Moving To A Hot Desk Culture: The Cons

Hot desking is a phenomenon that has been implemented by many companies throughout the modern workspace. It is designed to be flexible, space saving, lower costs and deliver cross benefits by enabling collaboration between different teams within an organisation. When looking to implement such a strategy, it is important to understand whether or not this working model would be suitable for your organisation.

There are plenty of companies that introduce this strategy, but employees just end up sitting at the same desk every day. It is so important to truly understand the needs, work habits, current policies and available technology of your organisation before investing in this practice. The way you quantify the process of a Hot Desking Policy will influence the criteria you wish to use. Clear goals enable you to determine the true success of your seating arrangements and allows the determination of its value to the company.

The Desired Effect May Not Be True

There is evidence that shared work environments have a negative impact on interpersonal interactions, including a decline in cooperative behaviours 1. Open plan offices have been found to not only increase distraction and reduce privacy, but also to increase employees' use of coping strategies such as withdrawal 2, to negatively impact team member relations 1, to make cooperation less pleasant 2, and to decrease communication when compared to private offices 3. Further, in terms of Indoor environmental quality (IEQ), private offices outperform open-plan workspaces in almost all aspects of IEQ (privacy, noise, visual distraction) 4.

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“Open plan offices have been found to increase distraction and reduce privacy”

Research investigating negative workplace relationships generally supports the notion that workplace factors including workload, negative affect, and increased uncertainty and distrust are all associated with co-worker incivility and a deterioration of interpersonal relationships 9. Research into shared work environments has been linked to these factors. One issue that has become particularly topical relates to fears that economic imperatives have created flexible but vacuous organizational entities that dislocate employees physically (through spatial and temporal decoupling) and psychologically from the workplace, fundamentally changing the way they engage with the organization 5.

Physical co-presence is necessary to the formation and maintenance of organizational attachments 5. Face-to-face communication is integral to the formation of organizational attachments 5. If you have a fluid work system and the office is half empty, this may not have the desired effect on productivity that was originally thought.

Health and safety

Hot-desking makes it harder to set up a workstation for an employee’s particular needs. If not properly accommodated for, issues that could be avoided can be a source of stress or even minor injury.

Sharing phones, desks and chairs in particular become less appealing when shared with sick co-workers.

Some have even argued that the money saved through hot-desking could be offset by an increase in the number of sick days taken or at least lead to a rise in cross contamination. It also depends on the equipment that is provided and the employee's ability to use it 6. If no ergonomics training is provided on how to setup your workstation correctly, then people are at risk while sitting at their desks.

The negative health implications associated with hot desking are often focussed on a disproportionate amount of the time. Multiple user keyboards have been found to have five times the bacteria of single-user keyboards, although one would hope a simple hygiene policy would help to alleviate much of this cross contamination 7.

Employees can’t personalise their desks

It is human nature to want to personalise your surroundings. Employees like to leave things in drawers or on their desk or pinned to their walls 6.  Workers are often reluctant to abandon their "one person, one desk" culture and embrace flexible working arrangements for this reason 4. Without a dedicated desk, employees cannot put their personal stamp on a section of the office.

Being unable to give an office warmth or personality can make it feel uninviting

Being unable to give an office warmth or personality can make it feel uninviting

This may result in an office lacking warmth or personality, and feeling uninviting 8. If the policy of Hot Desking is not enforced, especially in the beginning, the idea of flexible workspace is often ignored. Employees will often turn hot desks into "warm desks" by colonising their favourite workstation with family photos, piles of paper and other personal items 9 and therefore discouraging anyone else from using this workstation.

Research from the United States indicates that 70% - 90% of employees who have their own workspace, personalise it
— Wells, M., & Thelen, L.(10)

Personalising a workspace may have been thought of as “territorial behaviour” 11. Territory has a fundamental importance for many people and Organisations are “fertile grounds for territoriality”. Because an employee's workspace is central to their experience of work, many will be motivated to both mark and protect even temporary spaces in a workplace 12. Physical working arrangements, such as hot-desking, that prevent territorial behaviours seem therefore to work against something fundamentally human.

Coping with such an “unnatural” situation might reasonably be expected to increase demands on employees. There is also evidence that hot-desking creates additional demands for those employees forced to seek a free workspace each day, or even sometimes several times a day 13. Workplace personalisation claims to express an employee's personality, individuality, and uniqueness 14. In addition, it has been found to buffer stress, evoke positive emotion 15, and give workers a sense of control and agency over their work environment 14. Being prevented from personalising your area may reduce positive emotion, increase stress and lower the sense of control workers experience at work 16.

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“A survey revealed that 49% of people always use the same mug”

Personalisation does not stop at the desk area. A survey revealed that 49% of people always use the same mug and 49% have a favourite toilet cubicle that they would actually wait to use if someone got in there first 17. Trivial habits should not be ignored, they can give people a sense of control and therefore lead to happiness. 50% of people feel that if they were forced to abandon their routine productivity would decline and they might even suffer from depression. A US study found that more than 25% of companies that introduced flexible workspace reported a loss of morale 17. Within a Hot Desking workplace, employees will have private space, but it just won't be personal space 17 and this can have negative effects.

Hot Desking Can Be Disruptive

Depending on the specifics of the Hot Desking Policy, it can be disruptive to the hierarchy of a company or it has the potential to cause resentment. If performed in a truly unrestricted way, then you lose something of a structure. If it’s not, then you lose all sense of companionship 19. Flexible working means staff can work from home or on the move, and a lot of the time office seats will go empty. As a result, you may be tempted when arranging your work place design during an office refurbishment to reduce the number of seating places and to introduce a hot desking scheme to maximise your space 8.

If there is a lack of seating on particular days or at specific times, this can have a hugely detrimental effect on morale and productivity 8. According to a survey conducted by the Industrial Society entitled The State of the Office, workplaces have a direct impact on performance and productivity, yet 25% of office workers are dissatisfied with their lot 17. According to the Industrial Society, the main bone of contention is that most of us feel we do not have enough control over our working environment 17.

The survey found that employees see having their own desk or office as twice as important as flexibility 17. Organizational identification has long been recognized as a critical construct in the literature on organizational behaviour, affecting both the satisfaction of the individual and the effectiveness of the organization 18. One of the major challenges of the flexible workplace is sustaining workflows while enabling mobile work. Hot desking is intended to facilitate work in temporary workspaces in a mobile work environment 20.

The hot desk model of working, traditionally a work environment designated for temporary use by multiple persons, is reputed to offer the eWorker the opportunity to reconnect with the organization, while simultaneously allowing the organization to reduce space requirements for permanent offices 20.

The Effect of working in Isolation

Hot Desking can be isolating because everybody is different, and everybody interacts in different ways. If an employee desires a quiet space to work in but finds them self among noisy co-workers, they will remove yourself from the situation and often find a space by yourself. Part-timers are often the ones who suffer most from hot-desking 6. Not having the guarantee of sitting in the team you work in can lead to difficulties in carrying out work that involves the whole team. Being isolated from line managers can lead to further difficulties when it comes to collaboration and reporting.

People still like to have face-to-face opportunities to talk to and work with their colleagues.21. Hot-desking being at the extreme end of the continuum but work environments in general are becoming more shared. Research has shown that not only were there increases in demands on individuals and organisations, but coworker friendships were not improved and perceptions of supervisory support decreased 13. It is very difficult not to isolate employees in a more stereotypical environment due to the vast differences in people’s working styles, but hot desking certainly has the potential to amplify this occurrence.

Resources have “motivational potential” and lead to increased engagement and performance, either through the satisfaction of basic needs (e.g. social support satisfying the “need to belong”) or through the achievement of desired work goals (e.g. supportive colleagues assisting with tasks) 22. Where such environments provide resources to employees, then it would be reasonable to expect positive outcomes from such working arrangements.

Often hot desking is used to reduce resources and equipment deemed non-essential from the workplace and so this will directly influence people’s engagement in their workspace. If demands arise from shared working spaces, and these outweigh or counter the available resources, then negative outcomes would be anticipated 13.

Private Space: Noise/Distractions

Employees may tolerate ambient noise from office equipment, overhearing the conversations of others (inevitable in open plan work places) but this is a significant source of task distraction and source of irritation 23. Distractions resulting from a lack of privacy and increased noise are a key source of demand and have been found to be a significant issue in open plan environments 24. Privacy includes both the ability to reduce or control incoming stimuli, and also to limit outgoing information 24.

In an open plan office employee’s have little control over their levels of privacy and this, in itself, becomes a source of job demand. There are consistent findings that distraction caused by overhearing irrelevant conversations is a major issue and, further, that distraction is negatively linked with employee performance, negative perceptions of the workplace, and/or stress 25.

“54% of those surveyed confessed they were bothered often by noise, especially by people talking and telephones ringing.”

Eric Sundstrom Jerri P. Town, Robert W. Rice, David P. Osborn, Michael Brill (1994). Office Noise, Satisfaction, and Performance.

A field study assessed disturbance by office noise in relation to environmental satisfaction, job satisfaction, and jot performance ratings among 2,391 employees at 58 sites before and/or after office renovation 23. 54% of those surveyed confessed they were bothered often by noise, especially by people talking and telephones ringing.

Disturbance by noise correlated with dissatisfaction with the environment and job but not with self or supervisor-rated performance 23. Quasi-experimental analysis of groups reporting increased, decreased, or unchanged disturbance by noise revealed a drop-in satisfaction concurrent with increasing noise 23. Disturbance by office noise may reflect a variety of environmental and job characteristics and may have a role in job satisfaction through both environmental satisfaction and job characteristics 23.

Security and Productivity

In an organisation where almost anyone can work almost anywhere, you need to be sure that workers get access to whatever files and documents they need but not any more than that, and that this applies as much to physical documents as digital ones. Using communal workspaces and writable walls, communal meeting rooms and a shared cloud drive all pose potential problems to security within a Company. An open, hot desking workspace often utilises many of these features and so policies and procedures need to be in place to counteract any potential problems.

Employees need a physical space they can work in, and one that’s suitable for the job at hand. They also need appropriate communication tools and services, with a familiar desktop and applications. Otherwise getting everything ready to get the job done takes the time that’s needed to actually do it. Managers sitting among people not attached to their team may be overheard on a telephone conversation or their screen may be visible by workers who should not have access to their documents.

Hot Desking With A Laptop.jpeg

The Laptop Question


Simply put, working on a laptop all day has adverse health effects in the long term. It is not legislatively compliant to use only laptops as a means of working for long periods. Laptops do not meet the following criteria:

“A laptop is not covered by these Regulations due to the fact that under these Regulations the keyboard shall be tiltable and separate from the screen so as to allow the user to find a comfortable working position which avoids fatigue in the arms or hands. A laptop does not have a separate keyboard and should not be used for long periods of time and a risk assessment must be carried out to assess the usage of the laptop and the set up of the temporary laptop workstation” Guide to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007: Chapter 5 of Part 2: Display Screen Equipment

When people use a laptop, notebook and subnotebook computers, compared to desktop computers, worsening posture trends have been observed 26. One explanation seems to be by using the smaller screens, the viewing distances related to using the smaller computers is diminished, thereby forcing people’s neck into a more forward position 26. More specifically, work related neck pain is about twice as likely for those sitting with the head in a flexed position26. Increased neck flexion angles are associated with increased upper trapezius muscle activity and with neck and shoulder discomfort in office workers 1.26.

Significant associations have been found between neck pain and often holding the neck in a forward bent posture for a prolonged time, often sitting for a prolonged time and often making the same movements per minute eg. looking up and down or side to side .27. With all of this information in mind, your employees must not be allowed to work from laptops during their day. The temptation is to see the perceived “time saving” effects of jumping from desk to desk with a laptop. The “time saving” is nowhere near the potential disruption that will be felt by the reduced musculoskeletal health of your workforce.

In Summary

Understanding your employees and their work needs is the first steps to undertaking a hot desking policy. Educational round the use of available technology and available equipment must follow the implementation of this practice. Fundamentally, a hot desking policy must not have an adverse effect on employee health, job satisfaction, inclusion and productivity. Careful considerations must be taken into account when researching this new working style.


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  20. HOT DESKING: A Potential Link in the eWorker's Information Chain Crystal Fulton


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