How to make hot-desking work

 In the heart of Manhattan, there exists a remarkable company called Hudson River Trading, known for its high-tech trading algorithms. Situated on the upper floors of Three World Trade Center, their offices resemble a vibrant theme park rather than a conventional workplace. Complete with a games room, gym, dining areas, breathtaking views of the city skyline, happy hours, and even drawers overflowing with surprise treats, it's hard not to marvel at their space. This visit leaves you contemplating one of the unexpected perks of post-pandemic office arrangements for employers who frown upon remote work. With fewer employees present on any given day, the need for extensive office space diminishes, allowing for unassigned desks and potential cost savings.

However, there are two essential factors to consider: one is deeply ingrained in human nature, and the other is a direct consequence of the pandemic. The first factor is territoriality, which can evoke negative connotations. It brings to mind individuals who hoard information, view feedback as an intrusion, or even resort to locking their items in a shared fridge. Yet, territoriality is also a natural instinct. Just as coworkers' unsolicited observations can provoke a slight annoyance, people derive a sense of belonging from having a personalized space. A study conducted in the 1970s on first-year college students in shared rooms revealed that those who lasted the academic year had adorned twice as much space above their beds with personal decorations compared to the dropouts. Similarly, in an office setting, workers stake their territory through personal items such as photographs, files, crumbs, and crumpled tissues.

Before the pandemic, a study conducted by Alison Hirst of Anglia Ruskin University examined the behavior of hot-desking employees, distinguishing them as "settlers" or "vagrants." Settlers, often senior or early arrivals, aimed to claim the same desk each day to establish a sense of familiarity with their neighbors. On the other hand, vagrants, usually arriving later, would waste time searching for an available desk. Occupying someone else's regular spot carried a social discomfort. To mitigate this issue, companies have introduced practices such as desk booking or "hotelling," whereby employees reserve desks in advance. Additionally, requiring individuals to clear their spaces each night, and adopting a locker system akin to High School Musical, can prevent stratification while still providing personal territory.

Apart from the challenge of territoriality, the pandemic has forced employers to reconsider the necessity of commuting to the office. The reasons for coming in vary among individuals, from collaboration requiring physical proximity to spreading company culture and adhering to COVID-19 protocols. Interestingly, a 2022 survey by Gensler, an architectural firm, revealed that the most common motive for working in the office was to focus on tasks. However, one common thread emerges: the office is no longer the default choice; it must be appealing to attract employees.

This poses a predicament for a cost-conscious approach to hot-desking, where office footprints shrink, and individuals scramble for available workspace. The cohesion within teams suffers when teammates are dispersed randomly throughout a building, and collaboration becomes more challenging due to insufficient meeting room capacity. While company culture may still be absorbed, it is often accompanied by a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction. Furthermore, focused work becomes difficult when one finds themselves seated next to a colleague whose voice resembles that of Beaker from "The Muppets."

For those with budget constraints, the uncomfortable realization is that hot-desking works best when ample space is available. Take Cisco's newly renovated offices in Manhattan, for example. Although no one has an assigned desk, including managers, there are plentiful options for employees to choose from, encouraging frequent movement throughout the day. In this scenario, the office becomes a shared territory for everyone.

Returning to Hudson River Trading, their employees enjoy the luxury of having their own designated desks while also having the freedom to move around as they please. Abundance is felt within their workspace, with the number of meeting rooms on their latest post-pandemic floor being roughly equivalent to the number of assigned seats. Here, hot-desking is utilized not only to save costs but also to foster flexibility and a sense of belonging. Achieving both objectives simultaneously, however, remains a formidable challenge.  

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