Hot desking anxiety. Yes, it's a real thing.

Hot desking anxiety. Yes, it’s a real thing.

When I first read about hot-desking anxiety, I wasn’t sure if it was real. But talking to friends who hot desk and reading more about the subject, I’ve concluded the uncertainty, disconnection and the sterile nature of hot-desking can cause unnecessary stress.

Hot desking is a flexible working system where employees don’t have an assigned desk, they share desks with other staff across the office space.

The system was first introduced by Chiat/Day, an American advertising agency, back in 1995. Feedback was so terrible the agency abandoned it 6 years later. A company report quoted:

“The agency was engulfed in petty turf wars, management bullying, employee insurrections, internal chaos, and plummeting productivity. Worst of all, there was no damn place to sit!”

Not a great start for a model that now seems to be flavour of the month in many organisations.

HR Magazine published an article in April 2019 (pre-pandemic) on the subject of hot-desking anxiety. It quoted a survey of 1,001 UK office workers that studied the impact of hot desking. It found 80% of employees believed office seating arrangements can negatively affect their mental wellbeing.

The most common causes for hot-desking stress were:

  • wasting time setting up a workstation (44%);
  • not finding a suitable desk (31%); and
  • difficulty bonding with their teammates (22%).

While many people are still working from home and limited numbers are using office hot-desking, the full impact of the anxiety is not being seen.

Now let’s look in more detail at the key triggers that can cause hot desk horror.

1. Not finding a suitable desk

“The early bird catches the worm”… or in this case, grabs the best desk. Arrive after 9 am (or even 8 am) and hot-desking will relegate you to the rubbish spots at the back end of nowhere (probably near the toilets).

Hot desking penalises those that have school-age children or other caring commitments as they may arrive later. It also puts young employees at a disadvantage in a flexible hours environment. According to a YouGov survey, 18-24-year-olds believe they perform better in the afternoon and evenings. By contrast, older staff perform better in the morning – and grab the best desks.

Whatever their age or home life, the sense of uncertainty when staff walk through the office door will add to their anxiety – and on a day when they have some stressful meetings or deadlines to meet, it’s a feeling they can do without.

And is it wise for the Head of HR to be in the middle of an open-plan office when the organisation is planning redundancies? Or for one of the Finance team to be doing the end of year accounts in full view? Some work is sensitive.

2. Solitary and lonely days

Hot desking was created to improve collaboration between employees (reducing office space may have also been a factor). But when people are changing desks every day, they can’t build effective relationships.

If the people around them are from a different department it can be awkward starting a conversation. Hot desking seems to have been created on the assumption all workers are extroverts.

And if a person cannot contribute to the work chat surrounding them it’s easy to feel excluded and left out. Some will fall into the trap of ‘headphones on’ and cut themselves off from their neighbours. A lonely day.

In a traditional office staff will celebrate birthdays, discover common interests and meet in a nearby bar for after-work drinks. That rarely happens with hot desking. Many hot-deskers will rush home for meaningful interaction with family and friends.

Loneliness is bad for our minds and overall health. For some, a lonely day in the office could be exacerbated by a lonely evening at home.

3. Difficulty finding people

Even in a traditional office, it can sometimes be difficult to find the right person. In a hot-desking world, it can feel almost impossible some days.

This is bad for business. All organisations rely on the speedy flow of information and quick resolution of problems. Not being able to find an expert when you have a deadline or pressing issue can add to stress and anxiety. It can also mean the organisation loses a competitive edge.

4. Wasting time setting up a workstation

Changing the desk settings of the previous occupant each day is time-consuming. Adjusting the chair becomes a chore and finding an available plug socket is a pain. And if they are sharing a keyboard, it’s not just computer viruses they need to worry about.

All this is additional stress before they’ve started their day’s work. Great.

5. Lack of a personalised desk

Many of us will spend up to a third of our lives in the office, so having a personalised space seems a worthwhile exercise. A photo, a potted plant, a secret stash of sweets; all these small things can help give ownership of the desk. The employee has a place.

Sticky notes, documents, chargers and notepads can all be left on their desk for the next day. These things make it easier for them to maintain momentum in their work.

By contrast, hot-desking requires a clear desk policy. It’s ‘stop, start’. The lack of personalisation can also make people feel like they don’t belong. They are just a number. A temporary number.

Employees can quickly lose motivation and become dismissive of the organisation’s culture. The result can be low team spirit and high staff churn.

Is hot-desking popular?

Good question. To find the answer we conducted a survey. Over 200 employees took part and 86% said they disliked hot-desking – only 14% said they liked it. Even Directors and CEOs are not big fans with 69% saying it’s a fail.

It’s clear organisations planning a hot desk policy need to first survey their staff and get some opinions. Which employees don’t want to change their desks on a daily basis, and which employees don’t mind.

If hot-desking gets the green light it needs to be properly managed. An excel spreadsheet is not up to the task, especially when you factor hybrid working into the mix.

For insight on some of the challenges you may face book a call with our Founder, Sean Lee Rice. He’ll also demo our solution. For more stats on hot-desking and the hybrid work model, download our full survey results ‘Hybrid working; manager’s & employee’s view‘.