A tragedy of the commons: in defence of hot desking

So this is the post you never expected anyone to write. Some causes are deemed too lost to bother with.

Let’s face it, hot desking has a serious brand problem. There are few champions remaining – most have changed their name and gender, and moved to Caracas. It’s the arse-end of the office accommodation spectrum. You don’t get a desk to yourself, and you don’t get a lot of choice. You don’t even get a pedestal for your stale cornflakes anymore. You own nothing but the 400mm cube of a locker (or less), and your covenant is the same as everyone else’s however productive, committed or (in popular parlance) engaged you are. It’s 1920’s collectivisation, beating within the heart of our day. It’s been thoroughly out-sexed by flexible and activity-based workplaces, and water-boarded by journalists the world over. It’s not just injured, it’s insulted and disgraced. For the designer it screams bland uniformity, mundane constraint, and peer ridicule. We dare not mention its name even when we’re implementing it for fear of being tarred and feathered, so we call it something else. Like “agile” (ugh). Anything else.

How on earth did we let this this happen?

Everywhere we read that usage trumps ownership. Collaborative consumption has been built on this. You know, AirBnB, Zipcar and other stuff you think is cool. Yet under our noses for years, the unknowing, unassuming flag bearer of collaborative consumption is now unclean.

Well, if you’re not going to be at “your” desk for any more than about half the time then why shouldn’t someone else use it? They won’t even be able to trash it. You can’t trash a desk. It’s a desk. And it’s actually not yours. You’re only looking after it for the next occupant. Custodian, rather than owner.

It’s all rather at odds with the lumpenproletarian defence of the inviolability of the right to a desk, its own particular tragedy of the commons. So we’ve quite rightly developed the idea of the activity-based workplace, which nullifies the opposition to hot desking by relegating the desk in an open area to a mere constituent part in a grander design.

It’s still in there though.

And given that, in the world where the office is dead (which it isn’t) demand is outstripping supply driving rents through the roof so once again office space costs a fortune, why wouldn’t your employer want to be commercially-minded about this cost? Especially those in a growth drive, or just starting out. If it doesn’t impact your health, wellbeing, vitality, creativity, sanity and fertility, then drawing from a pool of desks when you’re there and need one isn’t actually a hardship of any sort. It’s actually a common sense idea.

It’s not a panacea. It’s not the solution for anything other than a carefully reasoned scenario – where five tests are passed, where:

  • there is objective data to support a generous degree of under-utilisation (or they support a relatively transient population)
  • the desk remains important
  • the technology used is generally homogenous
  • work tasks and methods are relatively homogenous
  • the numbers of people using the space don’t warrant a wide range of alternative settings

With hotdesking we can still provide good quality furniture, ergonomic seating, fantastic technology and connectivity, ample daylight, environmental control, lockers and gym bag storage, and access to great quality food and drink. People can still choose when, where and how they work. People can still choose to behave well, respect their colleagues, and “be excellent to each other”. Some desking can still be designed and positioned for more focussed work. Hot desking does not imply absence of any of these features, not bad or thoughtless design. The hot desk workplace can still be energised and engaging, socially cohesive, psychologically safe, well-managed, surprising and motivating.

Hot desking still has a major part to play. We’ve let it down. We’ve let ourselves down. Shame on us.

 

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