The Psychological Impact of Hot Desking: The Emotional Side
By Nai Kanell
Director of Marketing
A hot trend in today’s workplaces is hot desking. Mobile devices, remote working, and team collaboration are freeing employees from their workstations. However, unassigned seating may leave employees feeling disconnected from colleagues and lessen their sense of importance to the company.
The psychological impact and emotional connection to a workspace is a big deal for many workers. Desks are home for family pictures, plants, and other personal touches that create a sense of security and permanence. Unplugging someone from their space and offering hot desks can be anxiety inducing.
Do you remember your first lunch in your high school cafeteria? Talk about free address. It was an awkward feeling not knowing where to sit or worrying about picking the wrong seat. Even as adults, hot desking may give us that same social anxiety. So how do you manage the emotional side of hot desking? Data.
Workplace Utilization vs. Individualism
Like most people, I enjoy decorating my space with family photos. I like having my favorite bottle of lotion on hand. I have an ergonomic keyboard that I picked out. And who doesn’t love a good snack drawer? These items are small but symbolic ways to tie me to my workspace.
Personal touches also connect us with coworkers. Like the colleague who decorates every holiday. Or a teammate who has a sign on their desk that says “Ask me about my dog.”
While recently traveling for work, I visited an office where I I sat at a workstation left empty by someone on vacation. I immediately noticed they had a charger in the shape of a Starcraft Protoss Pylon (it looks like a blue crystal flame). As a fellow gamer, I felt an instant connection with a colleague I’d never met.
These unobtrusive signs of individualism are diminished when companies switch to hot desking or hoteling. You feel like you’re in high school again, constantly schlepping your belongings around. Even an assigned locker can feel impersonal. It’s easy for employees to feel like a cog in a machine.
Hot desking can also unintentionally create an atmosphere where people are disconnected from one another. With shared desks, it’s harder to socialize when the person next to you changes on a daily basis. It may be several days or even weeks before you encounter them again. Plus, someone clearly doing heads-down work may not want to chat. Forbes also points out that brief, impromptu meetings are nearly impossible.
Employees need regular, authentic interactions to make connections—especially across departments or subteams. A shared kitchen or cafeteria is great for casual chats, but neither can foster the type of camaraderie that strengthens over time. Elevator small talk can only build connections to a certain point.
Create Hot Desking Balance with Data
Remote working has become a standard perk, so how do you balance the freedom to work wherever with the cost of office real estate? If you sacrifice too much individualism in an effort to shrink your square footage, you can make employees feel unwelcomed at the office.
I’ve experienced this isolation when I visited a 100% free addressing office. It was my first time at this site, and I had a hard time figuring out where I should or shouldn’t sit. It felt chaotic finding a place to work, much less determine where the people I was meeting were located.
It was also obvious there was a premium on certain workstations. People seemed to jockey for those spots and showed up early to get them. The phone booths also had a squatting problem because no one limited themselves to the 30-minute occupancy suggestion. That told me people didn’t always feel comfortable or productive working in the open.
Don’t get me wrong: I recognize the need for hot desking, especially when the majority of employees can work from home. It’s a fine line to improve workplace utilization without sacrificing the employee experience. This is where office usage data is your ally. I agree with this article by Fast Company that organizations should “ undertake a rigorous research process to understand the diversity of work style types and assign people to a pool of shared seats.”
Occupancy data from badging systems, WiFi connections, seat sensors, motion detectors, and hot desk reservations can help establish the ratio of people who regularly come to the office and if they need a dedicated desk. Remember that every company is unique, as is every location. Even usage from one department or neighborhood can vary.
Imagine how you could optimize the workplace if you knew:
- Jill can work remotely but always books the same hot desk four days in a row. She would benefit from a permanent workstation.
- Frequent travel means sales team members are in the office less than 30% of the time. You can free up space by creating a hot-desking zone with a 2:1 desk ratio.
- Rob regularly reserves a small conference room for team meetings. Because he’s a manager, Rob probably needs a private office.
As the saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. With data as your guide, there are thoughtful and strategic ways to implement hot desking. At the end of the day, the ideal workplace layout is one that helps people work at their best.
Keep reading: How to make hot desking work within departments.
About Nai Kanell
Nai Kanell is the Director of Marketing for SpaceIQ, a California-based company whose cloud-based platform helps turn facilities and workplaces from cost centers into strategic business assets. She interacts and collaborates with customers, prospects, industry analysts, and other workplace management professionals to promote and improve the SpaceIQ platform. Nai regularly authors articles and presents to local, national, and global business groups on workplace management culture, current issues, and future trends .
Nai holds a Business Marketing degree from the University of Utah. She is the Marketing Chair for the Murray Chamber of Commerce Women in Business Group and is a board member for the Utah Festival of Trees. Nai is a passionate growth marketer and martyr for women in business and leadership.