Hot Desking: The UK’s Latest Hot Topic

More than half of British firms now have no assigned desks for workers, the world’s highest rate. Does hot desking undermine morale?

Like most countries’, Britain’s back-to-the-office push isn’t over. But this time, the question isn’t which (or how many) days people should be in the office. It’s about where they sit.

According to recent data, fully 56% of British employees say their offices now have hot-desk policies in which people are assigned a new desk every day. That’s compared with 48% globally. Not surprisingly, experts say, the policy has not gone over well with many employees, and may explain in part why the UK lags behind many countries in workers returning to office.

Hot desking can save firms considerable sums in office leases since it requires less space. Many companies gave the practice new attention when they turned to remote or hybrid office arrangements. But employees say hot desking gives their workday an impersonal feel and sometimes means sharing space with desk neighbors who are distracting. “It can undermine your work foundation,” says Andy Holmes, a Korn Ferry associate client partner who specializes in human-centric approaches to sustainable high performance. “You can’t predict what your workday will be like or who you’ll be sitting next to.”

For his part, Benjamin Frost, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Products practice, says some smart leaders avoid designing office plans in a monolithic way, recognizing that hot desking doesn’t have to be uniform within the company. “Most offices tend to have a hybrid approach.” Frost says. For instance, the human resources and finance departments may place key people in assigned desks. “That’s important when key personnel need to be found at speed,” he says.  

It’s reasonable for employees to worry about hot desking. Many companies have flip-flopped on their pandemic-era work-from-home policies and are now mandating specific in-office days. Some giant corporations that promised WFH forever quickly reneged. Now the concern is that assigned desks will disappear—a rather unsettling prospect for some people.

There are often obvious signs that hot desking is close at hand. “A clear-desk policy with lockers for each person’s paperwork is a true step towards hot desking,” says Frost. “And workers don’t tend to like it.”

Savvy executives understand there are a variety of needs in a workspace. What’s important across the board, Frost says, is “creating an engaging environment where different people want different things.” If nothing else, the pandemic has taught the business world the value of discussing things in person. While some people will use the office only as a base from which to send emails, others will use it as a place to meet coworkers. In other words, some parts of the office may be open-plan, with hot desks, and other parts will be soundproofed conference rooms. “Essentially, you create a café full of colleagues,” Frost says.


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