Staffing Management

Office ‘Hoteling’: Some Companies Offer Reservations, but Some Workers Have Reservations

By Amy Whyte

Feb. 3, 2015

DILBERT © 1995 Scott Adams. Used by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

“We’re taking away your individual cubicles,” Dilbert’s boss explains in a 1995 edition of the workplace comic. “In the new system, you’ll sign up for whatever cube is open that day.”

The cartoon was mocking office “hoteling,” a practice that allows employees to reserve workspace on a need-to-use basis. But though Scott Adams made fun of the concept in 1995, in 2015 hoteling is increasingly being adopted as a method of cutting costs and improving collaboration among workers.

Typically employed by consultancies and other firms whose employees often travel or work from remote locations, hoteling enables companies to drop the square footage of their office space without shrinking their workforce: Instead of each employee being allotted a desk, workspace is shared among staff, cutting down on real estate requirements.

“You’ve got reduced costs of real estate per employee, so you’re able to make more efficient use of your space,” said Ben Johnston, the marketing director for RMG Networks.

RMG Networks, a communications technology provider based in Dallas, offers software that can be used to streamline the hoteling process by making it easy for employees to check in and reserve rooms. Johnston said having some form of digital reservation system is key to making hoteling work.

“At the minimum, most companies that are employing hoteling will have some sort of reservation system, whether that’s Microsoft Outlook or other systems like that,” Johnston said. “In a lot of cases it’s from an interactive touch screen in the foyer or the reception area where employees can come in and swipe a badge or scan an ID to check into the system, see what’s available, reserve the room and get to work.”

Though hoteling has been around for some time — Crain’s Chicago Business reported on IBM’s switch to a desk reservation system in 1994 — the trend has recently picked up steam. “Big Four” accounting firms Deloitte and EY, formerly Ernst & Young, are among companies that have adopted office hoteling in the past year. Instead of assigned desks, companies like American Express Co. are offering employees storage lockers to hold their files and supplies. Rather than being tethered to landlines, employees at GlaxoSmithKline carry laptops equipped with Internet phones.

Even the federal government has gotten in on the trend with the U.S. General Services Administration using hoteling as part of its efforts to reduce federal office space and increase efficiency and collaboration. Charles Hardy, the GSA’s chief workplace officer, said the hoteling model has enabled it to assign 3,400 people to its headquarters, a building that previously only housed 2,200.

“There’s this balance between people who are coming into the office and people who are either at home or at a client site,” Hardy said. “Seats are being used probably around 45 to 50 percent of the time, and if you create a hoteling environment that increases your ability to actually manage the capacity level you have in a building at any given day.”

The extent to which cutting back on real estate actually succeeds in cutting costs is up for debate: A 2013 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office was unable to determine the “accuracy and validity” of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s estimated cost savings from hoteling and other efforts to reduce its space needs over the past decade.

The same study found that hoteling “may not be appropriate” for everyone, such as employees who work with classified documents.

Additionally, some workers find the hoteling environment counterproductive. Allison Arieff, a New York Times architecture columnist, wrote a commentary for CityLab, part of The Atlantic Monthly Group, that said: “I worked in an open plan environment where everyone sat at ‘kitchen tables’ (with someone at either side of you, across from you, behind you) and many of us were ‘hoteling’ (where you check in to a different desk each day, when and if one is actually available). To be honest, it seemed as if no one ever got anything done.”

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix who also writes a column for Workforce, also questions the benefits of hoteling.

“There are a lot of employees who value a sense of place, of belonging and of ownership of space,” Dunn wrote in an email. “Hoteling is a great way to save on real estate costs and accommodate remote workers visiting, but when it impacts employees who spend 50 percent or more of their time in the office, it usually becomes a burden.”

However, proponents of the hoteling system laud its ability to provide flexibility and enhance collaboration among staff.

“You get happier workers in some cases,” Johnston said. “It breaks up the monotony.”

At the GSA, where 80 percent of desks are unassigned, hoteling gives workers the option of different types of workspaces, ensuring that people can find a work environment that accommodates whatever type of job they’re doing that day.

“If I’m coming into the office one day and I need to do heads-down work, there’s a location for that where I can get away from folks and do heads-down work,” Hardy said. “If I’m coming in and we’re brainstorming or doing teamwork, there’s a place where collaboration can occur.”

While hoteling may be better-suited to some companies than others — for example, Johnston said the model works best for larger firms with employees who travel often — Hardy said any company can adopt hoteling as long as it chooses the appropriate degree of implementation. Where one office might function perfectly well with 80 percent of its desks unassigned, another firm might work better with only 20 percent unassigned.

“It’s certainly a great strategy,” Hardy said. “We’re paying for our chairs and our workstations and our offices, and you want to maximize their actual use. I think hoteling allows us to get a better utilization of the assets we’re putting in place.”

Of course, room service is not included.

Amy Whyte is a Workforce editorial intern. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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