Return to work: will hot desking go cold?

Its likely to be a while before we experience scenes like this.
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As flexible working gained popularity, so did the idea of hot desking. However, leaked return-to-work guidance suggests such arrangements should be avoided to prevent the spread of Covid-19. How might this affect organisations when the need for desk space will decline as home working continues, asks Ashleigh Webber.

Shared workspaces; break-out areas; and hot desking – the past decade saw organisations wave goodbye to traditional office set-ups where everybody had their own desk and landline, and swap them in favour of more flexible, collaborative workspaces as demand for remote and flexible working grew.

But, in 2020, the collaboration and flexibility that many hoped shared workspaces would encourage is far from a reality. Staff are more dispersed than ever due to coronavirus restrictions, and it’s looking as though the office environment may have to be redesigned again, at least temporarily, to keep employees safe when they return to the workplace.

Earlier this week, leaked versions of draft government return-to-work guidance emerged. Organisations are asked to “avoid” hot desks entirely, while the use of shared office equipment will need to be limited.

But at the same time, the widespread home working currently taking place is urged to continue, with only office staff “critical for the business” or unable to work from home set to be permitted in the office.

Thus emerges a paradox. Mass remote working and hot desking have, until this point, gone hand in hand, with organisations reducing desk space as fewer staff spend their 9-5 in the office. In many firms, there is no such thing as a desk per employee.

Will someone who mainly works from home no longer have a desk to sit at if they visit the office for a meeting? Will employers need to have a desk for every person to minimise the risk of infection? And how might job shares be affected, if the two or more individuals sharing a role share a workspace too?

Following the guidance will likely require a complete overhaul of the way people are used to working and what offices look like, Rebecca Siciliano, managing director at Tiger Recruitment, tells Personnel Today.

“There are a lot of companies that have completely designed their office space so that they don’t have capacity for everyone to be there. Hot desking is very much a common practice we see from a lot of our clients,” she says.

It is for this reason that the return to the office will be a logistical nightmare for many, suggests Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management.

“By definition a hot desk environment provides less space than [the total number of] employees, which offers the cost saving. Yet there will always be days when there are peaks and more people come in than there is space. Before Covid-19, people shared desks, sat in unusual or shared spaces and managed as best they could.

There are a lot of companies that have completely designed their office space so that they don’t have capacity for everyone to be there. Hot desking is very much a common practice,” – Rebecca Siciliano, Tiger Recruitment

“That is no longer a solution. So much more thoughtful planning is required. A person who is in charge of allocating the space to make sure that it’s used and needed will be required and this will be a logistical challenge that will have to be met,” says Cooper.

Organisations will need to consider who needs to be in the office, and who may be best placed to continue working from home. This may require some tough conversations, as Siciliano suggests that businesses could have to explain to home workers that they no longer have their own dedicated desk.

Collaboration and culture

But before making major changes to their hot desking regimes, employers will need to consider how employees work – and whether those changes will have a long-term impact on collaboration and culture.

“In the short-term, businesses must focus on the planning and structure of working – understanding who needs to be where, when and for what tasks,” says Chris Richards, regional president UK and Ireland at software company Unit4.

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Whether employers will need as much office space in future has also been brought into question, especially as the past few months have been extremely costly for many. But there are opposing views on this issue, says Daniel Abrahams, co-head of real estate at law firm Memery Crystal.

“Take the serviced office sector for example – on one hand, companies are likely to be attracted to the flexibility that these can offer them, allowing them an ebb and flow of their staff numbers and to reduce their long-term overheads when it comes to signing a traditional 10- or 15-year lease.

“On the other hand, the current crisis would live long in the minds of workers and the appeal of an open plan office, with the exposure to others and potentially the level of hygiene of others in serviced office would keep large numbers away,” he says.

However, Abrahams’ colleague Alastair Moss, also co-head of real estate at Memery Crystal, said employees’ reluctance to return to previous ways of working may not necessarily mean a reduction in office space.

“In fact, in the medium-term, they are likely to need more or at least use their existing space more effectively. It is important to remember that most business resilience in this crisis has come about through prior working relationships formed in person, thus the idea that we no longer need space to meet and work together is a fallacy.”

Safety first

Before they ask employees to return to the office, employers need to be confident their workplace is safe and segregation procedures are sufficient, says Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD.

“We know that this virus lives on surfaces and is airborne. When you have a situation where people need to be together in one place, then hot desking should be avoided. You’re really heightening risk by sharing office space.”

Suff advises HR to work closely with colleagues in facilities management, health and safety and occupational health to ensure they risk of infection is minimised.

“It’s best to [open your workplace] slowly and incrementally. Perhaps you could have a pilot to see how things work in practice?”

If providing a desk to each employee is out of the question, it would not be unreasonable for HR to arrange for  desks to be cleaned thoroughly after use, says Tony McGlennan, legal director at Addleshaw Goddard.

“My expectation would be that they would be provided with a dedicated desk space for the time that they are there. If that space is used on a rota basis I would expect the space to be appropriately cleaned before the next user takes up position,” he says.

Delegating the task of creating a safe space seems entirely inappropriate… Who wants that potential variability of a safe working space?” – Kate Cooper, The Institute of Leadership & Management

Professional cleaning would be the best course of action, as The Institute’s Cooper says entrusting individuals to make an area safe after use could be risky.

“Delegating the task of creating a safe space seems entirely inappropriate. There will be some who will no doubt be very careful and conscientious about cleaning their area before they inhabit it, and others less so. Who wants that potential variability of a safe working space? The responsibility to create a clean and safe workplace is absolutely the responsibility of the employer,” she says.

So, what steps are organisations taking to assess who needs to be in the office and when? And how will their workplaces change?

Never the same again

Siciliano believes that many workplaces and industries, including recruitment, will never work in the same away again.

“It’s an interesting one for recruitment because it’s traditionally a very people-facing industry and you’re focused on building relationships. We know we still want to have the team element of people coming together, but we have also realised that we can do our jobs while we’re not in the office or working together.”

“What we’re seeing from candidates is that everyone is asking for flexible working and working from home. Certainly over the past two years it’s been increasing in popularity. But this has really given everyone a real shove to adopt it at a much wider level.”

She says that her organisation, in central London, is currently looking at ways that people might change their commute to minimise risk if and when they return to the office. For example, it is considering cycle to work schemes and a change in shift patterns so staff can avoid busy commuter times on public transport.

David Storey, EMEIA workforce advisory leader at consultancy EY, suggests taking a “plan, profile and protect” approach to assessing employees’ need to be in the office. EY has launched a “two-gear” framework to help organisations plan a phased return to the workplace.

The “plan” stage should involve “developing a comprehensive, prioritised and sequenced plan to ensure a safe return” by considering policies, protocols and training; infection mitigation; technology and data; and the “experience” of the workforce, among other factors.

“Profile” should involve forming an understanding of who can transition to the office and when. “This requires an assessment of which employees you really need to be physically in the workplace, at which time and at what risk,” says Storey.

Finally, “protect” will involve “ensuring employee safety and being deliberate about your desired workforce experience to build and maintain trust”.

However organisations approach their transition, it’s clear that office environments will need to change post-lockdown. And perhaps the idea of hot desks will go cold, at least for the time being.

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2 Responses to Return to work: will hot desking go cold?

  1. Avatar
    Douglas Barnett 8 May 2020 at 9:45 am #

    There is so much more to consider with regard to safe distancing in office buildings. The larger the office building, particularly with multiple business, will require to consider the challenges of access and egress ie lifts, which at the start and end of the working day would normally be crowded and in constant use – the normal lift occupancy will require to be reduced considerably for social distancing. If you look at egress, stairways May be used however, if the majority of staff finish at 5pm, stairways will be crowded with staff entering at each level – this is before considering how to keep social distancing in a large office building if the fire alarm activates and the building requires immediate evacuation.
    Office were often considered relatively simple building to manage from a risk perspective, this could be about to change considerably, particularly with those of multiple floors.

  2. Avatar
    Phillip Merrick 28 May 2020 at 12:08 pm #

    The shift is to staff empowerment, along with new housekeeping and staff behaviours.

    All staff must have the freedom to work in a way that they personally feel comfortable each day. This will be different for everyone.

    A fully shared environment (including hot desks) is proven to be cleaner than a traditional allocated desk office. People are more conscious and mindful of their impact on colleagues. 54% of people would be happy to work in any location in an office including a hot desk (WKspace Post Covid Survey Data 2020). The key thing is having the choice.

    Activity based working embraces our differences and the culture allows them to work in a way that suits them. This is the future, no restrictions by the workplace only freedom and choice.

    An organisation just needs to work on the behaviorus and housekeeping so all staff look after the workplace together.

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