Hot desks or No desks?

Post pandemic hot desking has become something of a hot topic – and not always a popular one. As soon as we mention unassigned desking, someone in the room (or on the call) will mention the words.  It is a term that has become widespread but is also frequently misused and misunderstood. So what is hot-desking anyway? Is it, or any form of unassigned desking, the future of work? Or are new and more radical workplace solutions with no desks (or even a lot less desks) going to be the answer?

Maybe you think your organisation  is planning to implement hot-desking  – but don’t get upset too quickly and assume that terms you might hear such as team neighbourhood working, unassigned desks or agile working are actually the same thing.  To most workplace professionals hot-desking represents only one type of desk sharing scenario.

Internet sources vary but the term hot desk it appears to have been invented in the late eighties. The term may have come from a Navy term ‘hot-bunking’ where different shifts use the same beds, and the bed is literally warm when you get into it (eww!)  Obviously your desk isn’t going to actually be warm in any scenario!  Early experiments in hot-desking reported in the media where in 1989 at EY office in Chicago and later a well publicised and largely unsuccessful workplace experiment by the advertising agency Chiat/Day in 1994.  (The best summary on the topic I found online is here)

The Chiat/Day “virtual office” was a farcical failure – for many reasons.  There was no change management, there were not enough laptops and phones, there was insufficient private and team space and the technology just didn’t exist to create the new work processes to support a paperless and virtual office.   Frequently the technology is blamed and sometimes it has been said that it was a failure because it was too far ahead of its time.  Yes, technology (and lack of expenditure) played a part.  So too did a lack of change management.  A final factor in why the Chiat/Day experiment failed was that it was what we would now call hot-desking.  Hot-desking means a free for all on where people sit throughout the office.  All the stories of hot-desking environments where people are arriving to the office and being unable to find a seat, of having to arrive at 7am to sit with your team – in an unamanged unbookable hot-desking scenario this will probably happen.  This is the reality of hot-desking.  Hot-desking is not a suitable workplace strategy for most organsations.  In fact today (in Australia anyway ) it is also actually relatively rare to see organisations implement this very kind of basic and brutal hot-desking.  So why the term has become the most popular way of referring to desk sharing is a mystery.

Hot-desking or other forms of unassigned desking in the pre internet days was difficult as office technology really wasn’t ready for it.   Over the last 20 years or so as mobile technologies have improved and become more readily available, the term has become more and more common but its less and less likely that the workplace you are going to work in is actually a hot-desking workplace.  Post pandemic as more and more organisations move to some form of unassigned desking it is a well known vernacular term – for some reason much more so than other terms such as hotelling, agile or activity based work.

There is evidence to suggest that other forms of early experiments with unassigned desking models were more successful.  IBM may have in fact the first company to experiment with an unassigned desk model – back in the 1970’s!   The “non-territorial office” was a space “that would accommodate motion between different kinds of work setups, based  on the particular tasks at hand”.  Not just hot-desking but potentially Activity Based Working which did not reappear again for 30 years (see below), which is surprising given that employees were enthusiastic about the model (after experiencing it) and internal communication increased. (Cubed by Nikil Saval, 2014)

So if hot-desking is guaranteed to fail – what are other forms of unassigned desking and how do they work?


At the same time as the term hot-desking was gaining popularity, the term hotelling was also in use.  Hotelling is in fact one of the most common forms of unassigned desk environments today – and means that a desk booking system is in place.  Generally booking systems are based upon individuals booking single desks or meeting rooms.  Often this concept is combined with touchdown desks which are unbookable desks and typically expected to be used for shorter periods of time.  Touchdown desks are more likely not to be workstations, may not have computer accessories such as docking stations/screens/keyboards etc and different forms of seating (eg not typical office chairs) or even standing height.

Activity Based Working

Around the same time as the Chiat/Day virtual hot-desking office, a new concept in work was emerging in the Netherlands.   Activity Based Working (ABW) was a term invented by Dutch workplace strategists, Veldhoen and the first ABW office in the world was Interpolis in 1995.  Very similar in concept to the original IBM “non-territorial office”, a range of different spaces are provided for different types of work and employees are expected to move throughout different kinds of space throughout the day.  Working from home 1-2 days per week was also a key component of the concept.  One of the biggest differences  between ABW and hot-desking is that teams are assigned to neighbourhoods – areas of workstations which can vary in size from 10-12 to up to 80 people depending on the company and model.  However, there is not a provision of 1 workstation per person but a “desk sharing ratio” where workstations might only be provided for the 70-80% of the population expected to need a desk at any one time.  These neighbourhoods are intended to help teams sit together and for people to find one another.  In practice though, again you might start to see the early arrivers sitting at the same desk everyday and if a clean desk policy is not enforced starting to leave belonging – in a sense marking their territory – known as ‘nesting’ a term which actually appears to have been invented at Chiat/Day.  

Typically an ABW office has more collaborative spaces than a traditional open plan office of assigned workstations, but it is still dominated by workstations.  The other kinds of spaces are usually for collaborative activities mostly focused usually on in person meetings in a mix of open or enclosed spaces.  An ABW office might also have a booking system, overlapping with hotelling.

Over the last 15 years or so, ABW has become a popular way of working in many industries and locations, no more so than Australia where Veldhoen opened its second branch, with many major financial, professional services and even government departments had adopted ABW prior to the pandemic.  In other regions, in particular the USA, the uptake of ABW has been slower, perhaps because so many companies were still working in cubicles and even open plan was seen as revolutionary until fairly recently.

Agile Working

ABW and agile working often overlap and are frequently used to describe the same kinds of work environments.  Theoretically, agile does not describe a work environment but a way of working.  Agile work refers to flexibility in how and where work gets done.  In theory, one can work in an agile methodology but have an assigned desk (just not be expected to be at it all the time).  In practice, agile work methodologies are going to make more sense in environments with a range of flexible work spaces.  Typically agile environments would have less desks than ABW environment’s and more team based spaces.

Why unassigned desks anyway?

Real estate is expensive, and fitting out offices is expensive too.  Prior to the pandemic, the majority of desks in a traditional office environment were already only in use 70-80% of the time.  The rest of the time  people were in meetings, visiting clients, on leave or sick.  Of course this does vary by role and by industry.  Post pandemic this can drop to 30-50% in organisations that have adopted 2-3 days per week hybrid.  That adds up to a lot of unused space and a lot of wasted dollars.  Do you really want your organisation spending that much money on space that is not even being used?  Or could that money better be spent on a nicer and different kinds of spaces, a hospitality style level of services, more training, technology or that extra team member you could really use?

Today there are many different models of unassigned desking and the ones I have discussed above are the more commonly talked about. Note that one thing that does not exist is a Hybrid Office – hybrid is a way of working not a type of workplace.  Post pandemic many organisations are experimenting with different ways of working and we may see many other models develop in the next few years.

So what is the best model of workplace today?

There is no one right answer.  It depends on a whole lot of organisational and cultural factors.

While unassigned desking is frequently viewed as a cost cutting exercise, it should be undertaken as contributing to autonomy, a component of offering employees choice about where, when and how to work and the best mix of spaces to do different types of work.  For some teams who spend large amounts of time working in the office as a team then perhaps unassigned desking isn’t necessarily the right solution.  But this should be looked at in the overall context of work processes and not because ‘we have always done it this way’.  Moving to, or even adjusting to a new type of unassigned desking model requires planning and change management.

But I like having my own desk…but will you always need one?

Some people are not bothered at all by not having their own desk and don’t want to sit in the same place with the same people everyday.  For others, this creates a new source of workplace anxiety.  Can we solve this through workplace design?  We might need to sooner than we think – what happens if the day comes when we won’t need a desk at all anymore?

The workplace as we have known it for the last 100 plus years is a 20th century solution to a 20th century way of working.  Work no longer needs to be a one size fits all solution.  All of these workplace models are still based upon modifications to 20th century ways of working – usually with ‘the desk’ at their core.  Post pandemic we still seem to be tied to the desk with very little change in actual workplace models.  Given the rest of our lives are now driven by mobile technologies, why do we feel so attached to our desks?  I know, I know, its all about the dual / big monitors these days but… what happens when we no longer need the monitors and can create a screen anywhere? What happens when we all wear VR glasses? What happens when we talk to our devices instead of typing?  What happens when technology changes in ways we haven’t even though of yet? Will we still need a desk then?

I’d like to suggest that we need to move past counting desks or worrying if they are assigned or unassigned and discover what 21st century working might actually look like.  What other ways will we create vibrant and functional workplace without desks? If you go visit any public library there are no desks with monitors but a wide range of seating types and in a well designed and appreciated library – often full. The people are choosing to go there. So why not start now with a similar approach to the workplace? 

Ceilidh Higgins

Image generated using Microsoft Bing AI