How to survive in a hot desk office

Whether we like it or not, it seems like hot desk offices are going to be a thing going forward.

Hot desks, for those who have been lucky enough to avoid them, are a system where employees (usually, but not always, in the knowledge sector) have no fixed seating or workspace. They must find a place to sit and work when they arrive at the office, and if they vacate the seat then it is forfeit to the next person who needs one.

They’re cheaper, they promote employee flexibility, and they make it easier to collaborate. They also make it harder to do deep work and avoid distractions, and give employees the sense that they do not really ‘belong’ in the office – in hot desk offices, there is no sense of the personal.

This isn’t cubicle work, where you can decorate your space how you want. This is hot desk work, where you are expected to leave the workspace spotless for the next person to use.

Love them or hate them, it is getting difficult to avoid them. Unless your boss is willing to fork out the necessary real estate to accommodate personal space for everyone in the office, flexible spaces will remain the norm. So the question becomes: how do you survive in one?

I work in a hot desk environment. There is only one person who has been brave enough to stake his claim on a space. He likes to leave his name tag on the corner desk, right under the window, and people are allowed to use it as long as he isn’t there. When he is, there is an unspoken rule that the desk should be vacated for him and that the person using it should find somewhere else. I’m convinced that the only reason he gets away with it is because he has been here too long for anyone to feel comfortable reprimanding him. Everyone else is expected to fight for the best seats.

Here are some of the tricks I’ve figured out to make the hot desk environment bearable:

  1. Decide quickly: All or nothing

The hot desk situation means that you’re going to have to carry all of your gear to the office with you in the morning and then take it away at night. There might be cupboard space, but that’s at a premium in the same way that desk space is. You might not always be able to rely on it, and if you do you have to trust that your things will remain unmolested in the cupboard for the duration of their stay.

So you need to decide as soon as possible what kind of worker you want to be: are you a minimalist, or are you Batman?

Minimalists get by on very little. They plan their day in advance and know what they’re going to need when they get to work. They have one notebook to keep notes in, one laptop (fully charged), and a wallet to buy lunch with. Pens and pencils, highlighters, and even chargers are left at home. They bring nothing and leave nothing behind.

Minimalists work well in hot desk environments because they’re very portable. If you’re a minimalist, it will help to spend a few days keeping track of the tools you actually use every day at the office – how many notebooks do you really need? How often do you really need to charge your phone? Once you have a firm idea of what you use, take stock of what other tools/utilities are available to workers. Is there a communal pen pot that people can take pens from, use, and then put back? Is there a colleague who leaves their charger around and doesn’t mind people using it? Know what you’re working with and plan the contents of your work bag/satchel/purse with this in mind.

Batman has a utility belt packed with everything he may need at any given time. I’m a Batman. I have a backpack (which I bought on Thomas Frank’s recommendation) that carries literally everything I could ever need and some things I keep on me because I know that my colleagues might need them. Need a charger for your phone or laptop? Need a highlighter? Need some cat stickers? I’m your girl. I literally carry my office with me wherever I go. This is a good approach if you prefer to be prepared for situations, or if you don’t like being caught off guard.

If you’re going to be Batman, you need to make sure that the bag you’re using will not do long-term damage to your spine. I used a handbag for a few months, convinced that it would make me look more professional, but in the end the poor handbag was packed to the brim every day, I could never find anything, and my back was constantly aching from having all the weight on one side. I moved on to a backpack, but even that was not enough because it only had a few pockets and no storage space for the things I might need, but didn’t need every day. In the end, I found a bag that would accommodate my needs and distribute weight evenly so that it wasn’t doing any damage. You might need to play around a little to see what works for you.

2. Comfort

When you’re hot desking, you’ll find that sometimes the chairs and tables aren’t ergonomically optimal. You might find that you have to crane your head down, reach up to the table, or deal with a chair that’s bending you in a way that you do not want to be bent. If that’s the case, then you need to learn how to adjust the settings on your chairs and tables to make them better for you. There are a lot of resources available online to help you there, or you can ask your boss (if they’re nice) to arrange for a trained professional to come in and show you how this is done. There are actually people who specialise in hot desk ergonomics.

I learned the hard way that staring down at a laptop screen for too long can literally put me in physiotherapy. I could get one of those laptop riser things, but they’re a bit bulky to carry around for everyday use, even for me. Plus, you  need to carry a keyboard and mouse as well as the riser. That’s just too much extra gear.

You’ll need to figure out the best way to avoid physical injury in your circumstances. I’ve gotten better at building in breaks so that I can move around. I’m also an excellent touch-typer, so I can type while looking around the room. My colleagues find it unsettling, but it’s great for my neck!

When I’m talking about comfort, I’m not just talking about avoiding injury. Make sure that you’ve got something to rest your wrists on or a pillow for your butt if you’re sitting too long on communal chairs with no cushioning. These things might seem unnecessary, but if you’re working for six to eight hours a day and your environment is designed for one-size-fits-all, then the little things can actually make a big difference.

3. Focus/alone time

As mentioned above, hot desks can make focus and deep work much harder. It might be that your colleagues talk to each other while they’re working (I do that), or they type too loudly and aggressively (this too), or eat too loudly (I probably do this, too). If that’s the case, then your productivity will be affected.

There are two ways to go about making space for yourself to work effectively in a hot desk environment. You can either block it out, or find yourself a nest.

When you block it out, you take steps to limit the amount of outside information that is coming through while you’re trying to work. Things like noise, visuals, etc. Anything that might draw your attention away from what you’re doing. I have noise-cancelling headphones that I wear as earmuffs (it’s still too cold in the Netherlands, and I have big ears!), but one of my colleagues often borrows them so that she can listen to music while she works. Big headphones are a fairly good way to indicate that you don’t want to be disturbed – they’re a big, fat, clear signal to all who are interested that you’re in the zone and would like to stay there. I have another colleague who uses earphones when she’s working on something but takes them off when she wouldn’t mind being disturbed. You can decide what level you’re comfortable with.

When you find yourself a nest, you take a desk that is blocked off from the others in some way. Maybe it’s in the corner, or surrounded by desktop monitors, or maybe it’s in a section of the office that is away from anyone else. We’ve got little meeting rooms dotted around our office that are usually occupied by people who want to get some deep work done and don’t want to be disturbed. These meeting rooms are subject to availability, but they’re a nice, cozy nest for those who need one. There might be places in your office that can be repurposed as work spaces if you’re creative enough and don’t mind getting side-eye from colleagues who didn’t think of it first. Just beware – your nest could be invaded if people learn how useful it is!



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