Flexible Working and Hotdesking: pros and cons

Many companies are now planning to move towards flexible working practices, where staff are encouraged to hotdesk while in the office and to work from home several days each week to make that possible. Managers believe that the cost of moving to flexible working will easily be met by the money saved or generated by freeing up valuable square metres of office space.

To allow workers to operate flexibly, they need to be provided with laptops, and there may need to be a rota or desk-booking system in place to determine who sits where once the office has fewer desks. This process can cost a company a large amount of money to begin with, and there are ongoing costs.

Whether or not the numbers add up from a company's point of view, I can only guess. But having worked in a company that has made the move to flexible working, I do have a fairly good knowledge of its good and bad points, seen from the view of a typical office worker.

Good things about flexible working

Work at home

Working at home has several advantages. You don't have to commute into town, so you can wake up later. You don't have to wear a smart outfit. You can listen to music while you work. For that matter, you can have a TV on in the background and your colleagues will be none the wiser, so long as your quality of work doesn't suffer. (I don't recommend this, though. TV-while-you-work is either a waste of energy, or a distraction.)

Homeworking a couple of days a week ought to be a very refreshing break from trains, buses, crowds, canteens and irksome colleagues. You might even find it easier to do your job in the peace of your own home, so long as you make sure that your housemates or family know that you are at work, and not available to them except in emergencies.

Work on the move

Once you're provided with a laptop, you don't need to be at home or at the office to complete your daily tasks. You can begin work while on the train (especially handy if you're paid by the hour), though note that you will require a mobile internet contract if you need to be connected to your company's email and network to do your job. Once you're in the office, laptops can make meetings better informed and organised, as you can have your spreadsheets and emails available right in front of you.

Choose your hours

With people coming and going to suit their work style, you're much more likely to be able to choose hours that suit you. Once your employers have decided that you can work where you like so long as the work gets done, they're much more likely to agree that you can work whatever hours you like so long as the work gets done. Bear in mind that this flexibility will be restricted if your role involves meeting clients or receiving phone calls.

Move away from the clutter

Once your office reduces the number of desks available, most staff are left without a desk that they can call their own, and have to take whatever is available as they arrive. This is called hotdesking. Hotdesking forces you to clear your desk once you're finished with it, to leave it tidy for whoever uses it next, which means that you have to file away unwanted paper into recyle and confidential waste bins. So you never end up inhabiting a castle made of outdated documents.

Bad things about flexible working

Domestic costs

If your company is saving itself money by reducing its office space, and asking staff to work at home a couple of days every week, don't forget that you're now going to incur some of the costs the company is saving. For instance, you'll suddenly have to heat at least one room of your house in winter while you're working at home. And pay the extra cost for electricity to keep the room lit and the computer running. Check whether your company is going to compensate you for these costs, as they add up over time.

Something else you need to think about is home insurance. Your insurance policy may have terms which state that the property cannot be used for business purposes, and any claims you make may be deemed invalid if your insurer finds out you are working out of your home. You also need to ask who is responsible for work equipment while it is in your home. If it is damaged or stolen, will your company expect you to pay for replacements?

You may also be legally required to pay business rates on part of your property if you work from home, depending on factors such as the extent and frequency of non-domestic use. Make sure your company is able to offer good advice about this.

Inflexible travel costs

If you use public transport to travel to your office, you may find that you can only buy season tickets that cover a fixed period of time (a week, month or year) rather than a fixed amount of actual usage. This is fine while you're travelling to the office five days a week, but less than ideal if you change to working from home two or three days a week. Then you have the choice of either buying a weekly or monthly ticket which will go unused a lot of the time, or queueing up to buy a one-day pass every day you do travel.

Nowhere to sit

Back in the office, managers have to be strong leaders to make hotdesking succeed. If the number of desks is badly calculated, or if some staff members aren't made to work from home on the required number of days each week, there will often be too few desks to go around. This means that people will end up with unsuitable workspaces, and they may be left standing in the worst cases.

Turning up to work to find that you're left without a mouse, keyboard and/or monitor to work at is enough to put anyone in a very bad mood, especially when it becomes a regular occurrence. If a company moves to flexible working, then every team in the company must be trained and required to implement hotdesking properly, otherwise morale will suffer.

A new desk every day

Because hotdesking means you no longer have a desk of your own, you turn up each day and take whichever desk is available, unless you get in very early every day or are using a desk-booking system to reserve the same desk every time.

Having a different desk, and perhaps different chair, every day has a couple of disadvantages. Firstly, you need to adjust the desk and chair to suit you. Set the height of the desk, move the monitor to where you prefer it, adjust the height and angle of the monior, move the keyboard and mouse and untangle the cables, and then adjust the chair similarly. In practice, this only takes a minute or so.

Worse is finding that the person who had the desk yesterday was using it for a banquet. Crumbs, grease, blobs of congealed fat or syrup or unknown substances dotted around the desk, and unidentifiable stains on the chair. All make the experience less than appealing.

Hotdesking and working at home regularly have another effect: people never know where to find you. This leads to visitors wandering around the office asking for you and getting mixed answers. Unless they bump into your close colleagues, they're unlikely to find out how to get hold of you. Make sure that your details in the company address book are updated regularly with all of the contact numbers that are needed to get hold of you. Managers need to enforce this practice for their staff.

Communication is reduced

Once staff are working flexibly, at home and at different desks, they need to be provided with a mobile telephony solution, because they can no longer rely on one simple desk phone. The chosen solution is likely to be a mobile phone, but it could instead be a special number for each member of staff, which can be redirected to whichever phone suits them every time they change location. Some people will not be pleased to be told that they must spend all day on cellular phones, as the science behind long-term exposure to mobile phones is not exactly conclusive.

A teleconferencing solution is needed to make meetings work. If a large number of workers are all required at a certain meeting, they can't all be expected to travel in just for that meeting, especially seeing as that would very likely leave them without enough desks. So to make meetings possible, advanced teleconferencing is needed. A telephony solution would be needed to allow multiple callers to join a teleconference simultaneously. With a large company, this situation may occur in several teams at once.

Whichever mobile telephony solutions are used, it's hard to deny that being at different sites changes the level of communication between staff. Being face to face, staff can take time to talk over problems, and come up with solutions. Phone conversations and email threads lack the same level of comfort, reducing conversations to hurried or terse exchanges.

The docking station problem

To make flexible working possible, staff need laptops that allow them to hotdesk and work from home. To work at a desk, a suitable laptop docking station is handy, making it quick and convenient to connect and disconnect the laptop to and from the monitor, keyboard, mouse, network, power and speaker cables.

Unfortunately, it is currently the case that each model of laptop, or at least each series relaese, requires its own model of docking station. This means that if a team has different models of laptop, there's a good chance that they'll be unable to use the docking station on some of the desks because of incompatibility. So they end up having to plug and unplug all of the cables anyway. In the end it makes more sense to get rid of docking stations altogether.

While there are universal docking stations that work with any model of laptop, I've not been able to find one that performs without problems. Until companies put pressure on hardware manufacturers to create a standard docking station interface, this problem will be a nuisance for hotdesking.

New technology

To be able to work from home, staff will need a laptop, and they'll also need a broadband internet connection. On top of this, they'll almost certainly be expected to use a VPN connection to connect to the corporate network securely. While these concepts are well known to people who work in technical roles, others may find them hard to grasp at first, and training may be needed.

When you're working at home, you may find that it's harder to get technical support for your computing problems. On top of this, you may find that you're passed back and forth between your own company, your company's technical support contractor, and your broadband supplier, with no one willing to take final responsibility for fixing the problem you have. This can leave you without the ability to work at home for hours, days or, in the case of broadband issues, weeks.

Health & Safety

Laptops are not heavy items, but they still produce more weight than some people will be happy to carry on their shoulders and back when they travel to and from work. Most people will be able to get around this problem by using wheeled baggage, but people with chronic muscular or joint problems may be unable to manage even this. Make sure to discuss health problems with your manager before plans for a move to flexible working are finalised.

Also, staff cannot be expected to work at home on a laptop for long hours using only the laptop's built-in keyboard, display panel and touchpad. To avoid problems with posture and RSI, home workers need to be supplied with a proper keyboard, mouse and laptop riser in the least, and ideally a proper flatscreen monitor too. If a move to flexible working is done on a budget, these items may not be provided.

Domestic prison

If you only work from home one or two days a week, you'll probably enjoy the break from the office. But if you find yourself working from home for most of the week, every week, you may begin to perceive your home office as an extension of your place of employment. This can lead to the feeling that you never really escape your job, which can mean that you never get out of a work frame of mind. I strongly recommend that you don't have your work computer in your bedroom, otherwise it's always there staring at you while you try to get to sleep.

Another problem with always being at home is that you can end up isolated. Unless you have a wild social life outside of work, you may find that you miss being in the office with your colleagues.


A lot of people believe that if you're not in the office under the scrutiny of your colleagues and your managers, then you're not going to be doing any work. No matter how hard you actually work while out of the office, if you miss a phone call or can't reply to an email immediately, you'll worry that your team is muttering about you slacking. What's worse is that there's a very good chance that some of your colleagues will be thinking like this. It's very easy to blame the people who aren't able to defend themselves.


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