Why Employees Hate Hot-Desking | Kanebridge News
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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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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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