Why Employees Hate Hot-Desking
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Why Employees Hate Hot-Desking

The shared workspace trend is growing, but researchers say many companies are doing it wrong

Fri, May 19, 2023 8:46amGrey Clock 7 min

Hot-desking has some issues to work out.

With nearly half of the pre pandemic office population in some major U.S. cities working remotely on any given day, hot-desking—where employees don’t have assigned desks but grab an empty one on days they come into the office—seems like a cost-saving no-brainer. The Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 U.S. Workplace Survey found that 19% of the office workers who responded had unassigned workspaces, compared with 10% in 2020.

There’s just one problem: Many employees hate it. They complain about the nuisance of having to hunt for a workspace every day they’re in the office, not being able to find a station that suits their needs, and no longer having a permanent space that they can personalise. Collaboration is harder, they say, and they feel less connected to their colleagues.

“The recurring labor, anxiety and rootlessness associated with hot-desking were emotionally and physically exhausting,” Manju Adikesavan, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental psychology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, wrote in a recently published paper. “Carrying work materials from place to place in campus buildings that were my workplaces made me feel like a visitor rather than a member of an academic community.”

The good news for companies is that it doesn’t have to be this way. For one thing, some people appreciate the opportunity to use a variety of workspaces and to engage with a broader range of colleagues. And research reveals that there are ways to minimise, and even eliminate, the negatives of hot-desking.

“It’s important for leaders and workers to understand that this style of working is a mind-set, that if done right, it can offer a lot of freedom,” says Christhina Candido, an associate professor of environmental and sustainable design at the University of Melbourne and a researcher of high-performance workplaces.

Feeling adrift

Unfortunately, in the rush to cope with the rise of remote work, many companies have implemented hot-desking without a lot of thought.

On one level, the problems with hot-desking are logistical. A review of 23 papers that looked at hot-desking in the past two decades was published in March in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. It observed that employees often found it impossible to locate the right kind of workstation for their needs—a cubicle with two monitors, perhaps, or a quiet standing desk, or a huddle room with a whiteboard, says Jennifer Veitch, a principal research officer at the National Research Council of Canada’s Construction Research Centre and co-author of the study.

Issues like these are more than just a personal annoyance, the study showed. Hot-deskers also often had difficulty finding colleagues with whom they wanted to collaborate, Dr. Veitch says. And managers often found it more difficult to manage their team because they weren’t always close to one another.

“The evidence does not show that more collaboration takes place when you throw people together in a soup of random desks,” Dr. Veitch says. “Yes, a lot of conversation might happen, but not all of that is helpful to the organisation.”

The lack of control was also an issue for some employees in the study—the inability to control social interactions and to always find the quiet spaces that workers needed to concentrate, Dr. Veitch says.

Then there is the difficulty of adjusting your workspace to suit your preferences when you’re not rooted in a given spot. “The challenge is that we are territorial people,” says Dr. Candido. “We like to have our photos up, our coffee mug out.”

Some workers have sought to reclaim that sense of personal space—undermining the whole concept of hot-desking in the process. David Courpasson, a professor of sociology and ethnography at Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France, recently researched a Belgian organisation whose workers practiced what he calls “objectal resistance” by unofficially strategizing collective ways to preserve a sense of ownership of their hot desks.

“We observed that many had decided to reappropriate desks by leaving personal items out—photos, stickers, bags, even crumbs from previous lunches,” Dr. Courpasson says of the research he conducted with Laurent Taskin, a professor of human resources and organisation studies at the Louvain School of Management in Belgium. The resistance wasn’t organized, he says, but it was discussed among employees. “Dissatisfaction was shared here and there, in corridor chats or during lunches and breaks,” he says.

There was similar resistance higher in the ranks as well. “Even leaders weren’t following the strict guidelines of the flex office process,” Dr. Courpasson says. Eventually, some team leaders gave in and allowed a bit of personalisation of shared workspaces, an approach the entire organisation now tolerates, says the professor.

A longer workday

Some hot-deskers complain about the time wasted seeking a workspace that suits their needs, and say the ways they address that problem have altered their work schedules and eaten into their personal time.

In her 2022 study, Ms. Adikesavan, the Ph.D. candidate, looked at doctoral students hot-desking on a U.S. university campus. She found that they often arrived early or worked late, when their office was less crowded, to avoid competing with colleagues for suitable workspaces. They also often wound up working well outside of the usual 9-to-5 hours in subscription-based co-working spaces, for which they weren’t reimbursed, as they tried to meet research or presentation deadlines, Ms. Adikesavan says.

Eva Bergsten, who has a doctorate in environmental and occupational medicine and is a research specialist at the University of Gavlë in Sweden, found similar problems in a study she recently published of companies that switched to hot-desking. Some employees she surveyed said that setup time stole precious work hours. “Not being able to change workplaces within the office smoothly—due to the wrong computer equipment or when the technology did not work optimally—was also a concern and very annoying,” and it made employees’ in-office time less productive, she says.

As with other logistical issues, these problems aren’t just personal irritations. A 2019 study by Annu Haapakangas, a chief researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, found that the difficulty of locating colleagues in a hot-desking office damaged communication and the formation of communities.

The move to hot-desking, Dr. Haapakangas says, “may also increase perceived work demands, at least in the short term,” because less contact with colleagues and a weaker sense of community could create stress that leads people to feel that their work is more demanding than they previously thought.

All these problems for workers can become serious issues for their employers. Dr. Candido says dissatisfied workers who don’t feel supported in the office are more likely to leave an organization, and the costs of replacing talent can outweigh the cost-saving measures that hot-desking can provide.

Dr. Veitch says that kind of cost calculation isn’t always clear to a company’s leaders. “There is definitely a challenge between the human-resources people and the facilities-management people,” she says. “They may both report to the CFO, but the CFO might not be seeing the relationship between the cost to the building and the cost to the people in it. You can wind up with a real recruitment and retention problem.”

Making it work

However, research also suggests that hot-desking doesn’t have to be a disaster for employees. Some companies have adapted the basic model of hot-desking in ways that employees find attractive.

“I have seen success stories,” says Dr. Veitch. “The introduction of ‘neighbourhoods’ where people still have to move around but they become ‘natives’ to a home base area, as opposed to a desk, can work.”

So-called hoteling is another common solution that takes some of the day-to-day stress out of having to find a workspace: Employees book a specific space ahead of time, making it more likely that they can find the properly equipped workstation they need and eliminating the wasted time of searching for a spot upon arrival at the office.

Research also has found benefits from providing a mix of spaces with different ambiences, including some with privacy. Leroy Gonsalves, an assistant professor of management and organisations at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, studied a big company that went from assigned cubicles to a mix of workspaces—quiet areas with high partitions, noisier open cafes, spaces for small meetings and conference rooms, in addition to hot desks. Workers’ control over their interactions with each other substantially increased, which they liked, the study found.

“People in our survey said that, if they sit with their team, colleagues come up to them constantly,” Dr. Gonsalves says. “But in an environment with hot desks and other variations—a library, a cafe-like setting, little cubicles—you can be social or you can intentionally hide away.”

“It gave employees agency to avoid unwanted interruptions while balancing individual tasks with professional obligations,” he says. “Employees felt that their productivity was judged less by time spent being seen, and more on their work outputs in the new office space. It seemed to work well.”

Carlos Martinez, a principal in Gensler’s New York office and creative director of the architectural firm’s Northeast region, says that nearly every corporate project he is working on incorporates hoteling and a mix of workspaces similar to the variety at the company Dr. Gonsalves studied. Cubicles for private phone calls, spaces for quiet concentration, large socialising areas and even outdoor space are common, he says. It’s important for these design elements to be specific to the needs of employees at each company, not based on a preset pattern, he says. “For a long time, the workplace was homogeneous,” Mr. Martinez says. “Now it’s very specific. One size does not fit all.”

Other research suggests the importance of setting up office rules around touchy issues such as cleanliness and quiet areas. Ms. Adikesavan’s research notes the value of providing lockers for employees to store items essential to their work where clean-desk policies are in place.

Management’s role

To get employees to buy into such a setup and come into the office with enthusiasm, companies need to first listen to workers and get their input on creating offices that fit their needs, says Dr. Bergsten of the University of Gavlë. Her 2021 study found that the more workers participated in activities that explained the change process, the higher their overall satisfaction.

Managers’ attitudes also are important, Dr. Bergsten says. In another recent study, she found that workers who perceived their leadership to be change-oriented and supportive of their employees during the transition to hot-desking were more productive after the change than those who didn’t feel that was the case. “Managers should be positive promoters” of this new way of working, she says.

Dr. Candido’s research similarly suggests the importance of company leadership in making hot-desking work. “You can’t be talking about sharing a space and then the manager is always working from the conference room,” the researcher says. “Top to bottom must embrace and engage or it just feels like a cost-saving exercise, which workers will notice.”

What she sees in the research on the topic, she says, is that if unassigned space is well designed and well managed, people will naturally organise at a group level and create a successful workplace. “If you want quiet, go there. If you want to have a coffee with colleagues, go there, etc.,” she says. “It becomes part of the office culture.”


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TAIPEI—For years, Beijing hoped to win control of Taiwan by convincing its people their economic futures were inextricably tied to China.

Instead, more Taiwanese businesses are pivoting to the U.S. and other markets, reducing the island democracy’s dependence on China and angering Beijing as it sees its economic leverage over Taiwan ebb.

In one sign of the shift, the U.S. replaced mainland China as the top buyer of Taiwanese agricultural products for the first time last year.

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Taiwan’s outbound investment has also shifted. After flowing mostly to mainland China in the early 2000s, it has now moved decisively toward other destinations, including Southeast Asia, India and the U.S.

Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn, which assembles iPhones in mainland China, is expanding in India and Vietnam after Apple began pushing its suppliers to diversify.

Chinese state media recently reported that China had opened tax and land-use probes into Foxconn. Though Taiwanese officials and analysts interpreted the probes as a sign that China wants Foxconn founder Terry Gou to drop plans to run in Taiwan’s presidential election in January, some have said Beijing may also be trying to pressure Foxconn into resisting decoupling with China.

“Any attempt to ‘talk down’ the mainland’s economy or to seek ‘decoupling’ is driven by ulterior motives and will be futile,” said a spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office in September. “The mainland is always the best choice for Taiwanese compatriots and businesses.”

Fully decoupling from mainland China’s economy likely isn’t possible, and would be disastrous for Taiwan, not to mention China, even if it were.

Foxconn and other major Taiwanese companies depend heavily on China for parts, testing and buyers. Some 25% of Taiwan’s electronic-parts imports still come from the mainland.

If China’s weakened economy returns to strong growth, it could shift the calculus back in favor of the mainland, where the Communist Party claims Taiwan despite never having ruled it. About 21% of Taiwan’s total goods trade this year has been with mainland China, versus 14% for the U.S., though the U.S. share has risen from 11% in 2018.

“My hunch is that the large manufacturing sectors will try to stay in the Chinese market, even with harsh conditions,” said Alexander Huang, director of the international affairs department of the opposition Kuomintang Party, whose supporters include business people with mainland ties. “If you talk to those business owners, they say, ‘Nah, no way will I give it to my competitors.’”

Even so, many forces are pushing Taiwan to rewire its economic relationship with China.

Trump-era tariffs and Biden administration export controls have raised the cost of sourcing from China, and in some cases prohibited it. U.S. firms are pushing their Taiwanese suppliers to diversify sourcing, and rising wages in China have made it less attractive than before.

Long-running shifts in Taiwanese sentiment toward China—and China’s own efforts to punish the island using its economic leverage—are also factors. China has banned Taiwanese agricultural products such as pineapple and, in 2022, grouper fish, and restricted outbound tourism to Taiwan.

Those restrictions to some degree have backfired, pushing Taiwanese businesses to look elsewhere.

Casting for new markets

Chang Chia-sheng, who runs a fish farming operation in Taiwan, said his main export target a decade ago was mainland China. But as geopolitical tensions climbed, he looked elsewhere. Sales to Americans have jumped fivefold since 2018, he said. “In the U.S., things just seem to work out more easily,” Chang said.

The U.S. and Taiwan reached an agreement in May on a number of trade and investment measures to deepen ties, though the deal stopped short of reducing tariffs.

In the June quarter of 2023, 63% of revenue at TSMC, which makes most of the world’s most cutting-edge logic chips, came from the U.S., up from 54% in the same period in 2018, according to S&P Global data. Just 12% of TSMC’s revenue now comes from Chinese buyers, down from 22% in the second quarter of 2018.

Taiwan’s government is also encouraging closer economic links with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Its “New Southbound Policy,” rolled out in 2016, has been the subject of fierce debate in Taiwan, with the Kuomintang Party saying steps to boost relations—like handing out scholarships—aren’t worth the cost.

Exports to “New Southbound” partners have risen, however, to $66 billion in the first nine months of 2023, about 50% higher than the same period in 2016.

“Frankly speaking, we’re responding reactively” to the need for more diverse trading partners, Taiwan’s Economic Minister Wang Mei-hua said. “Taiwan needs to manage the risks on its own, but we also need our allies to join us more in mitigating these risks.”

Together, the U.S. and the six largest Southeast Asian economies accounted for 36% of Taiwanese exports in the third quarter of 2023, according to data from CEIC, surpassing the percentage sent to mainland China and Hong Kong on a quarterly basis for the first time since 2002.

In September, Taiwan sent less than 21% of its exports to the mainland, the lowest percentage since the global financial crisis.

Taiwanese foreign investment into mainland China, steady at around $10 billion a year for most of the early 2010s, plummeted in late 2018 and has since been running at about half that level, according to Taiwanese government data. In 2023 so far, just 13% of Taiwan’s investment went to mainland China; 25% went to other Asian locations, and nearly half went to the U.S.

A survey of Taiwanese businesses conducted last year on behalf of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, found that nearly 60% had moved or were considering moving some production or sourcing out of China—a significantly higher rate than European or American firms.

Jay Yen, chief executive of Yen and Brothers, a Taiwanese frozen-food processing company, said his firm received a government subsidy of around $75,000 to market his products to American consumers. China now only accounts for about 3% of its revenue, he said.

That said, “if you really have to consider the risks of a war between the U.S. and China and its potential impact on Taiwan, you might want to place your bets on a third country—neither China nor the U.S.,” Yen added.

Reversing the tide

After China began to open up its economy in the late 1970s, Taiwanese businesses were among the first investors.

By the 2000s, China seemed to be succeeding in its strategy of integrating the two economies, with more than 28% of Taiwan’s exports going to the mainland in 2010, from less than 4% a decade earlier.

Direct flights between the two sides were normalised for the first time in decades. Mainland tourists were allowed to visit Taiwan on their own.

By 2014, the tide was turning as more Taiwanese grew worried about over dependence on China. Student demonstrators protested against a trade pact, later abandoned, that would have deepened ties with China. President Tsai Ing-wen, who took office in 2016, has pushed to diversify Taiwan’s economy.

China has responded by moving trade issues more into the spotlight.

In April, it opened an investigation into Taiwanese trade restrictions that it says limit exports of more than 2,400 items from the mainland to the island in violation of World Trade Organization rules. In October, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced the probe would be extended until Jan. 12—the day before Taiwan’s coming election.

Taiwan’s government has called the probe politically motivated.

Chinese officials have implied that Beijing could suspend preferential tariff rates for some Taiwanese goods in China under a 2010 deal signed when Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou was president. Beijing has also reacted angrily to Taiwan’s recent trade agreement with the U.S.

For Taiwanese companies, building and operating new factories in places other than China isn’t cheap or easy. Protests have at times disrupted operations at Indian plants operated by Foxconn and Wistron, another Apple supplier. In September, a fire halted production at a Taiwanese facility in Tamil Nadu.

Still, some Taiwanese businesspeople have clearly soured on China.

“The electronics industry has already become a Chinese empire, not a Taiwanese one,” says Leo Chiu, who worked in mainland China in quality control for an electronics manufacturer for 14 years before concluding he couldn’t move up further there and returning to Taiwan in 2019. Many of his old colleagues have left, he said.

“If Xi Jinping steps down, there’s still a chance it could change,” says Chiu. “But I think it’s very hard.”


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