Rows of empty desks. (Photo by Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Photo credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images
By Simon Constable
If you hate your company, its employees and the shareholders then go ahead and introduce the latest management fad: Hot-desking.
It’s a better way to destroy the firm than inviting Russian hackers to rob you blind. The bigger the company, the faster the damage will occur with hot-desking.
Hot-desking is a working arrangement where employees have no assigned desk. Each morning you get a workstation based on that old standby, first-come-first-served. If you show up at 5.30 am then you’ll likely have your pick. Later than 9 am, then probably you’ll get what’s left even if that means working apart from your colleagues.
The theory behind this idea is that it provides companies with increased flexibility in managing office space.
With some exceptions, the drawbacks vastly outweigh any benefits. I know this having witnessed decades in corporate jobs, including a role at one employer that implemented such idiocy.
Here’s what you need to know.
It sends the message that employees don’t matter
Employers frequently say their employees are their biggest asset. But when the company can’t even be bothered to let you have a permanent desk, then the opposite message is sent. Put another way; hot desks mean you don’t matter to the company.
Many companies resist the idea that employees should work from home. While this is a nineteenth-century idea, the argument can be made that if you have a tightly knit work team, then insisting everyone comes to the office can help drive efficiency.
But when you hot desk, you might as well be at home as being in the office. Seriously, apart from the cost of electricity, what’s the difference? Probably not much.
So any employer who demands the attendance in the office but also only offers hot-desks would seem to be talking out of both ways at once.
Interrupts on-the-job training
Every place I’ve ever worked involves some form of on-the-job training. This should be true for everyone. It might be a brand new role for the employee, or it might be the same role but in a different company. Either way, new employees need to learn how things get done at their new employer.
The best place to seat the newbies is next to the boss and the existing work team. That way, when you need help filing your first expense report, your colleagues can help you, for example.
That training cannot happen if you turn up in the office and find that the only desk available is on a different floor from your workgroup. In such a case, the new employee spends hours walking around looking for the work team and not actually getting on with the job.
Your colleagues can’t find key people
When the company seats people who do similar jobs next to each other, it does everyone a favor. For example, if you know where the chief accountant sits and need some accounting advice, you can walk to their desk and ask. If they aren’t at their work station, then it is more than likely that the people around them will be able to help you.
That cannot happen with hot desks. You cannot even begin to know where you could find the required expertise, other than by email or via phone.
But these days many people don’t bother to pick up their phones, and emails get lost in the bowels of your inbox. In short, when you have a hotdesk, finding an in-house expert will now take hours of work time and years off your life as your nerves become increasingly ragged.
Superquick meetings can’t happen
Brief impromptu meetings are a vital part of efficient office work. The team leader might take two minutes to tell everyone sitting nearby some important things as the day kicks off. These micro events don’t interrupt much of the workflow because mostly the team members just need to swivel their chairs around.
However, if you have hotdesks, your team could be anywhere in the building. Having impromptu meetings will be next-to-impossible. Those meetings you do hold will almost entirely be time-wasting affairs. Imagine inviting six people from different parts of the building for a 2-minute session. The time to get everyone assembled could, in reality, total 20 minutes. Have three such meetings in a day, and you are really starting to eat into productive work hours.
You can’t ask for help
When the company places the desks of people who do similar things next to each other, then it can also smooth out the process of getting the job done. If you need help, you can turn to your colleagues for assistance in the knowledge that they likely have similar expertise.
That efficient employee placement goes out of the window with hotdesks. An accountant might find him or herself next to a graphic designer, for instance. Finding help when solving a knotty problem might involve going on a random walk around the office or typing a long, dull email. Instead, the matter at hand could have been solved in a trice if the ‘experts’ were at the desks nearby.
Adds up fast
The combined total of these small negative effects adds up quickly. The bigger the firm the larger the inefficiency that is caused. A company of 50 people might see only minor problems from hot-desking, while one of 50,000 will likely see massive dysfunction throughout the institution.
There are a couple of exceptions to hot desks being a way to destroy your company
First, if your company has few employees that all work in a small office, then hot desks probably work just fine. When everyone is working from laptops around a table, and they are the same people every day, then the problems mentioned above aren’t relevant.
Second, a large company with an itinerant sales force should likely have hot desks for the occasional use of the sales professionals. That makes sense because the selling takes place in the offices of the customers, not at their employer’s headquarters. The sales force should really only need to visit the home office once in a while, so why bother with assigned desks.
Other than that, if you see a public company introducing hot desks as a way to add flexibility or save money across the board, then be afraid for investors. Why, because the profits quickly suffer in a dysfunctional company.