'Hotelling' makes a comeback in major cities as companies seek to save money on valuable office real estate

ALEXANDRA SHIMO

From Monday’s Globe and Mail

January 21, 2008 at 9:33 AM EDT

Arriving at the office on his first day as a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Tom Broen felt he’d been misled. It wasn’t the work or the upper five-figure salary that upset him. But after five years of experience, he thought he was senior enough to qualify for his own desk.

“They cleverly omitted that detail when I applied for the job,” he says from

his home in downtown Toronto. “The managers and higher had their own desks,

but junior people did not.”

Mr. Broen had just been introduced to “hotelling”, in which rather than

having designated desks, staff are assigned a spot daily according to space

availability. Each morning, Mr. Broen would key in his employee number and a computerized system would decide the floor and Giverny Cooter works at her interchangeable desk at ad firm TBW, which uses hotelling – assigning workers a spot daily based on availability. Giverny Cooter works at her interchangeable desk at ad firm TBW, which uses hotelling – assigning workers a spot daily based on availability. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail) The Globe and Mail position where he would work for the day.

Hotelling saves on desk and office space, he explains, but it soon became a

bone of contention among some employees.

“It made people feel like they were disposable,” says Mr. Broen, who has

since changed companies. “It was one of those weird things in a company that

everyone understood was stupid, but you didn’t really have a sense that it

was going to change.”

With the growth of wireless technology and increasing real-estate costs in

major cities, a growing number of businesses are choosing to “hotel” to

manage office space more efficiently, says Alan Kearns, founder of

CareerJoy, a career management firm based in Toronto and Ottawa.

Having fewer desks saves money and space, he adds. Today’s work force is

used to working on the go, either throughBlackBerrys or via e-mail.

Employees often work outside the office, and so permanent desks make less

sense.

“There are a lot of advantages for companies,” Mr. Kearns adds. “It’s

extremely expensive to have under-utilized office space in a major Canadian

city.”

IBM agrees, which is why it 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.”

A few Canadian companies experimented with hotelling in the early 1990s.

Advertising firm TBWA was one of the early adopters, eliminating personal

desks to encourage everyone to brainstorm together and work in a communal

space, known as “the pond.”

While the idea sounded good in theory, employees missed their personal

space, says Jay Bertram, president of TBWA Canada. People wanted to be able

to hang up photos or personalize their cubicles. After a decade of

hotelling, set desks were reintroduced in 2000. Today, the pond concept

still exists, but most employees also have their own desk.

Still, 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.

Other hoteliers have found ways to circumvent the system. Nahuel Arruda, an

analyst who has worked for Deloitte & Touche for almost a year, is

technically supposed to move desks according to space availability. But

during his tenure, he has managed to stay put.

To avoid shifting desks, he books his current space by computer a few days

ahead of time, or leaves his desk slightly messy so others won’t want to

work there.

It’s worthwhile, he says. “If I had to move, I’d probably end up on another

floor, and it would be really inconvenient going up and down in the elevator

all the time.”