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Practical workplace tech: Space utilization and going desk-free

What does it take to rethink how we use our desks—and the space dedicated to them—more efficiently? Learn how to start a desk-free movement in your office.

Matt Harris
By Matt Harris Head of Workplace Technology

Building a responsive workplace isn’t easy. With so many options available, it’s important to experiment and iterate with new tech to get it right. In our new blog series, Practical Workplace Tech, we’ll share some of the solutions we’ve developed at Envoy, what we’ve learned works (and doesn’t), and provide practical guidance to bring these solutions to life in your workplace.

In a previous post, I talked about going badge-free and using your phone to unlock the doors in your workplace. What about going desk-free? What does it take to rethink how we use our desks—and the space dedicated to them—more efficiently?

‘Hot desks’ are not a new concept. Many companies have started using this technique to share limited desk resources among a workforce that is more mobile than ever.

With VoIP phone apps like Dialpad or RingCentral, and a laptop with all the horsepower most employees would ever need, one desk starts to look a lot like any other. People just need a space to set their stuff, a way to plug in, and maybe an external monitor to maximize their productivity. But do they need that space strictly dedicated to them?

There are different terms for a similar concept:

  • ‘Hot desks’ usually refers to shared workstations that are available to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis— even ad-hoc booking.
  • ‘Desk hoteling’ typically refers to longer-term use of those shared desks, for an entire day or a week. Employees might be allowed to use any space in the office, or be limited to a certain group of shared workstations based on teams or physical area of the office.

It’s no wonder that workplace leaders are giving this a shot. For most companies, space is the second-highest cost after people. Thousands, or millions, of square feet of floor space, divvied up between workstations, meeting rooms, private offices, cafeterias. And once it’s built, for the most part, it’s fixed in place.

We try to find ways to maximize that space and the area devoted to personal workstations, which is usually a significant portion of the floor plan. Every company needs to be thinking about how they can use that space better.

How to know when it’s time to start using hot desks

To make this decision, you need to know when you’re going to run out of space in your current space configuration. Usually, this is driven by growing headcount, but perhaps you’ve also looked at your meeting room analytics with a system like Envoy Rooms and you want to allocate more space toward meeting rooms. Either way, you’re faced with a choice: do we need to move to a bigger space?

We looked at four key data points to inform this decision:

  • The number of desks we have in the space (or could fit if we added more). We worked closely with the workplace team on this.
  • The number of employees and contractors assigned to this location. For this, we partnered with our HR team to pull data from our HRIS system.
  • The company headcount forecast for the location, which helps estimate when we’ll hit capacity.
  • The maximum daily occupancy. We have Density occupancy sensors installed on our entry and exit doors, so we pulled the historical data here as well. You could also use data from your access control system or other sensor technologies.

Together, these four metrics show a clear picture of what’s happening. For one, we knew we would run out of desks to assign to new employees by March. But more important is the comparison trend with daily maximum occupancy: on average we have 20 fewer people in the space than are assigned desks there.

That means that at the very best moments of any day, we still have twenty empty, unused desks. We also learned that the occupancy trend as compared to headcount was diverging slightly, making the problem worse.

Armed with this information, our challenge was clear: we either needed to move to a new office or find ways to use our current space better.

How to implement a hot-desking program

Every company is different, so be sure to consider your company values and culture when you decide to move forward. Here’s how we did it:

1) Bring your employees along

Launching this program provided a great opportunity for employees to reflect on their own usage of the office. We sent a simple survey that asked two questions: how often they think they come to the office and how many hours per day they think they spend at their desk. Not only did this involve everyone in understanding the potential impact, but it also gave employees an easy way to see if they were right for the program.

2) Build excitement for the program

We believe in creating great experiences, so we developed a fun and creative campaign that coincided with the new calendar year: New Year, New Me, Desk Free! We created posters, tent cards, and imagery for company meetings. We made a fun video talking about why this was important and why people should join. Before long, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear people in the hallways saying, “are you going desk-free?”

3) Opt-in to begin

We asked for volunteers and started with a manageable goal: 12 Envoy employees. In the future, we may need to require teams or individuals to be desk-free, but starting with a volunteer program gave us the opportunity to learn from participants, iterate, and prepare for a larger group to join soon.

4) Communicate openly from the start

We share a value to communicate openly at Envoy and this is no exception. We created a Slack channel (#deskfree) where employees could ask questions or sign up. We sent out an FAQ to employees and managers, including suggestions of who is a good candidate to go desk free (spending less than 4 hours a day at your desk or less than 4 days a week at the office).

5) Set a start date—then iterate

Don’t expect the implementation on Day 1 to be the perfect fit. We chose a launch date but every week we try to add more, learn how the program is going, and adjust.

Elements of a successful hot desk program

It’s not as simple as telling people to give up their desks. You need to make sure every employee who joins the program has what they need to succeed.

Here are the elements that we found to be critical:

  • Provide consistent workspaces. Every hot desk has the same monitor, power block with laptop charging cable, and ergonomic chair.
  • Create additional flex work areas. We placed a number of shallow, bar-height tables and stools at some of the prime areas of the office in front of windows. These tables have monitors and charging blocks too, so they can replace the need for a full desk but consume less space. We added tall-backed privacy couches for additional working space and added retractable power cables from the ceiling for power in these areas.
  • Mark which spaces are shared. At Envoy, our unofficial mascot is the pineapple, the international sign of welcome. So we bought inexpensive pineapple LED lights online and placed one on each hot desk. It’s a clear indicator of which desks are available.
  • Offer safe places for employee belongings. We ordered lockers of various sizes with electronic locks that allow employees to set their own code. Additional cubbies and shelves throughout the office offer a place to put personal accessories, like coffee mugs, Envoy anniversary pin boards, and headphones.
  • A way to reserve space. We use SpaceIQ as our workplace information system, and it gives us a way to mark which desks are reservable, and an employee app that allows them to book a desk for up to a week.

What we’ve learned so far

From the beginning, we’ve treated this program as an experiment, using data and feedback to improve as we go. We even installed VergeSense foot traffic sensors above the flex spaces to see how often these new spaces were used. Each week, we try a different configuration of the furniture and measure how that impacts usage.

So far, results have been quite positive. Blair Mullally, on our Marketing team, told me “becoming #deskfree has allowed me to step outside of my box, find new workspaces in our office, and really evaluate where (and how) I work best. For me, the greatest benefit of this program has been Envoy allowing us to make mature decisions about what’s best for my work and my role at Envoy.” 

Flash Coughlin, our Head of Workplace, observed a major benefit in the increased interaction with people and teams across the company. “These interactions have given me the opportunity to ask more people about how to use our space and how it could better support them.”

It’s not for everyone though. Arvind Ramesh, Head of Data Ops, asked to stop participating in the program after realizing the importance of team proximity: “The idea of going desk free was alluring, but after a few weeks of trying it I realized it just wasn’t for me. The experience of physically being around my team was too much to give up. I realized the many small interactions with my team members throughout the day, both casual and professional, made coming to work both more fulfilling and productive.”

How do we plan to address this as we grow the program? Better distribution of hot desks throughout the workplace. We’ll be shifting our existing desks to fit a few more into the space, and at that time, we plan to reassign desks in such a way that each area has a consistent number of hot desks. This will allow more employees to be desk-free but still be near their teams when they do need a workstation.

Creating a more meaningful workplace for employees

I’ve heard workplace leaders approach the introduction of hot-desking with trepidation or fear about how employees will react. Employees worry that they’re losing personal space, that they’re losing daily comforts… and that their work might become harder as a result. It’s our job as workplace leaders to embrace these concerns with empathy and humanity. Change isn’t easy, but I think that rolling out a program like this, using our approach above, employees feel valued and heard as you tackle a new challenge together.

For all of the ire aimed at the open-plan office these days, it’s ironic to recall that the origins of the ‘office landscape’ concept were rooted in a focus on the individual and the creation of a more organic working environment.

I’ve found that hot-desking, flexible spaces, and other responsive workplace concepts help bring us closer to that original vision, where employees are empowered and entrusted to do their best work in the best environment possible. I hope that you’ll explore the ways that these concepts can help your company create a meaningful workplace for your team.

For more thoughts on creating a better workplace, read my article about setting up the ideal video conference room and check out this ebook compiling all of our workplace tech tips.

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Matt Harris
Author Bio Matt Harris