Skip to main content

Yuri_Arcurs/Getty Images

When Samantha Welscheid goes to work at her firm's new office tower in downtown Montreal, there's no telling where she will sit. She has no assigned desk, let alone an office like she used to have. Everything she needs is in her briefcase, and the only family photo on display is the screen-saver on her laptop.

"I really like it," said Ms. Welscheid, who is an enterprise risk services partner at Deloitte Canada. "This new environment has really made us able to tackle issues as a team."

It's just one example of the new ways that increasing numbers of office workers are doing their jobs, especially among high-tech and consultancy companies in Canada. Hot-desking – and its variant, hotelling – are replacing the baffle-enclosed cubicle and even the walled-in office.

Instead, workers find a different spot every day and keep personal items in a locker or drawer. With hotelling, they can reserve a desk in advance for a certain period of time.

The logic of the trend is pretty obvious. With more employees working remotely, desks are often empty and simply taking up space – expensive space.

At Deloitte, for example, "what we found was that at any given point in time in our old space, about 50 to 55 per cent of the work space was not being used," said Ryan Brain, managing partner at the firm's Toronto office.

That figure is higher than the estimated 30 per cent desk-vacancy rate that Los Angeles-based commercial real estate company CBRE Ltd. found in a 2013 study in the United States. It is similar, however, to many other North American companies where staff may work some days at home, or spend time away with clients.

While Mr. Brain pointed out that all those empty desks were a poor use of money and resources, real estate cost savings was "not a part of our strategy," he says.

Rather, he added, "we find our team is much more engaged and productive when they can control how and where they work, and that's what's behind our national vision and strategy. It's all around flexibility and choice." The firm will switch to hot-desking-type office arrangements in all its buildings across the country.

Workers in general have mixed feelings.

Academic surveys on employee satisfaction with the trend "are coming down on both sides," said Julia Richardson, associate professor at York University's School of Human Resource Management in Toronto. "I think, to be honest, the jury is still out. And I think it will remain out."

A pair of British surveys, from 2012 and 2015, found that a majority of office workers disliked the practice.

In her recent study of a large, Toronto-based firm, Dr. Richardson found mixed reactions to hot-desking.

"For some [employees]," she said, "they were fine to go in and just put themselves anywhere they want. But for others, there was a need for routine, for predictability, so getting there and finding that 'their' space was gone annoyed them."

Some brought in photos and personal items and set them up in each day's workspace "to give themselves a sense of space or of belonging," she said.

In the United States, meanwhile, a 2013 workplace study by Gensler, a San Francisco-based business-design firm, found that workplaces designed with too much emphasis on collaboration, as unassigned seating is often intended to facilitate, is a mistake.

Using data from more than 90,000 knowledge-based workers in 155 companies, Gensler executive director Diane Hoskins found that the most significant factor in increasing productivity was the ability to focus. That led to higher rates of collaboration, learning and socialization among employees.

Co-worker interruptions and other distractions "make focus-work the modern office's most compromised work mode," Ms. Hoskins noted in her report.

For Philip Wilson, former chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association, whether hotelling or hot-desking will be good for employees lies in the company culture.

If the company's management style is highly controlling, it probably wouldn't work, he said. "But if it's one where a lot of latitude is given to employees, where they have objectives but management doesn't necessarily tell them how to go about attaining those objectives, it's probably very conducive to productivity and innovation."

Balance and flexibility may well be the biggest factors in a successful transition to hotelling or hot-desking. According to Mr. Brain, the average Deloitte office offers 18 types of workspace.

Ms. Welscheid's workplace provides so many options that "it really doesn't matter where you sit. So if you prefer a desk by a window, well, most of the desks are actually already by windows. And if you want to do heads-down, quiet work then you can choose a closed office."

Employees haven't entirely lost the possibility of marking out a bit of personal territory, she added.

"Our new environment does not preclude people from being nesters. If you really have a level of comfort with a particular space, you can have that type of space day in and day out," she said.