How can I survive hot-desking in an open-plan windowless office?

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This is not MelRuth’s desk, but it is a good example of “hot desking.” Photo by: Simon BrunningCC BY 2.0
I have recently started a new job. And while I love the work itself, the working environment is new to me and causing me to regret taking the job. I now work in an open-plan office without any natural light, and I am hot-desking.

This is not the first time I have worked in a space without natural light, but it is the first time I have ever hot-desked, or worked in an open-plan office.

What can I do to make the environment nicer, and more of a productive area to work in? -MelRuth

Any other hot-deskers in the house? What have you done to make your work sharing space more comfortable?

Comments on How can I survive hot-desking in an open-plan windowless office?

  1. I spent six years sharing desks during my time teaching English in Japan. The culture there is all about desks next to one another in a big room, as as the foreigner I was part-time and had to share. The other teachers and I would leave notes to each other about how to divide the space. We each used two drawers, and had a small box or shelf on top of the desk for other staff to leave things for us when we weren’t there. It took more thought, but the upside is that I kept everything tidier and more organized – no room to keep unnecessary items! It also helped to be clear about what were shared supplies. Those went in a particular place, and anything I’d supplied myself and didn’t want to share went in my personal drawer.

    As for not having privacy – I got used to it. It was an adjustment, certainly, but now that I’m Stateside again and work in a space apart, I feel very isolated.

    Congratulations on the new job, and good luck!

    • This sounds very much like the situation I am in now. The full timers unofficially get a desk while the part timers share. I like the idea of opening communication about the use of the desks we use to make sure everyone is accommodated for. I do like that it forces me to stay very organised and streamlined, something that is hard to do as the job is very paper based rather than digital (museum and archiving work)

      • This is a ‘Hey there!’ from a fellow archivist/ex-museums curator. I used to hot desk in a museums environment and it was difficult because a) I was part time and b) donations would be left on my desk when I wasn’t there. So my first task every day used to be dealing with what arrived on my desk when I wasn’t there!

        Edit: Ah have just read that you’re the original poster! Welcome to the sector. Hot desking appears to be the norm in this job. I’ve worked in it for over 5 years and have never had my ‘own’ desk.

        • Yeah, I have had ‘fun’ with the object aspect of the work so far. Object identification is part of my role and so far I have had to change desks between days which meant moving 4 Victorian christening gowns and a collection of 15 glass paperweights. Was moving objects between desks a part of what you had to do? How did you manage this?

          I am interested that Hot Desking appears normal for your role. I have also been in the sector (in the UK) for over 5 years and have had my own space in each role I have held (so far 8 roles).

          • In one role I was ‘lucky’ enough to claim space in the repository where I could store documents/objects that were in use. I tried to avoid leaving objects in my office space when possible. Anything too big for my desk was left in the repository.

            I did oversee a number of storage space moves in one role which was rather stressful! Could not have done it without a great band of volunteers.

            I’m UK based too! Off the top of my head, I’ve never had my own desk but have worked in some atypical situations such as community archives, rather than an institutional archive. At the moment I’m working in an archive that is based over two locations and I hot desk at both of them. Fortunately both desks I use have drawers so I have a place to store important stuff*.

            *mint tea bags and illegal pens

      • I thought I’d reply with a more helpful response. The editing countdown stresses me out so decided to start with a new post!

        I’ve worked since I was 16 and been a hot desking veteran since I was 19. Some advice I’ve picked up along the way:

        *Always clear your desk before you leave work. I’ve have seen many horrible fights break out because day shift workers were fed up coming in to find the night shift’s dirty mugs left everywhere (and vice versa). Even if you just stuff everything into a drawer, it’s nice for your desk sharer to come in to a clear space. Hopefully they’ll return the favour for you.

        *Try and find a spot to stash your physical work (like papers, pens etc.), whether it’s a drawer, filing cabinet or locker. I tend to go out a lot after work and prefer to avoid carrying a lot of stuff with me.

        *Move organisation tools online or on to your phone as much as you can. I got to the stage where I was carrying two diaries and a notebook with me everywhere. Now I’ve switched to my phone’s calendar to record meetings/deadlines, a task manager app and Evernote which is synced to my work computer’s desk top. Evernote can also be handy to stash ‘cheer up’ photos. If I’m having a bad day, it’s nice to open that file on Evernote and see lovely photos of my pets, partner and friends 🙂

        *Music, if you’re allowed to listen to it, is a great mood picker up. I’m luckily enough to have Spotify on my work PC and use work as a chance to catch up on new music I’ve found on my travels. I get distracted by people chatting so having music really helps. I also make sure it’s low enough that I can hear people trying to get my attention or my phone ringing.

        Congratulations on the new job and hope you’re enjoying rummaging through the material (the BEST part of the job in my opinion!).

  2. I guess this might start by defining what is a productive work area for you, individually. For me, I hate paper and clutter at work, so desk sharing hasn’t been a problem for me in the past. I try not to print anything out that I don’t have to, and if I do I have a folder for it.

    As for personalizing my space, I do have pictures and make my objects I work with pretty. My background on my desktop is pictures I’ve taken whole hiking, my “things” are either color coordinated or pretty vibrant colors, and when possible there are fun stickers or notes taped to my keyboard or monitor.
    I try to embrace things like Google keep or one note and the task list in Outlook to keep notes and things handy but not on little pieces of paper.

    If you’re assigned a desk that the same people use all the time, you can probably get more stationary objects, like a lamp with one of those bulbs said to help with S. A. D., a small while board / notebook to communicate with your desk mates.

  3. At the end of every work day after your desk mate has left, budge everything back 1/4″. Continue until you own the whole desk.

    ….I have no real advice, that sounds hellish. I wish offices would embrace the benefits of natural light, somehow sharing under a skylight sounds much better.

    • I concur. So grateful for my permanent desk with a huge window on two sides. Sure it boils in the summer and freezes in the winter, but I get to see sky.

      A small suggestion- a computer background of an outdoor scene. I read once that people respond to pictures of the outdoors almost as well as the true outdoors.

  4. You could bring in a plant every day, and take the plant home every day. Bonus: It’ll be a great conversation starter!

    Real advice: They make smaller versions of daylight lamps to help with SAD – bringing one of those in and taking it home would probably not be the worst. You could also make or procure a “go bag” (Lifehacker has a bajillion examples) with the stuff you need and use every day. It’s basically the same thing as putting all your stuff in a bag, but with INTENTION!

    • As someone coping with SAD, this thing really works! Get a lamp with as high a number of lumens as you can afford. Some lamps are even USB powered, but if you have access to an outlet or power strip, go for a small portable one.
      Use it for 30 minutes at a time, especially first thing when you get to work.
      Also, if you don’t already, take a multivitamin, with vitamins C, D, all the B’s, zinc, calcium and magnesium. They are happy vitamins 🙂

    • Your deskmates might welcome a plant, too! Ask around and see if they’d be okay with it taking up a few inches of space if you take care of it.

  5. I feel for you – my office has no option for natural light but we do have “permanent” space. Even so, space is relatively small and I make good use of a backpack which includes my necessary items as well as some necessary-for-me items (YAY Sharpies!). If possible, I would recommend a discussion with the person you share with about shared supplies and equipment. You may agree on a daylight lamp or plant which can stay in the space. If your workspace is different every time, I suggest you bring a good coffee and pretend you’re at the local with Wi-Fi. Congratulations on your new job!
    ps: philodendron plants require little light so might be a good option

    • I like the coffee idea. So far I have managed to use a small number of desks out of the available ones. I think if I managed to make it feel more like a wifi spot then it wouldn’t be quite so frustrating.

      Other than nice drinks are their any other ideas for helping the space feel less like a busy office and more like a wifi hotspot?

      • If you are able to work with headphones or music, stock up on jazz and chill beats, something like a Starbucks mix tape.
        I also like to work wearing a hoodie or long scarf – dress to the comfy side of things if the work environment allows it.

  6. Try an Office in a bag! Basically get one of those trapper keepers we all used to have and insert everything you would need daily. Pencil/pen case, paper, tiny stapler, laptop etc. Zip that buddy up and either store it in your desk or take it with you at the end of the day. That might give you some sense of ownership and consistency within the workspace. As for making things pretty, try some white noise machines (with headphones) if noise is an issue, I second bringing in pictures or just set an alarm on your phone for every hour or so to get up and go for a walk around the office or a quick step outside for fresh air. As someone who’s worked in this environment before, my best advise is actually to embrace it if you can. Make friends, keep things neat, rely on others and don’t take things personally.

  7. Open plan can be really rough sometimes. The trick I use is to listen to music with headphones – if that’s something you’re able to do at work. It’s not constant, but i made a while playlist of songs that just make me feel happy that I can tune into when I feel like I need some sort of space. In particular, I have a quirky pet peeve where I can’t stand listening to others eat. So when the office is quiet and someone starting nomming I just pop in my headphones! The other thing I do is to take a quick break when I need space to myself. A quick walk or trip to the bathroom can help me clear my head and actively attempt to “reset” my attitude before I head back in. Hope that helps!

  8. The germaphobe in me is cringing at having to share a desk. BUT maybe keeping a nice smelling cleaning solution that you use at the beginning of your shift could help the space feel like yours. You know, scent-mark your territory, just not with bodily fluids.

  9. Lysol wipes and Febreeze. Wipe down your workstation including phone every day when you sit down to avoid getting germs or grease from your desk partners. Be a nice partner and wipe it down at the end of your day, too, to get your funk off the equipment leaving it fresh for the next person, they will think you are courteous.
    Febreeze is for that shared office chair that just gets sat in and sweated on all. day. long. Freshen that beast.

    • As someone who is scent-sensitive, the Febreeze suggestion makes me cringe. I would not be able to work in a shared office space where Febreeze (or any form of artificial scent) was used recently or regularly. Please, on behalf of all scent-sensitive people, check in with everyone else in your airspace before using strongly scented products!

      • Hmmm, what about a little alcohol in a spray bottle? It should evaporate quickly and still freshen things up a bit. Obviously, you’d want to test the fabric underneath the seat first to make sure it doesn’t make the color bleed or transfer to your clothes or anything.

  10. I hear ya. I work for a small PD in a sort of catch-all, civilian position (parking enforcement, animal control, etc). Because I wear so many hats, I have my “own” office space…..which is also the booking room. The desk is full of all my stuff, but the fingerprinting station and the intoxilizer is in here, so if someone gets arrested I need to clear out for an hour or so while the officer deals with their arrestee. It also gets used a lot more after hours, because more people get arrested in the evening and night. I cope by bundling all of my stuff off the desk and into a drawer when I leave at night, and then I usually SaniWipe the desk down when I get to work because I have no idea what meth head may have touched it in the night. Oh yes, and there are no windows either. I keep nice candles on hand (prisoners tend to be stinky), and I hung a poster on the wall of a sunrise….to sort of “fake” a window.

    • Oh god prison stink. I deal with it when I get big packages from my inmate clients. I checked with my office-mate first, and then got scented hand sanitizers from Bath & Body Works. They are double-acting, helping me keep grossness off me, and lightly scenting the room to overpower the prison stink emanating from my mail.

  11. I am the OP.

    So far I have found that making sure, no matter what the weather, I go outside on my lunch break, and have a walk around past a few windows every hour or so. This helps a lot with the last of natural light.

    To help with the noisy aspect of the open office I downloaded ‘relaxing sounds of nature’ which drowns out the sound of collegues talking, phones, doors slamming etc without being a distraction from the work. This also helps with feeling less trapped inside and more like I am working near a window.

    The thing I have still not begun to find a way to work with is the hot desking aspect of the job. As the desks are shared amongst the team it has been assumed that it is ok to leave piles of paperwork on the desks, not leaving much room for other desk users. I’m trying to find a way around this. Does anyone have any ideas for a good way to carry whats needed around easily and in a way that is organised? I definately need something that is easy to keep, and stay, organised as I have an hour walk to and from work each day.

    • In another life I was a substitute teacher here in Australia, I don’t know what the job is like in other countries but here it means shlepping all possible teaching paraphernalia to school every day since I was constantly in different schools, different staffrooms and teaching all different subjects (often by the time I got to school the subject/s I was teaching were now different to when the phone call came in). And because where I work, high school teachers supply all their own stuff, I couldn’t ever rely on being able to borrow anything from other teachers.
      So on a daily basis i was carrying
      * whiteboard markers and eraser
      * chalk (uggg, I hate chalk)
      * pens, pencils, rulers, erasers (enough for me and for the kids)
      * stapler
      * travel cup and tea/coffee (do NOT be the teacher who steals someone elses mug!)
      * Notebook/s
      * Lined paper
      * sunhat, sunscreen and sneakers (in case of unexpected PE lesson)
      * Tablet computer or laptop
      * snacks and lunch
      * Folder of certifications (first aid, anaphylaxis training, eEmergency Care, Casual Approval paperwork) since that stuff would get checked randomly
      * Folder of teaching stuff, like find-a-words, crosswords, puzzles etc (high school teachers where I am are great about leaving work, but sometimes you have to fend for yourself)
      * Tissues, panadol, baby wipes and water
      * I am sure there is stuff I am missing (plus things like your standard handbag items – wallet, phone, book etc)

      So I went and bought a good quality backpack that would fit all this shit into it in an organised way!

      For me it was about keeping everything together in one thing that I could leave by the front door so that when that last minute call came in (“Help, I know class started 5 minutes ago, but how quickly can you get here???”) I could just grab and run. It had to be something I could carry easily since on any day I could also find myself travelling outside the school to sports training or on an excursion/field trip with no notice, so while backpacks aren’t the coolest things around they are easy to carry (and I could put a padlock on the section that had my wallet/phone in it!). And in my case, because it was to be used for work, at work, it was something that I was allowed to use as a tax deduction (check with your accountant first) so it was worth buying a really good one, mine was a hiking daypack style bag of exceptional quality.

    • I also need a traveling office for my job. Unfortunately it’s not the most beautiful solution., but I use the Tom Bihn brain bag and their “Freudian slip”, an insert which organizes everything I need, including a few file folders. I’ve used the bag daily for seven years, sent it through the wash yearly, and the thing looks new. I fly with it too as my personal item. I can’t wear shoulder/messenger bags because of a back issue, so it works well for me. I have also switched their accessories into my bike bags on occasion. Expensive, but in the long run my per year investment in work bags has been cut by a quarter so far.

      I also recommend bringing your lunch in a flat, zippered waterproof bag like this one by laptop lunches .
      LL Bean makes something similar . Much more convenient for keeping everything organized in one backpack.

  12. This is my life. Add to that a 24/7 rotation, so half my shifts are overnight. Oh, and we work 12 hours. Have I obnoxiously one-upped everyone else’s troubles enough for the day?

    I don’t know what you have to carry as far as work material, but I just use a soft cover spiral notebook and any extra paperwork goes into plain paper folders. Some kind of organized binder/folder/file system would be nice, but it’s just heavier and bulkier, not worth it to me. Paper folders are slim, cheap, and lightweight.

    Working a long shift means I not only pack a lunch, but 2 meals and 2 snacks, which is why most of the space in my day bag is for food. I use 2 lunchboxes, 2 water bottles, and a small thermal carafe for coffee.

    All of this goes into a plain backpack, zero style points but using both straps is highly recommended instead of a tote or shoulder bag if you’re schlepping all this gear. I carry a cooler lunchbox and gym bag separately. If you want something more organized for files or paperwork, maybe an attache or briefcase-type bag would be more functional, especially if you aren’t packing a lunch. That, or use a laptop/tablet and embrace an electronic system.

    As for hot desking? Lysol wipes. Every time I take over the work space. I’m normally opposed to harsh chemicals and scents, but I’m also opposed to sitting in other people’s grime and picking up every single bug that goes around the work space. It happens. Just a few seconds to wipe the desk, keyboard, mouse, and phone keeps me happier and (marginally) more healthy than most of my co-workers.

    • Office supply bulk stores should carry a scent free sanitizing wipe – either made by Purell, or one called SaniWipe with a bright red or green top.

  13. I used to work in a museum where 2 part time people had to hot desk. One of them bought an A4 metal filing box – like in the link below. We found a spot on a shelf where it could sit on her days off, so she could clear the communal space before she left. It was especially useful to make sure people didn’t move or throw away something important that she’d left on the shared table.

    Another thing we did in that office was make a calendar of annual leave – so that if our part-timers knew someone was definitely on holiday for a long period of time they could at least have a proper desk for a couple of weeks.

  14. Tonnes of good advice already, but I just wanted to share that when I was very young and and very single, the woman I “hot-desked” (the term is new to me! But it’s what we did!) put her wedding photo up on the wall of our shared cube. I thought it was delightful. Maybe reach an agreement about a couple small personal items each, and choose things that would be nice to look at even if you don’t know the story behind them.

  15. It’s curious to me that “hot-desking” is how I work but I’ve never heard the term before… I went from my last job having my own cubicle and set of smaller printers to now sharing a set of large digital presses and three desktop controlers. The bonus of print operation is that there are very few physical work materials to keep track of – jobs flow in and out pretty quickly and I don’t really need to keep notes. There are task specific instruction steps that we have written down but they are all hung on our cubicle wall for us to reference as needed.

    Primarily it’s seemed to be just the process of getting to know the people I share the space with, paying attention to who puts what where, learning what supplies are shared (pretty much if it’s left at the work station, it’s shared), having my own supplies that I carry in and out with me every day, and claiming a spot where my stuff goes every day. So hopefully you might become a little more comfortable over time, it bugged me at first that the space had nothing of my last job – my little figurines, a piece or two of art, etc – but I’ve settled into it a bit more in the past several months since starting there.

  16. I’m a step beyond hot-desking – I have no desk, no locker, no windowsill, no storage. 3/4 of the staff have offices filled with personal stuff because they see students about confidential information. 1/4 of us work at an open information/service desk and walk out to student workstations to tutor, help them with library reference research. Or we are working here on research projects or doing receptionist duty making appointments and transferring phones. I can be at any of the four desk workstations or out in the lab/library. I tuck my bag under the reception desk and have my own secure login for desk computers, but no place for my mug, tea bags, decent pens, or the big binder of info that I need to give out over the phone.

    All I can think of is good bag that stands upright and holds everything without me rummaging. Any suggestions? Management has an office and he’s all right, Jack.

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