Hotelling: Its Baaaack!

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It started with Jay Chiat who had a vision: "Take away employees' cubicles and desks, equip them all with portable phones and Powerbooks, and turn them into wandering nomads who could perform their tasks wherever they liked." He hired Frank Gehry to design the building. It died a squalid death in 1998 when the firm abandoned the building and the idea and moved back into cubicles.

But times change, technologies improved, and now hotelling- also called hot-desking- is back- where employees don't have fixed desks or offices but work on the road, at home or in groups supported by the equipment they need. It saves a lot of space and it could save a lot of energy.


It actually started even before Chiat; George Nelson proposed the Action Office, where different furniture served different functions, in the early sixties. The problem was the wired phone, that is what tied everyone down. Now, with cellphones, blackberries and ubiquitous high speed internet, everything has changed, and as was predicted in the Harvard Business Review in 1985, Your office is where you are.


The office systems have evolved to make it a lot more comfortable.

Alexandra Shimo of The Globe and Mail notes that IBM Canada is currently switching to the hotelling model for all of its 19,000 Canadian employees. At the moment, 40 per cent of its work force is mobile, while the rest have set desks. The company is implementing the change to "capitalize on their office real estate" says Jim Brodie, program manager for IBM's national mobility program. Many IBM employees already work from home and communicate with their bosses virtually, so they don't need a permanent desk, he adds. Unlike some other firms, IBM allows its "hoteliers" to work from home. "This is a cultural change for IBM," Mr. Brodie says. "A place where you are settled is going out the window."

She suggests that "hotelling is becoming more common across a number of different sectors, including in call centres, real-estate firms, consulting and technology companies.

Some employees don't mind the loss of structure. Lindsay Freeman, a KPMG senior accountant, says she enjoys the sense of transience. Since hoteliers have to clean their desks at the end of each workday, she finds it makes her more organized."

It is also very green- few people commuting, less space being built, heated and cooled. Welcome back, hot-desk; all is forgiven.


It doesn't have to be like this.