn hot desking hell into hoteling heaven in 10 steps:

  1. Create an inspiring vision for hot-desking in your organization. Instead of focusing on cost-cutting, articulate the benefits to employees and paint a picture of the future workplace that’s positive and compelling. Tell a story that also addresses objections.
  2. Establish a taskforce of pioneers. This team should include Facilities, IT and HR, as well as any others involved in employee experience.
  3. Immerse yourself in the problem you’re trying to solve. Use a Design Thinking approach to fully understand end-user needs and generate creative solutions. Your research might uncover that some people only want a desk for an hour to make a couple of calls and check their email, while others want a desk where they can concentrate all day without interruptions, or collaborate with others and have impromptu meetings. Many roles involve a combination of these requirements, depending on what the individual is working on at the time. Identifying these up front will steer how your environment can satisfy user needs with various desks, rooms and work areas.
  4. Plan how you’ll identify exceptions, i.e. people who do need a permanent desk.
  5. If you have a workplace scheduling tool in place, analyze space utilization data. Meeting room booking and desk booking data will give you a deeper understanding of how space is currently being used, included which space are over or under-utilized.
  6. Be aware of hot-desking pitfalls and put measures in place to avoid them.
  7. Choose a desk booking tool that makes it easy for people to book what they need, when they need it. System requirements should include the ability to find a colleague and book a desk from a floor plan; and the ability to make bookings from mobile, desktop or digital display (if you intend to use desk display panels). Your desk booking system should also be cloud based and integrate with Outlook if necessary. It’s also important to consider whether your chosen hot-desking app allows you to configure custom rules that fit your workflow. For example if you want to boost cross-functional collaboration, your desk booking software could prevent users booking the same desk for more than 3 days in a row. Setting up custom desk booking rules and meeting room booking rules is a great way to ‘nudge’ the behaviors you desire, without heavy-handed policing. For example will your hot desking software allow people to book a desk for a week or a month straight, or is it fairer to prevent block bookings too far in advance? Also ensure your chosen office hoteling software provides the workplace analytics you need to measure utilization.
  8. Start with a pilot, e.g. one floor, department, or area of the office. Decide how long the pilot will run and plan how you’ll gather feedback from participants regularly, e.g. using surveys, monitoring hardware wear and tear, analyzing utilization data in your desk booking software etc. Will participation in your pilot be optional, or opt-in?
  9. Review the pilot with your taskforce and make a rollout plan. What other spaces will you offer, e.g. private offices, meeting rooms, huddle spaces, open kitchens, phone booths, and other activity based spaces? Ensure areas are available for team meetings, private calls, places to eat, take a break, socialize… all the stuff you don’t want to be happening at hot desks. What tools will people need, e.g. VoIP, IM, video conferencing? Will everyone have their own laptop, or will you have a pool of laptops that you loan out? Will you use virtual desktop infrastructure, or will every workstation have a desktop PC and use cloud-based services? Be prepared for trial and error as you expand.
  10. Create a project plan that details all the above, with milestones, tasks, task owners and deadlines. Include when technology will be ordered and set up to support your rollout dates. Choose when you’ll install and set up workstations; and dates for transitioning employees to their newly configure workspace, to minimize disruption.

To find out more about hot-desking and how it could work in your organization, book a demo of Smartway2 today.

Download eBook: The Future of Work

Your definitive guide to the future of work. Looking beyond the hype to what you really need to know (and do). Topics include machine learning, smart buildings, automation and more!

Jane Young

Jane Young

Last updated January 20, 2020