The humble desk is now becoming a headache.
Many employers are using the return of workers to reconfigure their offices. As they try to open more spaces for in-office collaboration and anticipate a smaller fraction of their staff working in-person each day, organizations are cutting the number of desks and ending the practice of assigning them for most workers.
San Francisco-based Envoy, a workplace-platform provider that launched a desk-reservation system eight months ago, says it has racked up thousands of customers and has helped employees book 2.1 million desks in the last six months of 2021. Boston-based Robin, which also sells what it terms “workplace experience software,” estimates that 90% of the desks booked on its system float amongst employees; 90% of the desks were preassigned prior to the pandemic.
Desk sharing, which includes practices like “hot desking” or “hoteling,” isn’t new; some organizations like management consulting firms have had workers share desks for decades. It’s a logical solution to configuring post-pandemic workspaces—potentially even allowing a company to reduce the amount of office space it requires. There’s just one problem: human nature. “It’s a real pain. It’s a lot of change,” says Zach Dunn, vice president of customer experience and Robin’s co-founder. “People felt something was being taken away from them.”
A year ago, San Francisco-based Dropbox was trumpeting a revolutionary new office, vowing to rip out individual desks to focus on collaborative work as the company shifted to a “virtual-first” model. Those who insist on having a desk outside their home could use a stipend for membership at a third-party space. “This is a permanent shift,” said CEO Drew Houston in an interview with The Wall Street Journal for a story headlined “The Death of the Office Desk Is Upon Us.”
This approach hasn’t been universally popular. Former employees interviewed by Business Insider complained that the company’s decision to overhaul its offices, which took away the option of working in the office and did away with many former perks like a gourmet cafeteria, damaged the company’s culture and caused some employees to head for the exits. The company said its 2021 turnover rates were in-line with its peers.
Alison Hirst, who teaches Organization Studies at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, has been studying flexible desks since coming across the practice in 2006. What she found: Choosing a different desk every day is work—work nobody wants to engage in. “It’s kind of like make-work, a pointless activity you have to do before you can start work,” she explains.
Hirst found that employees get to the office early to get a choice, and the first spots to go are those on the edges. Corner spots are the most desired; like zebras on the savannah, apparently we feel safer when we know nobody is behind us. Then over time, workers start to go back to the same desks over and over again; others, realizing whose desk is whose, respect those choices. In other words, if people aren’t assigned desks, they assign desks to themselves.
“In the old days there were many exhortations about how employees should be moving around,” Hirst says. But “moving around is a nuisance.”
People who lose their desks “will say they feel lost,” adds Graham Brown, associate professor at the University of Victoria’s business school who has studied hot desking. “They find it very disruptive.” He explains that with territorial markers—a plant or a child’s drawing, for example—and with familiarity a desk develops meaning that helps deepen a worker’s connection to the organization.
Experts also agree on another point: If you are working next to employees you don’t know, you are unlikely to interact with them. “Physical proximity with strangers does not in and of itself spark conversations,” Hirst says. Cue the headphones.
So how can companies accommodate hybrid work schedules without wasting money on unused desks or triggering worker dissatisfaction? Researchers and office-management experts have a few key suggestions:
Forget about saving money
Dunn at Robin said companies need to focus the conversation not around cost savings, but instead around creating spaces that offer more utility to their employees. “Don’t frame this as a way to save money,” he says, noting that some employees may conclude, angrily, that flexible desks are primarily being used to cut costs. “Say you’re doing this because the office needs to be better for collaborative work.”
Dunn added that companies will also be successful because they will have invested the resources to repurpose the office in ways that genuinely benefit workers, like creating space for collaborative work. “You get substantially less resistance,” he says. “Get a better coffee machine, get a cappuccino machine,” suggests Brown.
Don’t start at the top
While the top leadership should communicate such things as health and safety measures, more intimate changes like those to office spaces are better communicated by an employee’s direct manager, Dunn says. “Have managers try to coordinate team days,” he suggests.
Go ahead and assign desks to people
Executives say one of the most effective ways to manage flexible desking is to make the desks, and worker schedules, a little less flexible.
One popular option involves creating a “neighborhood.” Assign an area of the office where specific teams should cluster—and make it clear which days are for which teams, suggests Larry Gadea at Envoy, adding that companies can organize team meetings to get everyone in on the same day. “There’s comfort in knowing when they should be in,” he says of employees.
And while you’re at it, why not just assign employees desks, so they don’t have to bother doing it for themselves?
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Envoy accumulated 1,000 customers in the last six months of 2021.