Not desking is the horrendous new hot-desking hell that awaits us all

Billy Clark

There used to be an old rule of thumb with business: the costs of running a company were 90 per cent wages, nine per cent rent and one per cent bills (electricity, phone, heating and so on). Of course, if your firm had a razzle-dazzle location then the cost of accommodating you, your sushi chef and your sleep pod could be more ⁠– sometimes up to a fifth of total costs ⁠– but let’s use nine per cent as our guide.
Right now, that nine per cent is wandering around with a bullseye on its head, and it is young workers who will pay the toll. Workspaces have already halved in size in the last two decades; now, finding somewhere to work is about to become like spotting a kombucha bar in the Kalahari Desert. Welcome to Not Desking.

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As economists bicker over whether the coronavirus recovery will be U-shaped or V-shaped, it’s beyond dispute that we’re about to go into a serious slowdown. The tragedy about these fiscal craters is that it’s generally those who have least to lose who pay the heaviest price. Students who graduate in recessions start work on around ten per cent less pay, generally begin work at lower paying firms, and only catch up half of the wage gap by skittering between jobs. In this recession, another impact on new starters is going to be the arrival of a new, liminal way of working, halfway between working from home and having a desk.
One of the first guidelines that the UK government proposed in its plans for people to return to work was the reduction of shared equipment and shared spaces. It was nominally the death knell for the hotdesk – but don’t believe a word of it.
According to the new rules, colleagues should be discouraged from perching at each others’ desks because of the risk of coronavirus transmission. Pre-virus hotdesking had been surging in popularity with firms over the last few years, the trend of coworking giving it cover to break into more big companies. Styled as “agile working”, hotdesking was allowing firms to disguise cost-saving as innovation. But beneath this glossy veneer, the fundamental truth is that there won’t be enough space to go around.
In the straitened financial climate at the moment, every finance wizard in the land is full systems go on moving to this new world, and if it means that people need to go home to work rather than share desks then so be it. As advertising supremo Sir Martin Sorrell told the Financial Times in April, “I spend around £35m on property in a year. I’d much rather invest that in people than expensive offices.”

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What the lockdown taught us, however, is that there’s a twin track to working from home. If you’re lucky enough to own a property with a spare room or home office, then homeworking looks richly agreeable. But with property prices in big cities coming at such a high multiple of the salaries of people in their 20s and 30s, the luxuries of homeworking are not evenly distributed. For many, working from home means flitting from the sofa to the kitchen table or the bed. As firms move to a new norm of having insufficient workspace, workers will be invited to enjoy the new freedom to work from home when they don’t have important meetings at the office.
The dream of true remote working is that our location becomes irrelevant – on a Google Hangout from the Highlands or bossing a Skype call from Scarborough. But that’s not what is being offered here. Britain’s addiction to cities will expect that workers will make their way to the office for marquee meetings, but to fend for themselves when there’s nothing on the calendar.
At a time when many companies barely offer any on-the-job training, and development previously came from overhearing fragments of the office veterans’ chit-chat at their desks, we’re now also likely to see the elimination of this learning. Thank you coronavirus, you helped us crack it. With the advent of Not Desking, you may have finally found a way to make office culture worse.
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