Once upon a time, McKinlie Evans had her own desk at the office. It was a simple space, adorned only with her computer equipment and coffee-mug collection. Still, it felt like a little corner to call her own. “I liked knowing that I had a space to go to at the office, and knew where other people sat, so I could find them if I needed to,” said Evans, an associate in product strategy and operations at fintech company Avant.
Nowadays, Evans reserves a desk before heading to the office. An email tells her which desk is hers for the week, which colleagues will be joining her at the office, and where they will sit. When Evans arrives at Avant’s Chicago office, she unpacks her computer, mouse and keyboard from her work bag; at the end of the day, those items travel home with her. She uses paper coffee cups rather than cart a mug back and forth. Evans is getting used to the new desk situation. “Things are changing very rapidly,” she said. “It makes a lot of sense for the situation we’re in.”
What is Hot Desking?
As hybrid working — a combination of work days at the office and days at home — dominates the country’s gradual return to business as usual, companies like Avant are offering hot desking to employees.
Some like hot desking’s flexibility and safety. Others miss the familiarity of the same desk every day and perhaps dislike the hassle of having to sign up for a place to sit.
Like it or loathe it, some form of hot desking seems to be here to stay for many offices. “Flexibility is going to be super-important in the future,” said Alex Haefner, head of product at Envoy, which offers workplace-management solutions. Its Desks product, for instance, helps employees coordinate their time in the office with colleagues, the better to use office time to collaborate; map out schedules with coworkers and even create “neighborhoods” populated by teammates.
Built In spoke to a few tech companies to discover how they’re using hot desking to promote hybrid work options and ease that slow return to the office.
From Hot Racking to Hot Desking
First, a history lesson. The phrase “hot desking” riffs on “hot racking,” the military practice of assigning more than one sailor or soldier to a bunk, with occupancy changing as shifts change. Sectors such as consulting, where much work is done on the road, are traditional users of hot desking. “They’d set up hot desking to more effectively manage the fact that [the companies] didn’t need desks for people who were flying frequently and spending maybe one day a week in the physical office,” said Haefner.
What is new, Haefner said, is a wider acceptance and use of hot desking beyond companies with road-warrior employees. It’s becoming more common in high-rent cities, for instance New York and San Francisco, because companies can cut back on expensive space if only a small percentage of employees use the office on any given day.
He predicts that hot desking will positively ignite as offices reopen and offer hybrid work setups to employees. One caveat: Hot desking needs to work, and well. “It’s got to be a great experience, otherwise employees aren’t really going to enjoy doing it,” said Haefner.
Curion, a consumer product research and packaging insights company based in Deerfield, Illinois, has grown significantly over the past several years. Hot desking became a practice as office space and the number of staffers expanded. As employees came to the office, they’d pick any desk at which to work.
Curion, however, has begun to assign desks to employees for several reasons. Some employees require two screens for work, and not all hot desks have additional screens. Some departments, for instance HR, need more privacy than hot desking permits. Another is employee concern about desk cleanliness, even though the company has adopted strict cleaning protocols post pandemic, said Pam Weaver, director of people at Curion.
Finally, employees have expressed a desire for stability, “knowing that you have a dedicated location and you can keep personal items there, for instance a charger for your laptop specifically,” Weaver said.
Weaver said the company didn’t decide on assigned desks overnight. “We have thought about it, tested it, asked employees for insight and over time decided that hot desking is not 100 percent the solution for us,” she said.
Hot Desking for Now
Avant, which employs 475 people, 100 of whom are in tech-related positions, reopened the office last September after a survey indicated that some employees wanted to go back to the office. Employees sign up to reserve a desk for a week, and are allowed to keep personal belongings — including a laptop and accessories — at that desk for a week. Desks are outfitted with both Mac and PC equipment.
Avant assigns desks so members of teams are seated near each other, and employees at the office just for a meeting can reserve a desk for just one day. Employees tend to get used to their desk location, and reserve the same space over and over, said Margaret Hermes, head of talent at Avant. She said that employees seem happy with the arrangement, particularly its flexibility.
“Employees can make a decision to come into the office for a team meeting or to get out of their house on a given day, without making a longer-term commitment to be back in the office,” Hermes said. The only complaint is the waiting lists for desks, as more and more Avant employees become vaccinated and more comfortable with returning to the office.
Even though hot desking works, Avant will likely return to assigned desks in the future because it expects its Chicago office to open back up with employees returning to the workplace full time, Hermes said.
A Safer Way to Return
Boston-based Owl Labs, which makes 360-degree video conferencing software, recently opened to 20 percent capacity. Some Owl Labs employees are still hesitant about returning to the office, and, due to COVID fears, want to avoid commuting on public transportation or sharing an elevator. Hot desking lets Owl Labs manage the number of people using the office daily.
“Anything we can do to support a safe return to the office for our employees, we’re here for it,” said CEO Frank Weishaupt. “Employees want flexibility, so we believe that empowering our employees to work where and when they want to work means they’ll do the best job they can.” Some employees are accustomed to remote work: Pre-pandemic, 40 percent of the company’s employees did so, Weishaupt said.
Owl Labs uses office-organization platform Robin to allow employees to sign up for desks and conference rooms up to four weeks in advance. (Window seats seem to go first.) “It’s great to have the ability to plan in advance and see who else will be in the office on a given day,” Weishaupt said. Each desk is wired for power and ethernet, and has a monitor, several dongles, and hand sanitizer. Some have laptop stands and keyboards.
Employees have only one rule about hot desking: They can’t leave anything at the desks overnight. Owl Labs added lockers to honor the wishes of employees who want to store some belongings at the office overnight. “We see benefits to allow and empower our employees to work where they want,” Weishaupt said. “We value our people and want them to be happy with their work environment.”
Jim McDonald, product director at Owl Labs, synchronizes his office time to collaborate with colleagues. “I do most of my “deep or desk work” at home so I don’t need a permanent desk,” McDonald says. “The lockers are perfect for things I don’t need to bring back and forth.”