SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Mention the concept of “hot-desking” to the modern office worker and you’re likely to be met with an eye roll and an exasperated sigh.
The concept – a kind of office design in which workers are not assigned to a regular cubicle or desk to sit at day after day, but rather are encouraged to sit in different locations each day at work – isn’t super popular.
Maryland Smith’s Trevor Foulk, whose academic research frequently explores the expanse of our workplace annoyances, understands why. “This is one of those things that seems like a great idea in theory, but in reality, employees experience it as a bit abnormal,” says Foulk, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Abnormal, he adds, can be a problem at work. Research has shown that employees who consider their work settings to be abnormal are more likely to view their organizations as less trustworthy. “It makes you start to think, ‘Well, what other weird stuff is this organization doing that maybe I can’t see?’” Foulk says. And that can lead employees to become less engaged, unwilling to go the extra mile at work.
As a concept, hot-desking seeks to encourage a fresh outlook and perhaps proximity-inspired collaboration among different colleagues on a regular basis. It can also be used as a cost-saving measure, much like the military’s long-standing practice of “hot-bunking.” On an aircraft carrier, there might be an austere 500 beds to 1,500 sailors, Foulk explains. They sleep in three shifts around the clock – hot-bunking – so someone is always in bed.
Of course, it’s not always a frugality measure. Some hot-desk offices maintain ample space for employees, in various configurations – traditional desks, taller bar-style tables, plush armchairs, conference-room areas, and playful ping pong or foosball areas. If employees consider spaces like this aesthetically pleasing, Foulk says, those office spaces can actually encourage employees to trust their employers even more, according to recent research.
Still, the hot-desk can be a hot mess for workers.
A study earlier this year in the U.K. showed that workers in hot-desk offices waste an average of two weeks a year just trying to figure out where to sit. In addition to the search for a place to sit, there’s the time spent figuring out the desk’s configuration and electrical outlets. There’s the time spent wondering where your colleagues are that day, where they might be sitting if they’re in the office at all. There’s the other annoyance factors: Some desks are too near the windows, or too far, too loud or too quiet, or positioned too close to the air conditioning vents.
And, to many, all that may seem highly abnormal. “But normality is a perception,” Foulk notes. “It’s not an objective thing.”
For teams that consist primarily of millennials, hot-desking might not feel so out of the norm and might not be quick to provoke those pangs of abnormality leading to a sense of untrustworthiness. Particularly, Foulk adds, when the space is aesthetically pleasing.
“This is how millennials went to college. They had a laptop or a tablet, and they just sat wherever and worked,” Foulk says. “The idea that there would just be some beanbags and a foosball table and you would just kind of sit and work, that probably wouldn’t seem abnormal to them. But of course, it also really depends on the nature of the work, as well.”
To employers considering a hot-desk office plan, Foulk offers some advice. Consider carefully the kinds of work done by your teams and whether it lends itself to flexible seating arrangements, talk to your employees and team leaders, make the space aesthetically pleasing so the system feels less like a punishment. Do your research, he says, and proceed with caution.
“Upset the normality of the work your employees do, and you could upset the trust.”
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