But is it doing more harm than good to learners?
Libby Sander is a lecturer and senior teaching fellow at Bond University’s Business School, located in Robina, Queensland.
Sander pointed to a recent survey of 400 multinational corporations which found that two-thirds plan to implement shared-desk workplaces by 2020.
“However, research shows these arrangements have a range of outcomes, many of which are negative,” she told L&D Professional.
And Australian workplaces should also take note.
A recent study of 1,000 Australian employees found that shared-desk environments have a number of problems. These included increased distrust, distractions, uncooperative behaviour and negative relationships.
Another study showed that shared-desk environments can lead to employee marginalisation, indifference and inattention to co-workers, loss of identity and decreased organisational commitment.
“These studies should sound a cautionary note against the uptake of shared-desk arrangements,” Sander said.
“Office spaces are changing rapidly thanks to remote work, technology and the need to innovate.”
But cost is also a big factor, she pointed out.
“Office space is typically the second-biggest cost for organisations. And some research suggests that up to 40% of office space is vacant at any one time,” Sander explained.
“The cost of offices is one of the drivers of shared-desk work arrangements, which fall into two categories: hot-desking and activity-based working. By using these arrangements, an employer can fit more workers into an existing space and more efficiently use the available space.”
Sander said that activity-based work, by contrast, assumes all employees work flexibly and will seek out a range of different spaces to undertake different tasks.
“As such, these workspaces provide a range of work settings for different types of activities such as meetings, collaboration, private work, creativity and concentration. Employees are expected to switch between these settings as necessary,” she said.
Proponents of activity-based work claim that cost is not a major driver of its uptake. Rather, companies have implemented it to attract and retain talent and increase collaboration and innovation, employee wellbeing and sustainability.
However, Sander says an abundance of research shows negative effects of shared-desk workplaces – and that these negatives potentially outweigh the benefits.
“Some studies have suggested that having a permanent desk may not be as important as the overall layout of the office, or the freedom to personalise that space,” she said.
“But employees without an assigned desk complain of desk shortages, difficulty finding colleagues and wasted time.”
Sander said that research on activity-based work has shown that it is likely to work best for employees who see themselves as mobile and independent, and who have largely self-contained work processes.
“However, the flipside of activity-based work is workers who have trouble finding privacy or concentrating. Further research shows that employees rarely, if ever, switch between different work settings,” she pointed out.
Sander said that activity-based work can also have an impact on the social dynamic in the workplace, creating tensions between those who come into the office and use certain spaces regularly, and those who don’t.
“Lastly, it can create additional work, as workers must find and set up a workspace, move between locations, and then remove everything at the end of the day,” she said.
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