Activity Based Working (ABW), or as it’s presently known, hot-desking, first emerged as a concept from the Netherlands in the mid-nineties.
First coined in ‘The Art of Working’ by Erik Veldhoen, ABW borrows the logic of traditional workshops and workplaces, in which space is organised by activities (like whittling, smelting, writing, printing), and applies it to knowledge workers and the modern office. Where in a workshop it’s a piece of machinery or equipment which allows a task, in the modern office it’s people’s minds which are the machines. And so the thinking goes – minds that need to be together should be grouped together, sit together, and work together.
Gone are cubicles and personal desks – rather than rigidly organising an office according to personal space, ABW assigns space fluidly, based on the project or activity it’s needed for. As such, hot-desking allows employees to sit where they choose, with whoever they need to in order to get a job done.
Over the years, the interpersonal flexibility of hot-desking has been proven to have benefits in the right workplaces. By sitting together, teams reduce the amount of IM and email needed to communicate with each other, and tasks get turned around quicker because of it.
Additionally, while certain groups of employees can become cliquey or exclusive, it’s been shown that, on the whole, sitting by a rota system increases social cohesion across a whole business – far more than a quarterly office party.
The health benefits of hot-desking are hard to ignore too. By unchaining employees from their desks, cables and PCs, employees are empowered to work on the go, through wi-fi, cloud computing, laptops and mobile devices, and are more inclined to walk around the office. This decrease in time spent sedentary, sitting at a desk, has well-documented health benefits, reducing a number of risk factors for heart disease, obesity, and other lifestyle diseases.
It’s not just physical – the constant change of scenery is psychologically refreshing. It can break rut and routine, jolting the brain off autopilot and quelling staff burnout.
For all the productivity benefits hot-desking advocates claim, the practice has gotten some heat for being highly disruptive and counterproductive.
Time spent frequently locating, setting up in the morning, and packing up at the end of the day can take away from time on tasks. One Australian exec likened it to “high school”.
The similarities to high school don’t end there – over time, exclusive circles and cliques can emerge, and subtle politics of seniority can come into play, prohibiting movement around the floor. For management, no fixed seating plan means people can be hard to find and track, wasting time and breaking workflows.
Finding a middle ground
Taking into account the cons of hot-desking, businesses can develop workarounds to maximise the pros.
While offices with smaller teams and smaller workspaces are generally better suited for the practice, larger enterprises might opt for ‘hot-desking lite’ – with dedicated co-working spaces placed alongside fixed work stations, a less frequent rotation (say, fortnightly rather than daily), as well as the implementation of hoteling, way-finding, or check-in systems to track where employees sit.