What Happens When We Take Workers’ Desks Away?

Workers generally dislike open office plans, but when surveyed about hot desking, they rated some aspects of it higher than having a fixed office seat.

Knowledge workers complain about open office plans for good reason. They contribute to distractions in the work environment, and individuals have little privacy compared with when they have offices or cubicles, which can lower productivity and morale. Decision makers love open office plans, however, because they are much less expensive to build and maintain. Estimates put office space as typically being the number two cost in an organization, just behind payroll, so cutting costs in this area is a big deal.

As much as knowledge workers hate open offices, there are some aspects of them that they actually prefer, on average, over having a fixed work space.

What is Flexi Desking?

Flexi desking, more commonly called hot desking in the U.S., means workers don’t have a fixed work space, usually in an open office plan. Every day, workers choose where to sit. In some offices, employees can log into any computer station to start work, whereas in others they bring their own (or get from a locker on premises) a laptop and other mobile workstation equipment that they set up in a seat of their choosing.

Flexi desking drives down costs because there are usually fewer total seats than there are total employees; having too few seats generally works out just fine after taking into account absences, telecommuters, travelers, and other employees who are off site.

Researchers in Sydney, Australia, surveyed more than 3,000 workers about flexi desking (Kim, Candido, Thomas, & de Dear, 2016). What they found is, despite many of the negative feelings workers have about flexi desk setups, they also had some positive experiences, when compared with workers taking the same survey who were in fixed desk setup. So what is there to like about flexi desking?

Pros of Flexi Desking

Better temperatures and air quality. On average, flexi desk workers rated their satisfaction with the office temperature higher than those in fixed desks. They also were more satisfied with the indoor air quality. Funny enough, the survey respondents all worked in similar office conditions. From a qualitative standpoint, the air temperature and air quality wasn’t higher or lower, better or worse, in one environment than another. The difference is that flexi desk workers can choose where they sit, such as nearer to windows where the temperature might be slightly higher, or near an air duct where it might be slightly lower.

Choice. Related to the prior point, flexi desk workers have more choice over where they sit, autonomy being a clear benefit, as well as a contributor to overall employee satisfaction.

More communal space. On average, flexi desk offices have more shared space, including kitchenettes, break rooms, and meeting rooms. Flexi desk workers in the survey had a higher satisfaction rating with their shared spaces than fixed desk workers.

Saves money. Obviously for decision makers and executives, flexi desk setups save a lot of money. According to the Australian researchers, the ratio of employee to seats can go from 1:1 to 1:3. To give you an idea of just how much money we’re talking about here, the per workstation cost per year in 2013 in London and Hong Kong was estimated to be more than $20,000 (Kuljanin, 2014).

Of course, there are still plenty of cons regarding hot desking.

Cons of Flexi Desking

Storage space. On average, workers in flexi desk spaces rated their satisfaction with storage space slightly lower than workers with fixed desks. In Australia at least, it’s common for flexi desk workers to get locker storage so that they do have some amount of in-office space to keep their belongings.

Running out of seats. From time to time, when in-office attendance is higher than expected, a flexi desk office can run out of seats. Workers hate being forced to work from the cafeteria or a bench designed for some other purpose rather than a proper seat.

Lost time.

Setting up and breaking down one’s equipment takes time, and that lost time can be seen as wasted time or lost productivity. In a flexi desk environment, people suffer lost time every day with setup and break down, whereas it’s much less common in a fixed desk environment.

Hygiene. When you have your own desk, you are responsible for its cleanliness. When the occupant of a seat changes daily, cleanliness is more of a crapshoot.

Lost boundaries and privacy. As mentioned, when employees don’t have any personal space, especially when they formerly did and it was taken away, their morale can drop. The loss of boundaries and privacy can, according to the researchers, lead to emotional exhaustion.


Kim, J., Candido, C., Thomas, L., & de Dear, R. (2016). Desk ownership in the workplace: The effect of non-territorial working on employee workplace satisfaction, perceived productivity and health. Building and Environment(103) 203-214.

Kuljanin, M. (2014). Occupier Perspective Global Occupancy Costs-Offices, DTZ.

Image by Strelka Institute for Media, CC.


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