Yesterday’s Great Workplace Experiment Finds its Footing

Cloud-based technologies have made hoteling an attractive option for both large employers and freelancers.

Courtesy Georgie Wood

You have a 4:30 p.m. reservation for five. No, it’s not for a late lunch with friends at a hip new eatery but rather a conference room at your office. This is known as “hoteling,” and it’s currently gaining traction within workplace design.

The office hoteling concept is one where companies provide workspaces to employees on an as-needed basis. While the concept isn’t new, it’s becoming increasingly popular as more workforces go virtual and companies try to save on real estate. In fact, about one in three offices currently have a hoteling program in place while another third plan to add it into their business mix.

“The recession brought renewed attention to anything that influenced the bottom line,” says Kate Lister, president of San Diego-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. “Leading companies realized it was better to cut the fat (bloated office buildings) and not the lean (people).

Hoteling began as an experiment in 1994 when advertising firm Chiat/Day (now TBWA/Chiat/Day) tried assigning desks and computers to employees only when they were in the office. The expectation was that staff would willingly choose to work elsewhere thus eliminating the need for most furniture. But, the experiment failed miserably.

Technology is a huge enabler of mobility and we just weren’t there yet in 1994,” according to Lister. “Today, there are sophisticated systems that make this kind of arrangement work seamlessly”—systems that are spread out over smartphones, countless apps, and cloud-based services like Dropbox.

Known by several names—hot-desking, desk-sharing, or agile working—the basic premise of hoteling includes creating a reservation system that allows for anticipating and meeting the demand for workspaces. Furniture and rooms are shared, but employees often retain their own telephone line and accompanying voicemail box. It’s also common for employers to provide lockers for staff to store personal work-related items. This style of work is not one-size-fits-all, but more so suited to workers and workplaces that fall into specific categories.

“In general, younger employees are more amenable to hoteling because they grew up with technology, as are sales organizations, because they’re always on the move,” Lister says. “But the best companies suited to hoteling are those that have a high culture of trust—ones that manage people by what they do and not how much time they spend at their desk.”

Considering workstations and private offices are left unoccupied about three-fourths of the time, it would appear that hoteling will continue to grow well into the future.

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