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For employees, the idea of hot-desking has garnered mixed reactions.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Bank of Montreal BMO-T informed its employees they would be able to start coming back into the office last September, one Toronto-based BMO employee told The Globe and Mail she felt a rush of relief. She said she had close friends on her team at work and she missed the banter in the office.

But because the employee had opted for a hybrid work setup – working some days at home and some at the office – she was told she would no longer have her own desk. Instead, employees were asked to download an app, My WorkSpace, to book desks that they would work at for the day.

The Globe is not identifying the BMO employee or the department she works in at BMO because she is not authorized by her employer to speak to the media.

Having to book random desks each time she came into the office – a concept now known in the world of white-collar work as hot-desking or hoteling – changed the office experience for the employee, mostly because she had no idea who else would be coming in on any given day, or where they would sit. Within weeks, she gave up on coming into the office altogether.

Hot-desking is one of the most popular hybrid work-related changes employers have embraced over the past two years, according to numerous interviews with consultants, human resources executives and employees. The concept has gained mainstream popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurred to a large extent by public-health requirements on physical distancing – existing layouts of many offices simply did not have enough room to seat employees at least six feet apart.

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For employers, however, there’s an added bonus to hot-desking: It’s a savings tool. Why have 100 desks for 100 employees when many of them only come in fewer than three times a week?

For employees, however, the idea of not having your own designated desk has garnered mixed reactions. The Globe interviewed more than a dozen people who work in office jobs in various professional services companies in Toronto, and many said their workspaces feel impersonal because of hot-desking. The booking system, they said, removed part of the joy and certainty of coming into the office – sitting near colleagues you like, or knowing where certain bosses sit.

Even some HR professionals have started admitting the pivot to hoteling has left some employees disappointed. And organizational behaviour experts say there is evidence that working in an open space without a designated desk or room erodes the culture of an organization.

“Hoteling or hot-desking began long before the pandemic, and is part of the open workspace concept,” said Matthias Spitzmuller, a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. “Companies often said they did this because they wanted to promote more intensive contact between different departments, and develop a culture that was more flexible and agile. But the truth of the matter was that it was to cut down real estate cost.”

The concept of hoteling in offices actually originated in the late 1980s. The accounting firm Ernst & Whinney had just merged with another accounting firm, Arthur Young, to create Ernst & Young (EY), and the company was looking to consolidate its operations from three separate office buildings in Chicago to just seven floors of the Sears Tower without increasing space costs.

Hoteling allowed employees (mostly accountants and consultants) to share space by reserving rooms and desks only for the times they needed to spend in the office. They would spend the rest of the time working from their clients’ offices. In its Chicago office, EY was able to decrease its office usage from approximately 250 square feet per person to 100 square feet.

This idea then bled into the notion of open workspaces, in which employees would not necessarily have their own desks but sit together in one large table with their own laptops. Some of the biggest tech giants embraced this way of working, and they promoted it as a way of fostering creativity and collaboration.

But Prof. Spitzmuller’s research shows the stated goals have, in fact, failed to materialize. He says employees end up talking less to their peers than when they had their own private cubicles because they crave silence. “The newer office layouts have prioritized public over private space. There’s constant background noise, and this becomes annoying,” he explained.

But gone are the days where employers can simply enforce a new system of working without provoking significant employee dissatisfaction. A May, 2021, survey of 16,000 employees across 16 countries conducted by the consulting firm Ernst & Young Global Ltd. found that more than half of employees would consider leaving their jobs if not offered some kind of flexibility in how they work. Crucially, 67 per cent believed their productivity could be accurately measured regardless of where they work.

Deborah Douma, a human resources executive at Baylis Medical, a mid-sized Toronto-based medical diagnostics company, said when the company imposed a hot-desking system on its 400-odd office employees, there was pushback. Baylis used an app called nSpace – owned by the Canadian architectural services company IBI Group – to facilitate hot-desking.

“I had employees ask me: What about my special chair? What about my personal items?” Ms. Douma told The Globe. The company policy regarding hybrid work recommended employees come back into the office at least three times a week and book a desk using nSpace.

But Baylis adapted the policy to say that if an employee chose to come into the office five days a week, they could have their own desk. “When employees were complaining, saying ‘I come in two days a week and I would like to have my own desk,’ I said think about an Airbnb – we don’t leave a rental open for whenever you want to use it,” Ms. Douma said.

Pippa Aird, a human resources executive at BMO, told The Globe that employee reaction to the bank’s hoteling app has been positive – people have been able to use it with ease. But Ms. Aird cautioned that it was too early to say whether employees are actually enjoying this new approach to office work. “There are people who have opted not to use My WorkSpace because they come in daily, but if you are a hybrid worker the expectation is you will be hoteling and moving desks every day,” she said.

Indeed, for employers, the cost savings from hybrid work are significant. Executives at the Jonah Group Ltd., a Toronto-based software company that created the HIVE flexible work app, told The Globe that cost efficiency and space efficiency have become the primary motives for companies embracing hybrid work.

“In the last 12 months, the focal point for employees has become less about safety and more about how to hybridize the workplace in the best way possible. A vast majority of our clients want the app for hoteling,” said Allan Wong, the Jonah Group’s vice-president of sales.

Historically, organizations leased office space based on a square-foot-per-person ratio methodology, according to Joe Pettipas, interior design lead for offices at IBI Group in Toronto. That calculation has changed drastically over the past two years. Mr. Pettipas says that 80 per cent of his current and potential clients are looking at alternate planning concepts such as seat-sharing when designing or reconfiguring an office space.

“100 assigned seats might now be able to service 40 per cent more people. When I see this kind of thinking permeating through the banking industry and professional services, you know this is a sea change,” he said.

But if employees feel hot-desking is more frustrating than beneficial, how should employers adapt? Prof. Spitzmuller believes executives need to sit back and think about what the psychological functions of a personalized office space really are. “One is that it guarantees connection to your work, and your organization. It is your comfort zone in the office. As you give that up, the more exposed you feel, the less privacy you have, and the weaker your connection is with the office,” he said.

There’s also the question of what hot-desking does to office hierarchy if it is not applied equitably across an organization. “It is going to be problematic if you have some people not having their own desks, and others who get to keep their offices,” Prof. Spitzmuller said.

Darryl Wright, a “future of work consultant” at EY Canada says that if companies do not have an inclusive approach to hot-desking, it could create a whole host of culture issues within an organization. “We spend a lot of time trying to get leadership teams to understand who their employees are and what work environment makes them happy,” Mr. Wright said.

One thing employers have come to realize over the past year or so, says Mr. Wright, is that they cannot arbitrarily shrink an office space, or redesign it to save money, without understanding the working style of their employees and the culture of the organization.

“For organizations that had a very traditional office setup – cubicles, rooms – hoteling and hot-desking is going to be a massive change. Their employees probably found identity and security in a personalized work desk,” he explained.

The key thing for employers to understand, according to Mr. Wright, is exactly why employees want to come into the office. “If you’re just carrying on with Zoom meetings and calls back to back, then why are you even in the office? Many employees are not going to go through the commute to replicate the same thing they are doing at home.”

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