In today’s ever-evolving office landscape, businesses are having to make important decisions about how to best create an environment that is productive, cost-effective, and accommodating to their team. 

Two of the most popular approaches for those with a hybrid workforce are hot-desking and activity-based working. When comparing hot desking vs activity-based working there is often a lot of confusion. 

Hot desking, which provides desk space on a first-come, first-served basis is a popular option due to its cost-efficiency and flexibility. Employees do not have a designated work area. Instead, this changes based on the day depending on what’s available when they show up.

Activity-based working, on the other hand, offers a more customized approach to individual, as well as collaborative needs. 

With activity-based working, you’ll find certain areas that are specifically set up around the requirements of various types of projects. Workers have autonomy and flexibility – moving between workstations based on what they feel makes the most sense throughout their shift. 

Read on to discover what all companies should consider when comparing basic hot desking vs. activity-based working.

 

What is activity-based working?

Activity-based working is just as much a way of designing an office layout as it is a way of working. 

activity based working

Activity-based working is a system created through a combination of design principles and empowered decision-making. It allows workers the freedom to choose how to work at any given time within the design.  

Activity-based working aims to enable the use of in-person office time to be as efficient as possible. Companies accomplish this by designing certain areas of the office to fit the needs of specific types of work tasks. 

They also focus on providing workstations that match their individual staff members’ various preferred work styles. Workers then select which area they feel will allow them to be the most productive at the moment and move around as needed throughout the day. 

With activity-based working, employees gain a solid although still flexible foundation. This system enables teams to get the most out of their in-person office days rather than showing up just for the sake of meeting attendance requirements (and at the expense of productivity). 

A Brief History of Activity-Based Working 

Activity-based working was originally defined as a term by a Dutch consultant named Erik Veldhoen back in 1994 as a part of his book, The Demise of the Office. However, the principle in and of itself has deeper roots going back to an American architect named Robert Luchetti. 

In the 1980s, while tinkering with ways to improve office design, Luchetti thought up the concept of “activity settings” and how the principle could allow different workplace environments to serve different activities. 

In 1996, Veldhoen worked to put Luchetti’s principles into action by helping a Dutch Insurance company called Interpolis redesign its offices. By applying Luchetti’s original concept of activity settings, Veldhoen successfully assisted Interpolis in maximizing its square footage, promoting workplace well-being, and productivity in their workplace. 

3 Pros of Activity-based Working

#1 It Naturally Works Well With a Hybrid Office Environment

As the “traditional”, fully in-person work environment grows more obsolete, many companies have started implementing activity-based working principles without even realizing it.

hybrid work model

How so?

They realize that workers want more flexibility and freedom, and to retain talent, find office solutions that not only cater to that but also make sense with a partially remote staff.

Activity-based working inherently prioritizes and aligns with much of what is becoming the norm in the workplace post-pandemic. Read more about how activity-based working can help in solving hybrid work challenges.

#2 Boosts Employee Satisfaction 

As this article by Tango Analytics points out, a 2020 study by Veldhoen + Company discovered that employee satisfaction rose by 17% (on average) when companies moved to activity-based working. Check out more interesting hybrid work stats here. 

#3 Boosts Employee Productivity

The same Veldhoen + Company study found that productivity on an individual level rose by 13%, and that group productivity rose by 8%. 

This makes sense, given how an activity-based work environment specifically aims to give workers access to finely tuned spaces that cater to various work needs.

3 Cons of Activity-based Working

#1 Humans are Creatures of Habit 

In theory, workers will take full advantage of the various spaces available to them. However, a subconscious drive toward familiarity sometimes takes over.

little boy with a finger in his nose

You may have some workers who routinely stick to certain spots even when there are other more “appropriate” places in the building for them to work on upcoming tasks. This may result in some areas being underutilized and others overcrowding. 

#2 Demands Ebb and Flow

This goes hand in hand with the topic above. Sometimes due to changes in work or project flow, you could find yourself having to restructure your space to avoid over-accommodation or underutilization.

For example, you may have a ton of need for brainstorming or collaborative space in the first half of the year that would be better utilized as “focus space” later in the year.

With the means to adjust your design, you may end up wasting space. 

#3 It Requires a lot of Forethought 

To squeeze activity-based working for all that it’s worth, as a facility manager, you’ll need clear insight not only into your staff’s day-to-day tasks but also into how they work – overall as a group and individually.

Without this information, you’ll struggle to make sure that your spaces can actually accommodate their intended purpose. 

What is Hot Desking

Hot desking is a system implemented in hybrid work environments as well as in coworking spaces. It serves as a way of allocating the available desk space to those who show up to work in person on any given day. Many managers shape their office design with hot desking in mind.

hot desking

Hot desking is often incorporated alongside other systems found in hybrid offices, such as activity-based working. It’s also sometimes used on its own without any additional systems in place. 

Companies that implement hot desking recognize that in a hybrid set-up, not every staff member wants a designated desk and that by letting staff rotate through desks on an as-needed basis, they free up room for other amenities. 

A Brief History of Hot Desking 

You may be surprised to learn that the term hot desking is derived from a phrase with origins in the US Navy – hot racking. 

Hot racking was used to describe the way that sailors slept in shifts to deal with space constraints. The bunks, reported to look like racks, were said to remain steadily warm due to being used in shifts. 

The concept of hot desking in the office first took root in 1993 when a Chicago-based IBM business unit utilized the practice. 

3 Pros of Hot Desking

#1 It’s More Cost Effective than Maintaining Desk Space for All Staff 

If you have a hybrid team, downsizing your office space could do your budget a favor. Cutting down on space utilization with flexible designs and tactics like hot desking can cut office costs by up to 40%.  

#2 It Promotes Inclusivity for Otherwise Fully Remote Workers 

While hybrid work environments have many advantages, there are some pitfalls. One of which is your company culture taking a hit as a result of remote staff not having the same opportunities to connect with their coworkers. 

remote work

While this will depend on the hybrid work policies developed by your company, some may find that offering hot-desking to otherwise remote staff enables them to truly feel like a part of the team. 

#3 It Nurtures Collaboration

In such a setup, where desk neighbors change daily, it’s easier for team members to communicate.

That boosts the company’s social culture and breeds creativity and in-person collaboration. However, to make it work flawlessly, you still need a viable hot desking policy

4 Cons of Hot Desking 

#1 It can feel “Cold” and Limiting

Employees often enjoy decorating their desks or leaving little trinkets around that allow them to bring their personalities into the office with them. Often that helps them cope with stress.

This can serve as an icebreaker that promotes staff bonding, contributes to overall company culture, and most importantly – reminds fellow employees that their peers are human, too. 

Hot desking requires that all desks remain blank slates, which means that you’ll have to work harder to keep your environment from feeling uninviting. 

#2 It Inhibits Planning 

Hot desking doesn’t allow workers to book workspaces in advance. For this reason, many companies reserve some seating for hot desking and keep the rest for desk hoteling, which offers the benefits of hot desking while also allowing for some predictability. 

planning

This approach creates space for last-minute drop-ins while also allowing employees a bit more control over where they end up. 

#3 More Time Spent Cleaning

Since hot desking involves a high turnover of people coming and going from individual workspaces, there’s a need to spend more time on sanitation. With fixed workspaces, employees typically tend to their own desk areas. 

However, with hot desking, you’ll need systems in place to ensure that things are ready for the next worker. Plus, you’ll need the right hot desking accessories some of which will help you maintain proper hot desking hygiene.

#4 Disrupted Hierarchy 

These days, we are generally seeing a more relaxed approach across the board. However, in some industries and in certain companies, maintaining clear hierarchical structures remains an important part of the workflow. 

hierarchy

Without the tell-tale indicators of one worker being in a position of higher authority – such as a private office, it may be more challenging to uphold these types of boundaries. 

You can check our article on the full pros and cons of hot desking to learn more or check our article on free desk booking software to see how such a tool helps in organizing flexible seating.

Hot desking vs Activity-based working

It’s not necessarily that activity-based working is different from hot desking.

corporate office

Rather, activity-based working is a strategic, expanded system that adds to a basic hot desking set-up. Activity-based working often implements hot desking (although we prefer desk hoteling) as a part of organizational efforts.

Hot desking offers flexibility, lower space requirements, room for remote staff to participate when desired, and a relatively simple set-up process. By the way, if you’re just setting up your space following an office renovation or move, check out this office move checklist.

Hot desking doesn’t offer additional design measures for improving workflow or focus specifically on offering multiple workstation options for various task types. 

Activity-based working offers flexibility, multiple types of workspaces within the office, the freedom to move between workspaces throughout the day, and the capacity to operate alongside hot desking or desk hoteling. 

Activity-based working doesn’t offer a “plug and play” setup process.

Implementing Activity-Based Working

To be successful with this work style, you’ll need to take a broad yet detailed approach to your planning. As we’ve mentioned, this system takes considerably more forethought and financial investment when compared to hot desking.

In addition to the overall office layout you’ll need to think about:

  • How you’re going to gain all of the data needed to make informed design decisions. You’ll need to not only observe but send out surveys to determine how your team functions best. While one company might need more focus areas, another might need to prioritize collaborative work areas in their design. If you cut corners with data, you’ll struggle to make the most out of your space and hinder productivity.
  • Obtaining organizational software and technology that will match the functions of your workstations. Workers will need to know what’s available and when as they move around to various areas, and they’ll also need access to amenities that support the task at hand. Without the right tools, you’re just designating various spaces throughout the office for random things without any rhyme or reason. 
  • Sensory experience matters and the little finishing touches of your design may promote or hinder the functionality of a particular area. Are your collaborative areas comfortable, or are they just slapped together with random uncomfortable furniture? If so, you run the risk of employees congregating in inappropriate areas to chat about ideas rather than the designated spaces, wasting square footage and potentially distracting other workers. 
  • Iterative learning – what’s working and what’s not. You’ll have to have systems for feedback in place so that you’re able to catch any flaws in the design that negatively impact the workflow early on. That said, it’s not always about a design flaw, sometimes the need for change boils down to your employees, their preferences, and their quirks.

Last but not least, to maximize the benefits of activity-based working, you need software that entices employees to collaborate.

OfficeRnD Hybrid offers an intuitive collaborative scheduling feature that allows workers to:

  • See who’s in the office on any given day
  • See which desk that person occupies (visible on a beautiful floor map)
  • Invite team members to join you in the office and have a collaboration blast (collaboration is proven to boost business revenue)
  • Select up to 15 colleagues and add them to your “Favourites list” and have visibility over their office attendance

Check out the video below to see this extremely useful feature in action.

Implementing Hot Desking

Hot desking vs. activity-based working is inherently more simple to set up. To set up hot desking, you won’t have to think as much about various types of workstations and their individual functions. 

corporate desk

However, that’s not to say that amenities and collaborative spaces aren’t still important.

Companies that use hot desking without activity-based working often still have meeting rooms, places to troubleshoot projects with the team, and areas for lounging despite not directly focusing on “activity type” needs during the office design process. 

At the end of the day, it’s about providing a basic system for efficient seating. With hot desking, staff members can get down to business much in the same way they would at the previous office, but with the added flexibility of a hybrid setting. 

You’ll need: 

  • Basic data surrounding how often your team members are showing up to the office vs. working from home. This is important for determining how much seating to provide for hot desking when you first start out.
  • Software for keeping track of available seating (a.k.a desk booking system) – workers will need a way to check in and check out of a desk. With people coming and going, and staff getting used to downsizing, it’s important to consider using workspace coordination tools and allowing meeting areas to be reserved. This prevents two different departments from showing up to use the meeting space at the same time, etc. Check out OfficeRnD Hybrid’s free meeting room booking app.
  • It’s helpful if the hot desking software that you use offers analytics pertaining to desk utilization and worker behavior/patterns. This can show you how your space is being used – providing insights that may clue you in about needing more or less space. 

OfficeRnD Hybrid offers a stunning hot desking management solution that combines all these features and more, making organizing your hybrid office space a breeze. Check it out!

And here’s a great resource on how to implement hot desking in the office.

And here’s how you can also make desk bookings in Microsoft Teams.

Which Approach Best Suits Your Office?

Both hot-desking and activity-based working are popular approaches to hybrid working. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are both going to work well for your company. As we saw above, both systems have pros and cons.

With that said, many agree that activity-based working is winning the hearts of the corporate world. Individual “one-to-one” desk seating seems to be on its way out in favor of systems that incorporate office neighborhoods. 

With traditional hot desking on its own, a team member may be able to secure a desk for the day or a designated meeting area to collaborate with others on their project. 

However, with office neighborhoods, rather than being assigned a desk, an individual is assigned to an entire designated area of the office with multiple seating options and suitable resources.

LinkedIn’s new office is an excellent example of what activity-based working can look like:

Workers enjoy activity-based working. In fact, 88% of highly engaged employees have the option to choose where in the office they work based on the specific task they need to do.

That said, it isn’t always appropriate.

There are some instances where a basic hot desking set-up may make more sense for a company than activity-based working and vice versa. 

Basic Hot desking might be for you if:

  • You’re a smaller company or start-up
  • You’re working with a limited budget
  • You have a primarily remote staff or a very relaxed attendance policy 
  • If any of these scenarios apply, the benefits of activity-based working may not be as pronounced. It may be best to start with a basic hot desking or desk hoteling set-up and adjust as needed. 

Activity-based working might be for you if: 

  • You’re a medium to large company
  • You require hybrid workers to spend multiple days in the office each week
  • You have the budget to create truly designated, activity-specific areas throughout the office. 
  • If any of the above apply, activity-based working could prove to be worth the time and monetary investment. 

In both cases, consider investing in office ergonomics to boost your employees’ physical comfort.

FAQ

What are the disadvantages of hot desking?

Some of the disadvantages of hot desking include limitations on staff planning ahead, potential struggles with cleanliness due to high turnover, and difficulty in maintaining the boundaries traditionally associated with hierarchy and seniority in the office.  

What is the opposite of hot desking?

The opposite of hot desking would be to have a permanently assigned desk at an office that is only used by one employee. 

Is hot desking or activity-based working more appropriate for my organization?

Hot desking and activity-based working are often used in tandem. However, adding activity-based working to basic hot desking involves more planning and often requires a bigger budget. If you are a smaller company or consist of primarily remote workers, basic hot desking or desk hoteling (check out this office hoteling policy guide) may be a more appropriate choice. If you are a larger company with in-person attendance requirements, activity-based working may provide significant benefits when used alongside hot desking or desk hoteling

What is the difference between hot desking and desk sharing?

The difference between hot desking and desk sharing is that with hot desking, the workspace is continuously rotated. All of the desks are shared amongst all of the staff on a first come first serve basis. With hot desking, you don’t share with any specific coworker and all personal belongings must be removed when you’re finished for the day. Check out this resource on sharing a desk in a hybrid office.

What is the difference between office hoteling and hot desking?

The difference between office hoteling and hot desking is that hoteling allows more room for planning. With hoteling, workers can reserve a workspace in advance rather than showing up and only being able to choose from what is currently available. 

Asen Stoyanchev
Senior Content Marketing & SEO Specialist | OfficeRnD
Asen is passionate about flexible working and the future of work. He firmly believes that work flexibility directly impacts one's health and well-being. When he's not writing, Asen spends his time devouring business literature, hiking, and parenting.