29 September 2015
3 min read
I had to ask. Between the roosters, the dogs, the clanging of rain on a copper roof and the broken Skype connection, I'd imagined someplace distant. And it was: Molly McCluskey was working from Bali, helping me and two other writers compile a detailed investigation into the collapse of futures and commodities trading firm MF Global.
That was the fall of 2011. Today, millions of workers with nothing more than a laptop and WiFi are working for multinational corporations from coffee shops and open coworking spaces where there's no assigned seating. "Hot desking," as it's known, is quickly becoming the Next Big Thing at work.
The difference between hot desking and coworking
Office designers like "hot desking" because it's cheaper to not assign office space but rather to have a space that contains resources and let workers take advantage of what they need when they need it. Fewer desks and more open space tends to lead to lower costs and more flexibility. Also: employees choose the space that works best for them to get the job done, which can lead to greater productivity.
Take this same concept and extend it over a shared space whereby multiple professionals from multiple companies commingle and you've found a coworking environment. You'll find them on most continents and in hundreds of cities. Deskmag estimates that 2.3 million freelancers will regularly use coworking spaces by 2018. WeWork, which rents desks in 50 locations, 16 cities and four countries, has raised over $1 billion in venture capital as I write this. Catering to nomadic workers has become big business.
Welcome to wherever you are
In June, a group gathered in Cape Town for the continent's first "Coworking Africa" conference. Uber and startup incubator TechStars were"silver sponsors" of the program, which brought together freelancers, small business owners and other interested parties together in hopes of creating more space for opportunistic workers. Long term, the organisation sees coworking and hot desking as crucial to growing local African economies.
"Coworking spaces offer connectivity solutions in local areas and a proper work infrastructure, for a more affordable price than traditional offices, especially in African cities where the cost of the real estate is unaffordable for a huge majority of the population," the group says in its marketing pitch.
Elsewhere, hot desking has become a way for companies to cut back on one of their biggest line item expenditures as real estate prices soar in Europe around the globe. In the UK, civil servants at Whitehall now "queue up" desks for each workday in order to save money. Critics say the design has thrown once-orderly administrative departments into chaos.
Whatever the fallout, there's at least logic to the timing. A recent report from real estate firm CBRE found that British commercial property rent values are growing faster now than they have in eight years. WeWork and other competing operators of coworking space are expanding in response, betting that small business owners would rather avoid taking on the expense of a permanent office space.
Time to lose the leash
With the potential to slash rent costs, offer flexible employee hours and even bring connectivity to areas in need, is hot desking here to stay? A lot depends on how willing companies are to let their workers choose their space and their hours. For McCluskey, who's spent part of each of the last four years working from distant parts of the world, the decision is a no-brainer.
“There is no reason anybody has to physically be in an office. I'm sorry, but your company softball team is not that important to camaraderie,”
Says McCluskey, this time speaking to me on Skype from a room in Cardiff.
What's needed, she says, are the right tools. Good business software. A strong WiFi signal. A quality laptop that travels well - such as one from the HP Elite Family - and a clean (and ideally, quiet) place to use it. No desk -- hot or otherwise -- required.