In July, Denise Delamore finally returned to working in her Colorado office after more than a year of working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. But her space was different. Delamore, who works as an assistant supervisor for a bank’s loan servicing department, no longer had her own personal desk.
Currently, Delamore goes into the office one day a week, with an expectation that this will increase over time. “My day is Mondays, and I’m sharing a desk with two other loan servicing departments who are in office Tuesdays and Wednesdays, respectively,” she said. “We have to reserve a desk ahead of time, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll have the same desk every time.”
Because other people use the desks, too, Delamore was given a small bin to store her keyboard, mouse and any other items she needs while working. But it doesn’t fit everything. She said she finds herself carrying more into work each day, as she still needs to bring home her planner and notes for the days she works remotely.
The personal touch is missing, too. Delamore used to be able to store granola bars, oatmeal, crackers and nuts in her desk for snacks, but now she carries a bag of any food she wants to eat that day.
“I definitely felt a connection to my workspace when I was able to leave personal items on it. It was my area. I felt grounded,” Delamore said. “Now I find it hard to focus. It could be me just getting used to working in the office again, but not having a dedicated, personal workspace makes it difficult.”
Why ‘hot desks’ are here to stay at work
Delamore is part of a growing office population using “hot desks” that aren’t assigned to any particular person. A hot desk is generally first reserved, first served. It’s not a new concept in the world of work, but the practice is gaining popularity now it’s less likely for employees to be in an office five days a week because of Covid. Many companies are moving to schedules with employees rotating in and out of the office part-time, much like the system instituted by Delamore’s employer.
Meena Krenek, an interior design director at Perkins&Will, an architecture firm that is redesigning offices in industries including accounting, tech and media, sees personal desks becoming more and more obsolete.
“Some of our clients are saying, ‘Areas where we had workstations, we want more meeting and collaborative spaces.’ We’re going in there and adjusting the furniture to… create more spaces so that our office becomes a space for collaboration, for socialising, and the individual time, what we call ‘me time,’ can get done in those home environments,” she said.
“They’re still keeping a lot of workstations, but they’re saying they’re not assigned. You go on a corporate app and you select where you sit, near a window or near the coffee machine,” she explained.
The mileage an employee gets from not being tied down to a single desk may ultimately depend on their preferred working arrangement. Citing research by Perkins&Will, Krenek described a set of co-workers who prefer to get their social and collaboration high at the office and “jump from meeting room to meeting room, and then they’ll leave the facility, whereas there are other people that need the time in between the meetings to collect their thoughts. They definitely need a focused area or a work station,” she said.
This can explain why one colleague may genuinely miss having a personal desk as their office home, while another might sound thrilled at never working in a dedicated desk pod again.
Daniel Space, a human resources consultant with business partners in strategic staffing, said that when a company uses hot desks, it’s ideal to tie the day a person comes into the office to a work reason and not a random scheduling system, such as assigning days by last name. He said he’s seen tensions eased when people are given a heads up about who is sharing their desk and the expectations for desk etiquette.
In one job, his co-workers would get copied on emails that read, “So-and-so is happy to share their desk with you. Please be respectful of their space, their stuff, treat it as though it would be your own,” he said.
Pro tip: If you do find yourself sharing a desk, remember to clean up after yourself. People who have used shared desks told HuffPost that the best etiquette is to leave a desk the way you found it, and not to take computer chargers or chairs off of unused desks without asking first.
“My desk became kind of a dumping ground while I was out of the office,” Delamore said. “Random keyboards, office supplies, etc were just piled on it. I spent two hours my first day in the office just cleaning.”
There are Covid-19 considerations, too
Of course, this is not a normal time for sharing desks. A hot desk may be a pragmatic solution when there are fewer employees entering an office everyday, but it can also be one more deterrent for those employees who are already unenthused about going into the office during a pandemic.
Space said he consulted with a company that gave employees the option of sharing socially distant desks, as long as employees were responsible for cleaning the desk and signing in and signing out for contact tracing purposes.
“Two people used it,” he said. Especially now, with the rise of the Delta variant of Covid-19, “The idea of not only bringing employees back to work, but mandating that they share a space with another employee on alternating days, it a little bit sends a signal that they are prioritising the idea of a budget and saving on real estate costs at the risk of their employees,” Space said.
Covid has already delayed some organisations’ plans for co-working. Twitter, which was asking employees to reserve a desk before they chose to come into an office, told HuffPost that it recently made the decision to close its opened offices in New York and San Francisco, and pause future office re-openings, in light of the CDC’s updated guidelines.
Is the loss of a personal desk always a loss of connection?
One potential advantage to a shared desk is that it may help to create some healthy professional distance between employees and employer.
“I always hated doing a termination with someone who had a bunch of stuff at their desk, because in many cases we would not allow them to return to the office,” Space said. “Having people pack up all of your boxes after you put in 10 years at a company, all of that feels gross. By removing all of that… it helps continuously reinforce that at the end of the day, it’s a business relationship.”
Even when you don’t have a desk to claim as your own small bit of office real estate, there can still be ways to connect with co-workers and make a space your own. Bk Kwakye, an operations manager for a D.C.-based nonprofit that has been using hot desks since before the pandemic, said their office uses cork boards on walls and communal fridges as spaces for people to share holiday cards and photos.
“For me, it feels like an opportunity to share a little bit of your family,” Kwakye said. Space knew of co-workers who left a crossword puzzle for their deskmate to complete, one word a day.
And even when you don’t have an assigned desk, you can still personalize it. Delamore said that one upside to sharing a desk is that she knows who her office deskmate is and she can leave notes behind for her.
A recent one she left: “Happy Tuesday Friend! 🙂 Denise.”
Even with a shared desk, there can be creative ways to make connections with co-workers you don’t see in person.