Beware the chilling effects of hot desking

Even before covid-19, many companies have adopted a hot desk system, also known as "office hoteling"
Empty feeling?
Empty feeling?
Image: Reuters/Hannah Beier
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I’m writing this from a “hot desk,” and it’s leaving me feeling a bit cold.

Like many companies that have reopened their offices after the pandemic, Quartz has adopted a shared workstation system, and new procedures to promote health and safety. Social distanced and sanitized, my desk feels like a surface where no variant of SARS-CoV-2 could thrive.

But it’s also wiped away the thrill of having been assigned a small parcel of office real estate, an emblem of belonging somewhere, of being part of a staff.

The practical advantages of hot desking

The “hot desk” was inspired by a 16th-century naval practice called “hot bedding” or “hot racking.” In ships and submarines, soldiers took shifts sleeping in one bed to save space, with the name alluding to the previous occupant’s body heat.

Experts like Philip Ross, CEO of the management consulting firm UnWork, say that “hot desking” is the solution for the post-Covid office. He predicts that companies will need 60% less office space due to the popularity of hybrid work arrangements. Even before Covid-19, many companies have adopted a hot desk system, also known as “office hoteling.”

More than a cost-savings measure, some believe that giving staff control over where they sit increases collaboration in the office. The setup is also popular among large companies with employees who need to work at different satellite offices.

🎧 For more intel on hybrid work, listen to the Work Reconsidered podcast episode on office design. Or subscribe via: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher.

Interface, an Atlanta-based flooring company, began using desk-reservation software about four months ago. Greg Minano, the company’s chief human resources officer, tells Quartz that employee feedback has been positive so far. “It provides visibility,” he says, explaining how apps like Envoy, Officely, and ‎Chargifi allow employees to see where their desk for the day is situated. “If I make that commute to the office, I can see if have the right type of location to do the type of work that I need for the day. That’s one big advantage.”

Minano also appreciates that the desk-reservation app visually identifies which desks need to be sanitized through a color-coded system. “If it’s green, I know it’s been cleaned,” he explains. “I never have to worry about sitting at a desk. That’s a very important signal to our employees that there is a way that our cleaning crew know it needs to be cleaned and disinfected.”

How hot desks can alienate some employees

A hot desk system is a practical solution, but there’s a big part of me that misses having my own desk.

A desk once provided a mooring point where one could safely anchor for the work day and keep all sorts of useful and idiosyncratic objects. Clutter was a prerogative. In the drawers of the desks I’ve occupied over the years were pieces of mail, photographs, candy, cardigans, dress shoes, and an Edna Mode talking doll that I’ve somehow shuffled from job to job over the years. Most of these things were packed in a file box when the Quartz office in New York was swept clean during lockdowns.

Hot desk at Quartz's New York headquarters
Desk for the day.
Image: Anne Quito

As ideas about the post-Covid office evolve, I wonder if the office desk will become a relic like manual time-punch card machines or overhead projectors. I was chewing over this during lunch, when I walked to the showroom of Carl Hansen & Søn, the mythic Danish furniture manufacturer. At the entrance was a magnificent CH110 desk—designer Hans Wegner’s marvel in walnut with the deepest set of drawers I’ve ever seen.

I asked CEO Knud Erik Hansen what he thought about the post-pandemic rage for hot desks. He shared my lament.

“It is sad,” he says. “It’s a sign of belonging to a company. It’s part of our culture that you have a chair, a table, and an area where you can develop your work. When that disappears, I wonder if your loyalty to the company might disappear too.”