In defense of 'hot desking,' the controversial new workplace seating arrangement


Yesterday, Slate's Alison Griswold wrote a piece (following a Bloomberg Business story) about "hot desking," a new workplace design craze in which employees don't have permanently assigned desks or cubicles. Instead, workers move around to different parts of the office during the day. Spend a few hours at a desk, the logic goes, then get up and move to a standing desk, a corner sofa, or a meeting room with communal tables. A hot desking workplace might have 200 employees but only 100 desks, with the rest of the space being used for alternative seating arrangements.

Hot desking, which was popularized in Europe and has since spread to Silicon Valley tech start-ups and companies like Deloitte, is very controversial among people who believe it's a worker's right to have an assigned desk. (Slate called it "a sort of never-ending office musical chairs.") Critics of hot desking say it's just a way for workplaces to stuff more employees in a smaller space, and take away one more cherished office perk in a march toward soulless efficiency.


But the hot deskers are right. In the year 2015, adults should not have assigned seats at work.

Consider the typical American desk. It might have a computer on it, some papers, a few books, and a couple of personal tchotchkes. There's probably a mug with old coffee in it. And for the vast majority of office workers, it's totally unnecessary. Everything you can do from your desk, you can do from a nearby couch, or a standing desk down the hall, or your laptop in a Starbucks.

"But I love my desktop computer!" you say. Well, first of all, welcome to the future. 60% of global "knowledge workers" use a laptop, tablet, or smartphone for work, according to Cisco. Second, hot desking doesn't mean you can't use a desktop computer every day. It just means you can't use the same desktop computer every day. Which is perfectly reasonable, now that many workplaces use cloud software like Dropbox or Google Docs to store and back up their files. For the vast majority of white-collar occupations, you could just as easily do a few hours of work on your 27-inch retina iMac, then move to a conference room and let a co-worker use your fancy computer while you work from a laptop.

Hot desking has health benefits, too. Desks encourage sedentary work, and as we know, sitting is the new smoking. (Health experts recommend spending at least half the workday doing things other than sitting at a desk. That's right: hot desking saves lives.)


And that's not to mention the efficiency gains. In North America, desks and offices sit unused two-thirds of the time. There is no reason that a 100-person company needs 100 desks when a certain percentage of employees will always be out of the office, on vacation, or traveling for business. Believing that each worker deserves a desk to store their "Employee of the Month" plaques and kid photos, even when those desks sit empty for hours or days at a time, is a lot like believing that every driver in Manhattan should be entitled to a dedicated parking spot, and that we should bulldoze Central Park to make room for more garages.

Hot desking also incentivizes thoughtful behavior and cleanliness. If you know someone else is likely to take over your workspace in a few hours, you're less likely to leave your old takeout containers festering there, or to let papers pile up wantonly. Assigned desks, on the other hand, lead to situations like this:


There are some exceptions, obviously. If you're the President, you can have a desk. If you're a bond trader or a video editor or someone else who needs specialized computer equipment to work, you can have a desk. If you're a late-night TV host, or a receptionist whose job includes greeting visitors at the front door, you can have a desk. Teachers can have desks, too, I guess.

But for everyone else, hot desking is clearly the way of the future. Assigned desks are a relic of a time before Dropbox and Gmail and Slack, when people needed dedicated physical spaces to store their analog work materials. Desks are wasteful and underutilized, and they encourage hoarding and hierarchy over health and practicality.


Get up! Walk around! Go sit somewhere else for a change. And see if you don't get happier and more productive when you can choose your own workspace.

Blue-collar workers have made do without assigned desks for centuries. It's time for white-collar workers to adapt to a desk-free world, too.

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