Hot or not?

by Iain Hopkins17 Nov 2011
In an age where employees are demanding flexibility and mobility as part of their commitment to their employers, hot-desking, in conjunction with remote working, provide possible solutions.
However, just like remote working gives rise to issues of productivity and trust, ever since the introduction of hot-desking in the 1990’s, its success has been debated.
It appears that for every positive, there is an accompanying negative. For example, on the positive side, the concept of hot-desking is egalitarian in that all desks are equal. Although this reduces the ability to mark status and can subsequently breakdown office hierarchy and its negatively associated consequences, hot-desking also reduces the ability of users to represent their positive ‘identities’.
Similarly, hot-desking can increase opportunities to meet new people, exercise choice and experience a greater sense of freedom. However, it has also been associated with feelings of isolation and lack of team cohesion.
A holistic approach
Aligned with the evidence to date on hot-desking, Schiavello's workplace research psychologist, Keti Malkoski, has concluded that one size does not fit all, and that hot-desking may not be the complete solution for all employers adopting flexible working solutions. "the success of hot-desking as a workplace solution will depend on the diverse needs of the users in the workplace; their work and even personal needs," she says. "For instance, the work requirements which lend to flexible working solutions such as hot-desking include knowledge work; locations independence; defined outputs; and defined milestones. These work requirements are unlikely to be present for every individual and team within every organisation."
The ultimate solution may include incorporating hot-desking as a component into a holistic flexible working strategy in addition to other workplace sharing solutions - a holistic approach which balances the people, technology and space needs as required.
This is the approach adopted by IBM, which uses hot-desking as just one component of workplace flexibility. IBM Australia conducted an internal study in 2005 that revealed that there were a great number of employees who had very mobile work patterns, so there was an opportunity from that for the business to improve both employee satisfaction and space utilisation.
Belinda Reynolds, diversity and workforce lead for IBM Australia and New Zealand, explains that desk space is allocated to those employees who need a permanent workspace, in much the same way that the technology is allocated to employees. For example, if an employee comes into the office five days a week, they would certainly have a permanent desk. Alternatively, someone who only comes into the office 2-3 days a week might utlise the hot-desk policy. “Say it’s someone in our HR or communications team – we have a number of desks allocated to employees from that business unit and that’s much the same throughout the company. What we find is that employees come into the office and then they gravitate and find desks near their teams,” Reynolds says.
In hot-desking cultures, actual ratios of desks to employees, hot-desks to assigned desks and teamwork performed locally to teamwork performed remotely varies across organisations. Experiences with hot-desking also vary. Reynolds, for example, feels that hot-desking actually enhances team effectiveness. She cites her own example of recently sitting near colleagues she hasn’t worked with for several months. “I was able to catch up with one of our HR partners and someone else in another area, find out what was happening in their area, and get to know them. Then if I need to reach out to them [in the future] I’ve got that strengthened personal relationship with them. We find that hot-desking is something that actually increases integration and getting to know the people in the team.”
Problems and solutions
As the IBM experience shows, the commitment to hot-desking has been largely driven by the aim to improve collaboration and communication. However, merely adopting hot-desking does not necessarily result in increased collaboration and communication between employees. Further, Malkoski suggests that hot-desking has been demonstrated to negatively impact teams – the most prominent working unit in organisations today.
“When team members are geographically dispersed, which is often the reality with hot-desking, feelings of isolation can arise,” she says. “This isolation can negatively impact collaboration and communication.” 
Research from the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield confirms that team cohesion is at greater risk when employees work remotely (a buy-product of hot-desking). Specifically, it can negatively impact the effectiveness of knowledge sharing.
Malkoski warns that employers need to be aware of the pros and cons that hot-desking can bring to an organisation. To assist in weighing these options, Schiavello has undertaken rigorous research with environmental psychologist and researcher, Dr Jacqueline Vischer (University of Montreal) on the interaction between the user (individual or team) and the workplace.
This research shows that:
People have a natural emotional response to workplace developments. Although the primary role of the workplace is to provide a functional and practical space for people to perform their jobs, it is not merely a passive backdrop for work. There is an interaction and relationship between people and the workplace that is often emotional.
Workplace developments such as hot-desking mean that territory is less defined: the result is that people can feel threatened, fearing that status will be lost and privacy will be compromised. The outcome is often territorial behaviours that can be destructive to the success of a workplace development. These behaviours are often triggered by feelings of intrusion. When people believe that their auditory, visual or physical privacy has been invaded they draw on a repertoire of defences that include insisting on the confidentiality of their work and demands for privacy.
Organisations responding to territorial behaviours should understand that solutions do not require the consideration of how this instinctive human need can be managed and workspaces can be partially defined with forms of boundaries identifying private and public territories.
As with all workplace developments which result in a new way of working, the introduction of hot-desking into an organisation will ultimately impact the culture. Dr Jacqueline Vischer states that a new workplace implies a new social order, new business processes, even new behaviour and cultural norms 
“An important consideration of hot-desking is not only the impact that it will have on the organisational culture, but also the impact that it will have on team sub-cultures, and even individual perceptions,” says Malkoski.
Change management
To address some of the identified issues that arise from hot-desking, a structured change management process should be adopted. The three main questions that organisations considering hot-desking need to ask themselves are:
Do we understand the complete change that is involved in the introduction of hot-desking? (eg do we fully understand the changes in behaviour that need to occur to accomodate this new way of working?)
Are our employees ready for the change that is involved in hot-desking? (eg what is the level of readiness for change within our workforce and what are our barriers to success?)
How can we maximise the success of the hot-desking change? (eg have we maximised buy-in with an adequate amount of employee involvement?) 
Schiavello’s collaborative work with Dr. Vischer has highlighted that there is often a resistance to change in workplace developments which should be addressed. However, it should be recognised that employees are not always adverse to change. “Research has shown that employees will welcome change if it will improve their working lives – a structured change management process with thoughtful planning and sensitive implementation should ultimately demonstrate this improvement in working lives,” says Malkoski. “Dr Jacqueline Vischer states that for everything taken away from occupants when their workspace is changed, something must be given back; any loss of that which is familiar is immediate, whereas gains sometimes need time to be felt.”
Malkoski adds that the success of many workplace developments is dependent on the users’ perceptions of control. Workplace change can be problematic if it is forced onto employees; therefore employee involvement is crucial for fostering buy-in from users. Control and choice are very powerful motivating tools for work (e.g. Spreitzer, 1995) and indeed, control of the workplace can positively influence individual job satisfaction and team cohesiveness (Lee & Brand, 2005). 
“As Dr Jacqueline Vischer states, empowerment is the key and therefore should be embraced if hot-desking is to be successful,” says Malkoski. “Her research has demonstrated that it is important to foster participation and involvement to empower users so that they invest in workspace decisions. Importantly, the strategic approach to users’ involvement should be explicitly designed to fit the project and organisational context.”
In IBM’s experience, employees were quick to accept hot-desking once they understood its importance in facilitating flexibility. “People really valued that opportunity to have flexibility,” says Reynolds. “With flexibility comes an understanding that if you’re going to be working from home two days a week for example, it’s reasonable to expect that you would not need a full-time desk allocated in an office.”
From there, it was a case of outlining in clear policies where personal items could be stored, how to access printers, and how phone calls would be diverted, etc. “There are lots of tools that make it very easy to move around a building, around a city, around a country,” says Reynolds.
Employees may also want to know if desks can be adjusted, reconfigured and moved to another team’s area. Questions on what happens when someone claims ownership over a hot-desk and ignores the ‘clear desk’ policy may also need to be addressed 
Vischer says that misunderstanding by way of inadequate communication and information is a prevalent reason as to why employees may be resistant to change. Therefore, it is crucial that organisations educate and communicate to users the requirements and reasons for complete change that are involved in hot-desking. “An effective communication strategy should create awareness, understanding, acceptance, alignment and commitment. Additionally, an effective training strategy should identify the appropriate behaviours that will support hot-desking at the manager and employee level and provide targeted training,” she says.
Technology and psychology can also help to overcome perhaps the biggest concern that employees will have: the loss of personalised ownership. Research indicates that 98% of employees personalise their space at work and Reynolds confirms this was an early problem for IBM employees. Now, she notes, it’s not unusual for employees to have their personal photos stored on slideshows on their Thinkpads and computers, and for personal items to be locked away safely.
Concerns over the loss of ownership over a particular desk can be refocused by bringing the meaningfulness of shared spaces for individuals and teams into the spotlight. Providing employees with experiences that require them to experiment with the use of different spaces can help to support a hot-desking culture by cultivating the attitude that the ‘right kind’ of workspace is one that enables individuals and teams to perform work effectively. This may be at a desk, in a quiet area, meeting room, training facility, touchdown space, an informal break out space or a remote location.
The ability of people to adapt functionally and psychologically to changes in workspace arrangements should not be underestimated. This capability is more likely to be enabled when practicalities are considered, and social and emotional sticking points negotiated. People expect choice and opportunities to shape workplace practices. HR practitioners are well positioned to create conditions that allow questions to emerge so that contextually relevant responses can be negotiated.