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Employees may be anxious to return to shared desk work spaces in the short term.|||
Employees may be anxious to return to shared desk work spaces in the short term.
14 May 2020

Is the hot-desking project over?

Words by  Photo by Anna Shvets

The COVID-19 outbreak has raised anxiety around hygiene and personal space in the office – does this spell the end of non-fixed desking as we know it? We ask the industry...

While, in general, the media frames the intangible countdown to the end of lockdown as celebratory, as if a release from an unjust prison sentence, less heed is being paid to the fear and anxiety - a growing collective agoraphobia - that also comes with a return to business as usual post-coronavirus. 

For keyworkers, it's something that has underlined this whole period, and for those who this week the Government has encouraged back to work – especially those in London who have no choice but to rely on public transport – safety within re-opened working environments are a huge source of concern. For the majority of office-based workers, who have found their jobs tenable during the lockdown working from home, this is something that remains on the horizon, for now. 

However, for employers and office providers, this sense of anxiety is something that needs to be addressed before employees return to the pre-pandemic norm, especially where office design has favoured more open, shared spaces. Offices which have implemented hot-desking policies, in particular, may find themselves up against resistance from staff now hyper aware of the dangers public spaces could pose to their health. 

"Employees will undoubtedly feel increased levels of anxiety at the thought of others invading their personal space," predicts Asell Yusupova, Strategy Director at UXUS. "Desks will become an extension of their private space with employers providing protective measures and tools for individuals to maintain and monitor their working environment to ease the emotionally taxing fear of threat." 

Though in the future, the COVID-19 pandemic may be seen as a finite period in time, there's no doubt it has been culturally defining, meaning office spaces will have no choice but to engage with these concerns on a meaningful, long-term basis. "It's going to be a bitter pill to swallow for some employers because a lot of money has been spent on the hotdesking project," says Ashley Lawrence, head of interiors at Crown Workspace, "but I think they will find they won't have a choice but to make changes if they want to keep their best talent."

open plan office space. onofficemagazine.com

Hot-desking, clean desk policies may actually be more beneficial for workplaces concerned about hygiene. Image: Marc Mueller

While for many workplaces, an adjustment to a temporary fixed-desk scheme is not out of the realms of possibility, there are still ways to push forward with the hot-desking concept. "There is likely to be a shift from allowing multiple employees to use one desk throughout the day, to a single use per day," suggests global experts in workplace design Steelcase. "To ensure health standards are met, employers may reinforce a 'clean in, clean out' policy for spaces that continue to be shared."

Within a cleanliness context, hot-desking in this way has something to offer. Studies of fixed desk offices have widely reported it to be a less hygienic operation, attributing that well-worn trope that fixed desks harbour more bacteria than the average toilet seat. The clean desk policy that comes hand-in-hand with hot-desking means that, with visible and well-communicated daily cleaning, employees can feel at ease. 

While in the short term, employers may need to compromise to soothe the anxieties of a workforce with a newly heightened awareness of public hygiene, hot-desking is likely to have an even more important role to play in the structure of the workplace going forward. 

"I think that the biggest effect to come from the current crisis is the upswing in the number of businesses letting or making their employee work from home from here on out," reflects Richard Yeo, sales director at Advanced Commercial Interiors. "This will also mean that hot-desking will become a huge part of a business. Having hot desks so that employees are able to come in on certain days while others stay at home is going to mean that some businesses won't need huge offices, but instead utilise the same more effectively by rotating employees."

Alongside the prediction of working from home part-time becoming more commonplace, other ideas have been floated to help reduce employee density in the office, such as implementing a four-day work week and staggering teams across five days – an action that could reduce density by up to 20 percent in an office on any given day. For businesses that have seen economic damage caused by the coronavirus outbreak, these strategies not only place employees wellbeing at the forefront, but make commercial sense too. 

Tech firms are also looking at ways of streamlining the hot-desking experience. Shireen Han, associate at workplace specialist Orms, envisages a dependancy on technology that creates non-physical barriers: "Occupancy sensors and apps which enable workers to receive notifications of office air quality levels, staggered arrival and departure times and real-time crowded ‘hotspots’ within the office to avoid. This will be the new normal."

So will hot-desking see its demise in a post-COVID-19 workplace? It's unlikely, but what does seem inescapable is compromising with staff. How people have responded to and faced trauma caused by this pandemic is defined on an individual scale. Looking at 'the me in we' - the individual within the collective - is of growing importance, so constructing workspaces that have possibilities for hot-desking and fixed desking based on personal preference, may be the future for a truly flexible workspace. 

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