Dude, Where’s My Desk? Many Companies Eliminating Assigned Workstations

This article is originally from The Business Journals, written by Ty West on July 1, 2021.

Employees may be going back to the office, but their traditional desks might not be waiting for them.

With many employers embracing a hybrid model that will allow more work-from-home flexibility, experts say more companies are considering an office hoteling setup that ditches assigned desks and workstations. A recent survey by global employment law firm Littler Mendelson PC found 31% of employers were considering an office hoteling model.

A desire to reduce real estate expenses is often the motivation, with employers reasoning they’ll need less square footage if employees only have to be in the office a few days a week.

But experts say employers considering an office hoteling concept should follow best practices when pursuing a hoteling model, which real estate brokers have told The Business Journals can get a mixed reception from employees.

Debbie Donley, owner and principal of national architecture, design and workplace strategy company Vocon, said there’s clearly more thoughtful exploration by employers on workplace configuration as companies rethink their offices for a post-Covid world.

“The pandemic raised the awareness level of how people think about their space and how important it is to think about space in a context of what you’re actually going to work to achieve,” Donley said. “More and more people are thinking about whether hoteling fits.”

But just like with many other aspects of a hybrid policy, experts say there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for office hoteling. There’s also no magic ratio of employees to workstations. Donley said those answers can vary by company and even by position or department within the same company.

Factors like frequency in the office, maximum capacity and the way departments work with one another must be considered.

The stakes are high, as business owners want to avoid causing discontent among employees — something many companies can’t afford during a labor shortage and turnover threats.

What’s your story?

Even though many companies pursue hoteling as a means to save space, Donley said the strategy needs to be more holistic than that to gain traction with employees.

If the takeaway for employees is that a company is taking away assigned desks just to save space, Donley said that’s unlikely to go over well.

“When you take something away from somebody, usually that doesn’t fit well,” she said. “Our approach is always that when you introduce [hoteling space], you’re also introducing a lot of other things that go along with your space to make it successful.”

Ideally, that would include collaborative zones, phone booths, Zoom rooms and other areas that are necessary for a successful hoteling strategy. It can’t be as simple as just reducing cubicle space and keeping other common areas the same as before.

“You want to make sure you are introducing all these other things that support a mobile environment,” she said. “Ultimately, that may lead to savings in square footage, but then that’s not the headline.”

Donley said office hoteling might work for some occupations or industries better than others. Companies need to think about the functions of the employees involved.

For example, hoteling might not be ideal for a law office, where there is a high degree of confidentiality and numerous secure documents in play. Human resources is another area that presents challenges. On the flip side, Donley said accounting firms are increasingly adopting the office hoteling concept. Information technology is another field where hoteling often works, she said.

Regardless of industry, Donley said hoteling often works best in organizations where there is a high level of trust.

“Organization leaders have to trust their employees to come and go,” Donley said. “That’s usually a key element of success in a mobile setting.”

If that trust isn’t present and employers are pressuring employees to be physically present, it could be a recipe for disaster if there are no longer enough desks.

Experts say companies need to have an accurate estimate of the maximum number of people who will be in the office on any given day as well as what the growth outlook for headcount looks like in the future.

Donley said companies also need to accurately assess the functions that are taking place in their organizations to understand the quantity and type of workspaces they need. A miscalculation could be costly in both expenses and morale.

Many companies utilize reservation systems and other technology options to avoid a scenario where a worker comes in to find there isn’t a workstation available.

Competing with home

Kyla Burns, creative lead at workplace design firm Loth Inc., said it’s important for companies to remember they are now competing with an employee’s home as a work location.

“You’re trying to have something compelling for them to come into the office,” she said. “They have to be able to control their environment and make it comfortable.”

Burns said it’s possible for companies to achieve that goal even in an office hotel environment with no assigned desks. They just need to be strategic about the spaces and amenities they offer.

She said it could be simple things like access to snacks and other comforts an employee may have at home. Many newly hybrid workplaces, for example, are incorporating homestyle furniture into their offices.

“[Those additions] can take a little bit of that negativity or fear around ‘I don’t have a place of my own anymore,’” Burns said.

Many businesses have started to incorporate lockers for personal belongings when moving to unassigned desks. Others have rolled out tech options that would allow an employee’s photos of pets or children to appear when they log into a particular workstation.

Burns said the offices that thrive in a hybrid or hoteling world are those that view the office as another tool for their business.

“Real estate is a really big conversation right now: ‘How do we cut our real estate by half and then have half our associates work at home?’” she said. “I don’t see cutting real estate as a huge benefit. I see reimagining the real estate you already have becoming extremely important.”

A mistake to avoid

One common mistake with office hoteling is when companies make assumptions about what employees are looking for in an office space. They also shouldn’t assume that an idea that worked at another company or department will work for their own.

“[If you make those assumptions] you don’t capture the authenticity. We call it soul,” Donley said. “You want your employees and your customers to feel something about you when they walk through your space. If they don’t, you haven’t done it right.”

A common thread of successful hoteling policies is a collaborative approach from the beginning. Leaders charged with implementing the policies also need to set a good example themselves.

She used the example of an insurance company that rolled out an office hoteling policy and had representation from across the business throughout the planning stages.

“Everyone was represented at the table, and we went on this journey,” Donley said. “There are no offices designated, including the CEO’s office. He carries a backpack. He sets the example for everyone.”

That doesn’t mean CEOs need to give up their desks to make a switch to hoteling successful. But Donley said it does illustrate the importance of having leaders who are willing to buy in to the changes they are implementing.