Over the last decade or so, you may have seen companies and coworking spaces use the word “hot desking” to describe a core element of how they operate. 

But what is hot desking and how did it become so ubiquitous? This article takes a look at the hot desking phenomenon and breaks down the pros and cons for any curious readers looking to experiment with a new way of work.

What is hot desking?

Hot desking is a model of unassigned seating in a work setting where employees have the freedom to choose where they sit and work in a given space. 

Desks, cubicles, and sometimes even offices are shared resources in a hot desking model. Unlike a traditional assigned seating model, the person sitting next to you and the neighbors in your workspace will likely be different from day to day, even hour to hour. Why? Because hot desking allows employees to choose “where” they work based on their needs, and not something more arbitrary like a seating chart drafted by the office manager.

Another term that comes up in the same conversations as hot desking is “hoteling” or “office hoteling.” Hot desking and hoteling are similar in that they both reject office seating assignments in favor of a more flexible model. The primary difference is that hoteling requires employees to reserve the space they plan to use ahead of time, while hot desking does not.

Today, the difference between hot desking and hoteling is negligible. Both models have been in practice since at least the ‘90s, and have far more similarities than differences. In essence, hot desking has become a catch-all “umbrella” term that acts as shorthand for all the different ways a company can execute an unassigned seating model in its space.

How does hot desking work?

The two essential qualities that define hot desking are unassigned seating and employee choice

  • Unassigned seating – The floorplan of the workspace must not have fixed or assigned seating arrangements that restrict employees to a specific area.
  • Employee choice – Employees must have the freedom and flexibility to choose where they sit and work.

In practice, hot desking can look different from company to company because there are different ways to meet the above requirements in this work model. Below we’ve listed just a few examples of the ways hot desking arrangements can work.

Free for All 

Arguably the most “pure” version of the hot desking concept. The entire office floor plan is up for grabs, and who gets to sit where is determined on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. It’s up to employees to show up early enough to snag a seat in the area where they want to work.

Hoteling/Office Hoteling

If the thought of ‘Free for All’ hot desking sounds a little too chaotic for you, don’t fret. Hoteling models allow companies to integrate order and structure to the process by enabling employees to reserve the spaces like desk seats, cubicles, meeting rooms, and offices.

Exactly how reservations are tracked and managed is up to the company. Some implement systems tied to employee ID numbers and badges. Coworking spaces often use member portals and mobile apps.

How it’s implemented is less important than how it functions. In other words, the goal of a reservation system is to provide clarity and structure for hot desking. Not only does it help employees navigate the physical workspace, it also minimizes negative interactions that might arise when too many people request a popular seat.

Function-based Hot Desking 

This one is exactly what it sounds like. Hot desking for some, assigned spaces for others. To break this version down in a little more detail, in practice specific departments (typically those with greater collaboration needs) will hot desk, while others (typically those higher on the org chart) will not. 

What’s the reason for this stratification? The logical answer is that some teams may be required to sit together for operational and even compliance reasons depending on the nature of the work. The candid answer is that some executives simply don’t want to get rid of the corner office they worked so hard to obtain.

Hybrid Work Integration 

Last but certainly not least, one of the most popular uses of hot desking comes from companies that integrate it with a hybrid work model. As rates of remote work have skyrocketed in recent years, many companies chose to downsize their office space commitments. After all, what good is paying a lease on a large space employees use only half the time? In solving that problem, they created a new one:

Where would employees go when they want to come into the office — and can we make room for them all?

The solution? Embrace hybrid work more fully and stagger employee office attendance. Designate a number of WFH days for the week, and select specific days where in-office attendance is required. These hybrid schedules are often coordinated so that different teams rotate in-and-out of the office to prevent overcrowding and ensure hot desking operates smoothly throughout the week.

What are the benefits of hot desking?

There are three clear benefits to hot desking: greater agility and collaboration, smarter office space utilization, and reduced operating costs/more cost efficient use of workspace.

Agility & Collaboration – One of the chief benefits of hot desking is the impact it makes on employee performance. 

No longer bound by seating assignments, hot desking empowers employees to collaborate cross-functionally. One day, they have the freedom to work near colleagues from different teams to stay close on a project until the job is done. The next day, they can sit with an entirely new group and spin up innovative new ideas brought about by this “meeting of minds.” The day after that, they can sit within their department and work alongside more immediate team members. 

And so on and so forth. 

Space Utilization – As mentioned previously, many companies leverage hot desking as a way to minimize space consumption in their office floor plan. With fewer people in the office on any given day, the company can reconfigure unused office space for any purpose it sees fit. Because every company is different, CBRE says it’s important to determine the ‘sharing ratio’ for your office space. 

A sharing ratio measures the number of employees that can share a space over time, and is affected by factors such as the size of an office, work preferences, and utilization data. A CBRE study reports that in 2022, 33% of global respondents were targeting a sharing ratio of 1.5:1. That means the companies provide one shared space (like a desk) for every 1.5 employees.

Understanding your company’s specific sharing ratio is critical for ensuring the success of a hot desking model, as well as any future space consolidation efforts. 

Cost Efficiency — Space consumption isn’t the only thing reduced by hot desking. It’s also a lot cheaper too. A smaller office space, or even one occupied by fewer people day-to-day, often comes with lower operating costs. Not only is the company no longer paying for unoccupied space, overhead costs per person tend to decrease because fewer desks and resources are needed.

What are the disadvantages of hotdesking?

Hot desking has its fair share of disadvantages, namely in how things like first come, first served seating, a lack of personal and private space, and the resource needs intersect with employee work preferences.

First come, First Served – For some, hot desking’s greatest strength may also be its greatest disadvantage. A work model with no assigned seating means people who participate need to be prepared for the possibility, however slim, that there will be no space available when they arrive at work. If you forget to make a reservation for your space the night before and can’t snag your desired seat day-of, you may simply be out of luck and forced to work remotely for the day.

No Personal Space – Some people prefer to have an assigned seat, desk, or cubicle. A space reserved for them that they can personalize and make their own. Hot desking turns workspaces that were traditionally private into a shared resource. This lack of privacy can result in negative performance outcomes like decreased productivity and communication breakdowns.

Equipment & Technology – Broadly speaking, hot desking isn’t for everyone. The model largely favors people with mobile work setups — that is, people who only need a laptop and a handful of office supplies to do their job. Anyone who requires a fixed workstation, say a desktop and several monitors or specialized equipment that requires training to use, is at a disadvantage when hot desking. Moreover, they might not be able to participate at all.

How will I know if hot desking is right for me?

Moving to a hot desking model is not a decision that should be made lightly. Before making the switch, take a moment to evaluate the unique costs and benefits of hot desking, as well as the preferences of your employees and the goals of your organization. After all, there are many different ways you can implement hot desking. With careful consideration, you can arrive at a solution that works best for your needs.

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