Hot-Desking: Not So Hot with Employees

Employees continue to hate the shared-seating option, just as firms want more of them to return to the office. 

A year ago, many firms thought they had the answer: get more workers back in the office, but reduce office-space expenses by moving to a new open seating plan. It would create social, flexible workspaces for employees and save millions of dollars.

But reducing office footprints and offering “hot-desking”—where workers only borrow their desk for the day—have not gone well. To be sure, the practice has taken off, with the percentage of hot-desking employees having doubled, to 20%, since before the pandemic. Yet surveys continue to show that employees strongly dislike hot-desking, including a recent review of two dozen research papers on the topic, which found that flexible desking arrangements uniformly breed discontent. Why would workers want to come into the office for setups that are less comfortable than those at home? “Office arrangements are simply not competitive with what’s available to employees at home,” says employee-engagement expert Mark Royal, senior client partner for Korn Ferry.

For leaders, of course, the blowback is alarming. Companies are still pressing more employees to return to the office, while also dealing with the expense of unused office space. At last count, about half of offices in major US cities were still unoccupied, according to Kastle Systems, and that has tempted companies to not renew office leases where they can and make do with new office arrangements. But workers complain that hot-desking often puts them in close proximity to unwanted desk mates: a survey of 819 employees published in the Harvard Business Review this year found that over half were trying to avoid “unwanted interactions with colleagues.”

To be sure, experts caution that hot-desking is not the primary reason that workers do not want to come in, but they acknowledge that it is a telling piece of the puzzle. “The value side of the equation is suffering,” says talent-management expert Maria Amato, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. Workers do a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to whether or not to work remotely, she says, and at the office they may find that colleagues are often not present, or that they're hot-desking and difficult to locate; add in time and the costs of commuting, food, and caregiving, and “obvious benefits of being there are lacking.”

Experts urge leaders to think broadly about office offerings. “The office has to offer something that home does not,” says Tamara Rodman, senior client partner in the Culture, Change and Communications practice at Korn Ferry—such as collaboration, better technology, socialization, or the ability to get away from distractions. Indeed, in a survey last year, the leading reason (48%) workers said they headed into the office was the opportunity to focus on work. The winning card, she says, is likely “an emotional draw into the office.” When employees love their teams or facilities or in-person clients (or all of the above), they show up.

Royal suggests that companies do what they can to reduce the uncertainty of the situation. One litmus test is whether workers, who crave consistency and predictability, can picture where they’ll be working before arriving. “Avoid uncertainties, like ‘Where am I going to sit today?’ and ‘Will I have what I need?’” he says. Making sure that employees have the right chairs, lighting, and monitor setups can also go a long way, he says.

If real-estate decisions are already limiting private office options, open office plans can be a reasonable happy medium—yes, the same open offices that were much-maligned pre-pandemic. “Allocate more space for quiet, independent work,” says Royal. 

And continuing to create high-value office experiences is the way to go, says Amato, including well-planned enticements such as trainings or brainstorming events. Unhealthy food like pizza or donuts might not excite employees, she says, but a food cart (whether free or simply parked nearby) could thrill them: “Ask people what they like, and then use your budget for things that excite them.”


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation capabilities.