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We’ve managed to invent something even worse than open offices

I thought a fluid, open office space plan sounded great for collaboration and communication, but a few months in, I’m growing wary of hot desking.

We’ve managed to invent something even worse than open offices
[Animation: Guzaliia Filimonova/iStock; Andrew_Rybalko/IStock]

If you are sitting in a cubicle or—lucky you!—behind a desk in a space with a door —then the concept of “hot desking” may still be foreign. It was to me, until recently. And, frankly, I’m not too hot on it.

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I learned all about hot desking when I recently relocated to Minneapolis from Chicago to join an integrated creative agency on their amplification team. It was a selling point at first—aside from the “Minnesota nice” people and the award-winning work. My new colleagues and I are untethered by a designated desk and are free to work wherever we want—the newly renovated headquarters, a coffee shop,  home, while traveling, or anywhere we can be most creative and productive.

Sounds pretty cool and progressive. Right?

Well, as I soon discovered, hot desking has been around for a few years and among some of the more brutal criticisms was this in 2015 in Slate: “It’s basically the practice of assigning desks ad hoc based on who’s there at any given time, because you don’t have space for everyone.”

There’s at least some truth to that.

“The trend is driven by the need to minimize real estate costs and provide workplace design solutions that mirror the differences in the ways people work,” says Pete Bacevice, director of research at HLW, a global architecture and design firm. But, he cautions, companies should not make the switch unless they’ve analyzed the benefits and drawbacks.

“Desk sharing is most effectively implemented when organizations undertake a rigorous research process to understand the diversity of work style types and assign people to a pool of shared seats based on the nature of their jobs,” says Bacevice, who is also a PhD research associate at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

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An analyst who spends much of their time in heads-down work would probably not do well in a desk sharing situation, no matter what their personality type is, for example. But a sales representative who is meeting with clients in offsite locations and is in the office less than 20% of the time would probably do okay if they get the right space available when they need it.

This spring, Nike Communications, a creative communications agency in New York like the one I joined in Minnesota, unveiled its unconventional office redesign by Homepolish.

“We designed a lot of spaces to feel like working from home with a living room, kitchen, dining table, and even a wine room,” says Nina Kaminer, president of Nike Communications. “PR work is very collaborative, and this prevents some of the silos from traditional desks and cubbies or offices. Our open benching system puts everyone together with no differentiation as to rank or experience, even me.”


Related: 5 creative design solutions to fix the open office


She mentions they had challenges early on with noise levels, and the tension between people who were working quietly or on phone calls being interrupted by a spirited brainstorm, but employees have since learned to ask for quiet when they need it.

And that spirit of open communication and collaboration is one of the reasons hot desking has become so popular—and why I was intrigued by it.

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“By giving people choices around where to work, it gives them the opportunity to possibly see other colleagues on a more regular basis, which can be good for relationship building in the office,” says Bacevice. “This chum can create a more dynamic experience at work, if this is a goal that matters to the organization and its people.”

Homepolish also worked with Nike Communications’ client Maisonette, a luxury marketplace for children’s clothing, decor, toys and more, on the recent design of their headquarters in Brooklyn. Cofounders Sylvana Ward Durrett and Luisana Mendoza de Roccia hoped to reflect the brand’s family-first work culture with communal workspaces that double as both meeting areas and places for kids to play.

“Work-life balance nowadays is really more like work-life blend, and design has risen to the challenge of creating flexible spaces that feel both productive and as close to home as possible,” says Noa Santos, cofounder and CEO of Homepolish. “Before, team members were expected to subjugate their own preferences to the static constraints of the corporate office. Work culture has changed. The office is now a recruiting tool for top talent, so the newly designed work environment has to be a place that people actually want to come to every day.”

My daily panic

And while cost savings, increased collaboration, relationship building, and burgeoning creativity all sounds great, the execution has been slightly less so for me.

In fact, the office has become a place I don’t necessarily want (or need) to come to every day, in favor of just staying home or of exploring coffee shops in my new city.

Because I can’t sit in the same seat two days in a row, I always feel mildly panicked in the morning about finding a spot where I’ll be comfortable. On my first day, it was like being the new kid at school by a multiplier of 100, and it’s been especially hard to learn my colleagues’ names when they don’t ever sit in the same seat.

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And since I don’t have an assigned desk, there’s not a place to store any belongings, like a planner or client materials, so I’ve had to downsize and still feel pretty disorganized a few months in.

Bacevice says that’s to be expected. “One measure that might make desk sharing a challenge is “place identity,” the extent to which one’s professional identity and sense of being is tied to or associated with a particular space, such as a teacher to a classroom,” he explains.

“This doesn’t mean that desk sharing won’t work, but if people feel a strong sense of identity to a company office, and maybe a particular space within it, it might be a challenge to feel as strong of an identity when they don’t always sit in the same spot.”

I’m willing to admit it might be more difficult to transition to this already-established setup than it would have been to start fresh together with your organization. And I have appreciated the autonomy and flexibility of the concept, which allows me to pursue passion projects, like writing, in my personal time.

My professional identity may be in flux right now, but we’ll just see how hot desking evolves to meet the demands of a modern workplace. After all, I hadn’t even heard of it until a few months ago.

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