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Over the last few decades, companies have toyed with the concept of “hot desking,” or non-permanent workspaces for employees who only needed to come to the office periodically.

Now, because of the pandemic, the notion quickly has evolved from a stand-alone goal to reduce unused office space to a flexible ecosystem that solves problems for both employers and employees, experts say.

“The unprecedented disruption of Covid-19 has altered the perception of work for companies and employees alike, and that includes where work happens,” said Peter Miscovich, managing director of Strategy + Innovation for JLL, a Chicago-based commercial real-estate-services company. “Work from home has given way to a desire to ‘work from anywhere.”

In JLL’s “Shaping the future of work for a better world” report released in January 2021, about 66 percent of employees surveyed said they expect to be able to work from any location they choose once Covid-19 has subsided.

“Yet 74 percent of employees still want the ability to come into an office at least a few days per week, to socialize, engage with management and collaborate across teams,” Miscovich said.

Other research shows similar findings. The Future of Work study published by EY and ULI in October 2020 reported that remote work is expected to grow from 20 percent of employees being offered 20 percent remote working time to at least 60 percent of employees spending 40-plus percent of their time remotely. The on-site workspace may include options like hot desking and hoteling, which avoids a mad competition for workspaces by allowing online reservations in advance.

Lauren Mason, senior principal and career consultant at Mercer, has heard from many employers that they are embracing a flexible model that allows workers to shift between remote and office environments.

“For those that embrace this change, many will likely opt for hoteling versus pure hot desking to give employees more control and consistency around the space that they access, and also to be more strategic around ensuring teams are able to gather together,” she said.

Kelly Bacon, who is global practice lead for  the workplace advisory arm of AECOM, a California-based engineering and design firm, says hot desking and flexible-workplace design fall under the so-called agile or activity-based planning approach, which began in the 1980s. As mobile technology has improved, employees no longer needed to be tethered to a bulky computer in an office. Plus, with companies having 50 to 60 percent unoccupied space, efficiency looks more appealing, she says.

“Long before Covid-19 I was always an advocate of [activity-based planning] because it absolutely works,” she said. “However, it can’t just be based on space…and it can’t be just about technology. I’ve always recommended to clients that if they’re going to introduce activity-based planning, then they should embrace remote working.”

And that’s exactly what has happened.

Flexibility heats up

Hot desking in its various forms was popular in Europe before the pandemic and will likely be part of flexible workspaces after the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted there, says Lisette van Doorn, chief executive officer of Europe for the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a non-profit research and educational think tank focused on development issues around the world.

“Most countries are extremely strict at the moment,” said van Doorn, who has been working full time from her home in Amsterdam since the pandemic began. She hasn’t been able to travel to offices in London or other countries in Europe because of cross-border travel prohibitions.

“I don’t think many companies have taken definitive decisions yet on what to do in the future,” she added.

Still, they are thinking about it, with “home being the one extreme and the traditional office the other,” van Doorn said. In addition to office- and third party-based hot desking, she includes flexible work locations such as hotel lobbies, libraries, and cafés in the flexible-workspace model.

A flexible approach makes real-estate portfolios more efficient and potentially more effective, says JLL’s Miscovich.

“With advanced technological tools to better manage the workplace experience, employees can log into an app to reserve the hot-desk space that they need, from a concentration pod for heads-down work to a meeting room to brainstorm with their teammates,” he said.

“I think the big benefit is convenience. It’s having access to a professional workspace at a time that suits me [and] at a location that it suits me,” van Doorn said.

Words of warning

Not all employees are ready to give up their cubicles for flexible spaces.

Gensler Research Institute’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2020 showed that only 10 percent of employees reported that they didn’t have assigned seats at work. In addition, half of them said they wanted their permanent workspaces back.

What are organizations to do, then?

Van Doorn advises that employers make corporate offices appealing so remote-work employees will want to come in to meet with colleagues, to coach or be coached by more senior people and, most important, “to have that kind of serendipity, which you can’t have behind your screen because you need to plan everything,” she said.

For employees concerned about their health and safety after more than a year of pandemic restrictions, Miscovich notes companies should communicate their cleaning and sanitation protocols and automatically share when a space was last occupied.

Even so, hot desking may not be right for all employees or all companies, says Mercer’s Mason.

“Access to a private space can provide a sense of belonging, with the ability to personalize the space [and] provide storage for information and resources,” she said.

“A dedicated office has also historically been a perk and a symbol of hierarchy as one progresses through the organization. It could also create an environment that makes it more difficult to collaborate, if teams become more dispersed and don’t have easy access to one another,” Mason added.

Hot desking done right

The Gensler report listed eight important design factors for unassigned seating:

  • Ample private spaces that are reservable and on-demand.
  • Spaces to support virtual collaboration.
  • Enough work settings for everyone.
  • Personal storage.
  • Maintenance and cleanliness.
  • Ergonomics and comfort.
  • Noise management.
  • Technology to support group work.

Miscovich of JLL advises companies to listen to what employees say they want from flexible workspaces. This could include providing dynamic use zones as well as quiet meditation rooms.

“Employees are leading the workplace revolution, finding the space that works for them for every task and time period,” he said. “Ultimately, companies must create a safe and healthy destination that also offers a fulfilling work experience with varied spaces to do different kinds of work.”

Data about how space is being used will also be invaluable, he noted:

“Dynamic occupancy planning, which constantly evaluates how space is used and how it can be optimized — not only for employee use but for maintenance and energy savings — will also support hot-desking and other flexible initiatives,” he said.

With this revolution in workplace ecosystems, Bacon at AECOM recommends that companies make sure that when they take out permanently assigned workspaces, they provide well-thought-out hot desks, advanced technology in meeting areas and amenities such as cafés, fitness rooms, and even outdoor green spaces where people can work on their laptop or talk with colleagues.

“There won’t be a return to the old normal” when pandemic restrictions are over, Miscovich said. “Business leaders must embrace workplace experimentation with the evolution of new spaces, flexible schedules and innovative methods that will get work done in our new reality.”

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