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Workers Resist Hot Desking By Placing Personal Items On Desks

Personal objects could be the key to workers resisting enforced changes to the occupation of workspaces, such as hot desking, research shows
Personal objects could be the key to workers resisting enforced changes to the occupation of workspaces, such as hot desking, research shows
  • Workers place personal items, like photographs, on their desks in order to resist a change to a flexible style of working
  • employees believed this is the most effective approach to show their dissatisfaction and halt the introduction of hot desking
  • Organisational management should see spatial changes as more complicated than mere geographical transitions

Ever thought of your personal workspace as political territory in the office? Well you would be forgiven for saying no, though, that may not make it any less true. It is easy over time to forget just how many personal effects – the plants, photographs, novelty mugs or non-standard stationary we have accumulated to make working in the office seem that bit more homely.

Recent years have encouraged workplaces to adopt policies which utilise working spaces to maximum effect by the removal of designated workspaces and the use of “hot desks” – a shared working space.

Covid similarly shook up the system as workplaces needed to be reimagined and used more wisely. This not only meant frequent sanitising of workspaces, but the prioritisation of desks for the people that needed them most, rather than people choosing where they wanted to work. Not to mention the repurposing of work spaces to encourage collaboration and brainstorming to make the most out of times when staff can be physically present.

While working from home suited some, it also caused problems and inequalities such as the burden of multitasking many women endured when attempting to balance professional and family responsibilities… often to the detriment of their work.

But, now on the other side of the pandemic, for those who choose to return to the office each day, the looming pill they may need to swallow remains; buying that additional bonsai tree should not mean we actually own a part of the office for good. 

A study from Emlyon business school shows though there is a growing shift in businesses to establish more dynamic workspaces the vision is not necessarily shared by employees.

The study concluded workers used their own methods to resist the change, and used personal objects to ensure they effectively still had their own specific workplaces despite it being a shared office.

David Courpasson, Professor of Sociology at emlyon business school, alongside colleagues from Universite Catholique de Louvain, wanted to understand how employees react to changes in their work environment, especially in the context of flexiwork and hot desking.

Professor Courpasson says: “These workplaces, alongside working from home, offer employees flexibility, freedom and autonomy, whilst also supposedly reducing existing hierarchical gaps between management and workers.

The advantages of having a flexi workplace seem demonstrably beneficial. Not only does the requirement of desks being left empty at the end of the day make for more effective cleaning post-covid, but regularly mixing up employees across the office floor might also encourage them to collaborate more effectively.

That being said, the researchers say it is also important to understand the psychology of why employees resist such change.

Professor Courpasson continues, “However, employees believe it rather dispossesses them of a personal space, which many believe makes the workplace identity-less and de-humanized”.

The researchers believe  we need to lend our attention to the concept of “objectionable resistance”. This is where people assign meaning to objects when they place them, in order to re-establish bodily presence at work – that is, from acts of objects embodiment and emplacement.

Professor Courpasson adds, “our research clearly shows employees utilise tactics to change this, with the main effective way being placing personal items on supposedly shared workplaces. This permits to identify the key role objects play in the resistance to workspace changes in organisations.”

Their research took place in a workplace that practises workplace emptying in its rules. Workplace emptying is defined as the separation of people from their belongings.

These rules of separation included;

  • Tidy office,
  • No customisation,
  • Keyboard/mouse stored in the locker,
  • One set of stationery material allowed by four offices, and
  • Clean (hygienic) workspace (do not eat at your desk).

Evidence was collected from interviews with employees and photographs of their workspaces which they submitted.

One worker said: “We have a laptop [. . .] but we have to dismantle it every evening to reassemble it every morning.

Another said: “​​My place is always covered with crumbs; it’s dirty [. . .] Nobody wants to sit at this desk. So, it’s always my place.”

It seems that hot desking, or flexi work, has the potential drawbacks of not being particularly efficient, cleaning aside, if time is then wasted by employees needing to set up hardware in the same, crumb-covered space each day anyway.

Perhaps the reason for this is, as they say, old habits die hard.

Another reason could be much simpler – employee happiness. With people on average spending more time at their desks each week than they do with their families it is not unreasonable for staff to want to feel comfortable and relaxed at work. And, after all, research has shown that a happy workforce is a more productive one.

It seems inevitable that the direction of business is likely to continue with a commitment to flexible workplaces and the potential merits such structures offer vindicate this. Encouraging more effective collaboration between colleagues by making the workspace seem less clique-y and hierarchical should be the aim – whether or not this means a few more desk plants taking up unnecessary space.

By, James Dugdale

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