You may have already read about the backlash against open office floor plans, the supposed catalyst for collaboration between employees, openness and transparency, and the cure for itchy feet and baldness. But the open floor concept has seen better days, as think-piece after think-piece after think-piece has discussed how open offices fail to deliver on the “increased innovation” or “unprecedented productivity” they promised. Peer-reviewed publications have even suggested that open-floor offices lead to decreased face-to-face interaction  and net loss in employee satisfaction , as compared to closed-offices. Productivity metrics fare no better.
So why in Vishnu’s blessed name do we stick to open office plans, when we know that they may do active harm to employees’ ability to get work done (not to mention their mental health)?
Why else? Money. Sweet, sweet money.
The evils of the open office are rarely seen but by him who resists it. — John Hay
As rent and cost of living continue to rise across this great land of ours, each square foot of real estate is precious. Cramming every single possible body in increasingly expensive real estate is the prerogative. Open offices make it easier for administrators to optimize utilization as their companies grow.
Which is fine. Though one could argue that short-term profits gained from open offices won’t outweigh potential losses in productivity, at the end of the day it’s a reasonable option for companies trying to be responsible with their overhead.
But there’s an additional twist to the open office that is completely unjustifiable — a perversion of ‘office space innovation’ that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy — hot desking. In some circles of Hell, it’s referred to as flex seating.
All open offices need [in order] to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent. — Edmund Burke, on the slippery slope that is ‘workspace innovation.’
If you’ve never been in an office with hot desking, here’s the gist.
Imagine you’re an employee at a new start up. Instead of having an assigned desk in the office, each day you come in and search for an open desk wherever you can find it. A basic, empty desk with no personalization —please leave the pictures of your family, your office toys, and any personality you have whatsoever at home. For ambience, enjoy the glare of the harsh white fluorescence, the hum of cookie-cutter Keurig coffee machines, and the fact that you avoided having to work in a high top chair without a monitor or laptop charger. Ignore the clutter (and the microbes) that have stacked up on the desk from who-knows.
Things get much more difficult when have a role where you work with a few different teams, or as a manager. You have no idea if you’ll get a desk near the people you need to collaborate with. If you need to talk with someone specific, you’ll have to track them down. They’ve got the same issues — since your schedule is a constant juggernaut of meetings, you’re on the move and hard to track down. Slack helps, but then you’re juggling impromptu meetups, regular meetings, and time to actually sit down and get work done intentionally.
There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of human resources and in the name of workspace innovation. — Charles de Montesquieu, uh, probably.
Your hot desk situation has gotten so bad that you’ve begun to dream about it.
In your dreams, you’re rushing out of the subway. It’s 9:02 am, so all the desks might be taken. You sprint up the stairs and manage to find the very last desk! The monitor won’t turn on and it’s covered in coffee stains but that’s ok — you notice you’re sitting beside relative strangers. What a relief, you think, since you can put your headphones on and tune everyone out.
But oh no, you can’t find your headphones. You notice your coworkers closing in. They tap you on the shoulder to talk at you about their pets or herb gardens or something they did while being a ‘weekend warrior.’ They tell you about the ‘food in the common area’ but it’s gone by the time you look.
They finally leave you to your work, so you turn your laptop on, only to see that the words are all garbled. You struggle to understand what you’ve been working on or what you need to do next when a notification pops up — you’re late for an important meeting! You race to find the meeting room as a nameless, faceless horde descends on your hot desk to claim it as their own.
Suddenly you jolt upright. Your skin’s clammy and your thoughts are a bit discombobulated, but you’re filled with relief — it was just a dream! Only a dream.
You rub your eyes and wait for the room to come into focus when suddenly you feel a tap on the shoulder. It’s Brian — “Hey, you busy? I have got to tell you about my cat Lucinda. She’s adorbs!”
No. It wasn’t a dream. Just a typical Tuesday at your hot desk in the open office.
All jokes aside, the hot desk is hostile to employee welfare. It enforces an impersonal environment and injects unnecessary instability into the workday. Dubious claims of benefits such as ‘increased collaboration’ or ‘seamless brainstorming’ are debunked by peer-reviewed studies and an avalanche of anecdotal evidence.
Though hot desks may make sense for teams/offices where employees only come into work for part of the week, the practice has now unjustly tentacled its way into the lives of full-time employees who just want a place to put the tchotchkes and pictures of loved ones.
I’ve spoken with friends in different cities and industries, and they’ve all mentioned the decline in quality of life they’ve felt due to open offices and hot desks. Several of them have started to ask, why bother in the first place? They get much more done while squirreled away at home or at a nearby coffee shop, and Slack makes it so you can be pinged wherever you are and only when needed. So why put up with the frustration?
By disengaging from office culture, you’ll miss out on spontaneous conversations (and all kidding aside, I do enjoy catching up with my co-workers and meeting new people) but the tradeoff is that you can make sure you’re on top of work and avoid email sprints at home. When faced with the two options, which would you choose?
The natural outcome of hot desks isn’t collaboration; it’s frustration, isolation, and fewer people engaged in the office.
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