The importance of a “clear your desk each night” policy in hot-desking

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There are many benefits of hot-desking for firms – allowing better utilization of desk space, especially in situations where work from home is common. However, succeeding requires employees to follow some basic etiquettes of hot-desking – one of the most important being clearing the desk at night. This article explores the importance of this policy.  

Why you may need a "clear your desk" policy

Space requirements

One of the first reasons that you may need a clear your desk policy is that otherwise, you may not have sufficient desks to go around. If some people block out their desk – reserving it across days that they are in and times that they are not – your space requirements increase. Rather than gaining the advantages of better space utilization from shared desks, you move closers to needing one desk per person – very similar to reserved desks. 

Tidiness of the office, and ease of cleaning the space

Another reason for having a clear your desk policy is that it helps maintain the tidiness of the office. If everyone has a private desk it doesn’t matter so much if some people are messy – their mess is confined within their office. On the other hand, when you have an open office space, the mess starts to impact others. Enforcing that everyone clears their desk at night helps confine this mess, helping ensure that it doesn’t impact others, while also making it easier for cleaning the office space at night. 

Avoiding employees 'claiming' the desks

A clear your desk policy also helps avoid staking out of the desks – individuals claiming that desk as their own, potentially putting up photos to make it clear not to use their space. Once a desk has been ‘claimed’ it can be difficult to break the cycle – potentially leading to resentment should an employee take someone’s claimed desk. Having an upfront policy can help avoid this situation. 

Ways of communicating and setting expectations regarding a clear your desk policy

Upfront communications: Setting expectations

One important component of achieving the goal of individuals cleaning their desks each night is to make sure this policy is communicated ahead of time. It is a lot easier to get a culture established around cleaning desks at night than it is to break a pattern of behaviors once employees have got into the habit of leaving their items out. This is a good opportunity also to explain the reasons for needing the policy – that it helps ensure a tidy office where everyone has a desk available to them. 

Reminders of the policy

Another approach to achieving the practice is reminding employees of the requirements for clearing each desk with visual signs explaining the policy. It is a lot harder to ignore if there are signs out indicating the need to clear your desk. 

Follow-up emails: Enforcing the policy

Inevitably there will be some employees who do break the policy. Following up with these employees is important to help ensure that the policy does not gradually fade, as more and more employees look at the non-enforcement to justify them leaving their things out also. 

Reasons employees may leave things out

While there are clear advantages of enforcing clearing your desk at night, there are also reasons why employees like leaving their things out. It can be useful to be aware of these reasons to help mitigate the underlying problems or pre-empt the issues in your communications.

Nowhere to store items

One possible complaint with hot-desking is that little consideration is given for where employees should store their personal and work items. While employees with a permanent desk can leave items out and have storage in their office, hot-desking employees potentially don’t have access to storage, while also being told not to leave anything out. This can create difficult dilemmas for employees, who may also be expected to conform to policies preventing them from taking work material home. This can be a genuine problem for employees and is important to recognize and address it – simply emphasizing the need to clear desks without sorting the underlying issue is unlikely to ‘solve’ the storage issue – rather just divert it to a different problem.

Instead of having employees ignoring the policy of not clearing their desks, you may have employees opt to ignore the policy of not taking work home because this is the only ‘solution’ that they can find to the pressures that they are facing. 

Time required to clear the desk, only to set it up again the next morning

A potential employee frustration with hot-desking is the time required to pack and unpack material each day. This is understandable, however does have the benefit that it enforces employees to keep themselves organized. While some employees’ permanent desks have stacks of papers, the majority of which are areas that they are not actively working on that day (potentially distracting from the task at hand), hot-desking enforces that the desks are cleared of extraneous material each night. Thus while there is time involved in clearing and re-setting up a desk, there is likely to be some benefits in productivity associated with not having a culminating pile of old material building on the desks – reducing productivity. 

Routine of knowing where you will be working from

A final reason employees may give for leaving items out – although one that fundamentally undercuts the hot-desking approach – is that they like having the routine of knowing where they will be working each day. In effect, they are intentionally staking their desk out – a more challenging reason to address – since it gets at the heart of hot-desking. For such situations, highlighting some analogous situations discussed below may be a way of illustrating the importance of actually going along with the hot-desking policy. 

Final thoughts: Analogous situations

It can be useful to consider hot-desking relative to two analogous situations – desks in libraries and deck-chairs on a hotel pool. In both situations, reserving of desks and deck chairs can have negative consequences overall, and are generally viewed as being non-considerate behaviors. 

Library: The example of libraries preventing individuals from ‘reserving’ desks by leaving items out illustrates the communal problem associated with staking a claim on a desk. It becomes quite clear that given the number of people that libraries serve, if even a small fraction of people stake a claim to a desk, then everyone else is worse off. 

Beach towels to reserve deck chairs: Another example, illustrating how everyone is worse off if a few people reserve seats is deck chairs. It can be incredibly frustrating if on holiday to struggle to get a deck chair around the pool, simply because the majority of chairs have been reserved by others that are not using them. It also shows how the process can quickly spiral – if you think that there won’t be sufficient chairs available (i.e., because others have reserved them), it can bread a tendency to make sure that you reserve your own.