Hot-desks are Dead!! – Long live flexible workspaces?

May 7, 2020

A repost of an opinion piece by Liberty CEO, Jamie Vine

Sensational headlines created by scaremongering ‘experts’ are not very helpful to businesses already disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Claiming the office will never be the same again is a big call. So, what does the likely new normal look like?

A hot-desk in the context of the recent headlines is a desk in an open plan area used by a multitude of employees linked to a booking system or rotation plan. They are the lovechild of Activity Based Working (ABW) visionaries the world over. They have allowed corporate organisations to significantly reduce their office footprint over the last 20 years, which has led to significant cost savings through increased efficiency. So, are these alarmist commentators now saying we need to rewrite the ABW rule book?

I have read articles in which communal breakout spaces, open-plan offices, open staircases, meeting rooms, and hot-desks are all being touted as dangerous and obsolete, but what is the alternative?

Before we contemplate the insurmountable task of redesigning 10’s of millions of square metres of office space as a kneejerk reaction to COVID-19, I think it is important to compare the office to other multi-occupancy facilities and situations that provide a similar risk.

What is the difference between working in an open-plan office, sat next to people you either know (or at least can be tracked), and sitting next to a complete stranger on a train, at a sporting event, the cinema, at a bar or a restaurant? Surely, non-strangers and tracing make open plan offices safer than those others.

There is no talk of the temporary current restrictions of these social activities being made permanent. The restrictions are there until we have more control and more information, they are not forever. So why are some people writing about ‘the end of the office as we know it’? I saw one headline that read ‘Offices are the new cruise ships for COVID-19’ and I thought; what absolute nonsense.

I am sure that some people will work from home more often after this is over. Many may also prefer to not travel to head office locations as often. But colleagues will still need to meet, collaborate, innovate, project-manage, deliver on deadlines, provide solutions, and most importantly feel part of something, otherwise known as culture. Culture is a business’s sustainable competitive advantage. Culture is the only thing that cannot be copied.

The office is not dead, the way we use it has not changed forever, but it has changed for now.

Many organisations are seeing the return to work as a way to redefine their new normal. That means waving goodbye to large head offices (with all of the associated costs) and saying ‘hello’ to flexible workspaces, in both CBD’s and in regional/suburban locations.

The ‘ideal’ for large employers in the future may be a much smaller head office ‘hub’ to deliver the ‘mothership’ culture alongside access to high quality, well-managed satellite facilities (run by professional operators). The efficiencies will be enormous, as will the talent retention and productivity. While at the same time maintaining the business’s culture.

By introducing smart booking systems to track users and visitors and increased hygiene we can manage a return to work, responsibly and safely.

It is definitely time to rethink but it not the time to overreact.