A Desk of Their Own

Last month, I wrote about the push across America of the “Return-To-Office” (RTO) movement, and how “Work-From-Home” is slowly becoming less tolerable to employers. As I related last month, Walmart is laying off hundreds of white-collar jobs, and forcing others to relocate, many to their headquarters town of Bentonville, Ark.

Others, like JP Morgan Chase, has a CEO in Jamie Dimon who is tough and powerful, he has made it pretty clear: come back to the office or find another job. And as has been reported in the popular business press, companies have contributed to the reluctance to RTO, and many firms now realize that “hot desking” was a big mistake.

Get Back. To be sure, to get workers back to the office, bosses have dangled fancy coffee, yoga classes and DJ parties. But that still hasn’t been enough, so some firms are giving employees a more traditional perk: a desk of their own.

Hot desking, or “hoteling” where workers get a desk when they show up instead of having a permanent one, isn’t new but really took off during the pandemic as a way for companies to save money amid a new era of hybrid work. Now some firms are realizing that they may have gone too far. There are lots of gripes about hoteling, from hygiene concerns to the soullessness of offices without personalized spaces, that provide employees more reasons to stay at home.

So some major companies have experimented to see if dedicated desks could entice more in-office time. The share of U..S desks that were assigned has ticked up after several years of declines, according to one study.

It went on to report that employees aren’t just being difficult, rather that there is a degree of comfort, both psychological and physical, derived from the ritual of going to the same desk each day, at a time when 77% of employees are disgruntled for one reason or another, according to one study. Some companies have long adopted an occupancy plan that has employees sitting close to teammates in so-called “neighborhoods,” and this is adding to employee satisfaction with their work environment.

Family photos on the desk remind staff why they schlepped in, and an ergonomic chair tailored to the right settings goes a long way. In fact, other studies have shown that when employees are surveyed about what matters most to them in an office environment, chairs always rank near the top.

Another big sticking point is having to share a keyboard and mouse, a hygiene issue that employees disdain. And on days when the entire company is required to show up at the office, hot desking can become a game of musical office chairs, with not enough desks for everyone, leaving some unlucky workers to camp out in the break room all day.

Unassigned desks. Citigroup Inc. shifted to mostly unassigned desks about a decade ago, but when the banking giant called workers back to the office in 2022, complaints surfaced about employees not being able to find a desk on Wednesdays, when most workers were required to be in. Since then, attendance has spread out more evenly across the week.

Employers have also come to realize that long hours of working from home during the height of the pandemic allowed staffers to flex their home-office setups with high-quality lighting, extra monitors and personal touches like plants. Designers refer to this as the “curation of eye space,” and as workers shift back to offices, they want to maintain that sense of control over their workstations.

The whole issue of dedicated desks for employees has a major impact on office occupancy, and today, millions of square feet of previously occupied office space sits vacant. The disappearance of hot desking and a return to dedicated workspaces will be essential in absorbing at least some of the vacant space in office buildings across America.

AVP Pulse Index. In the latest update on the construction materials industry, the AVP Pulse Index experienced a modest increase of 0.1% for the month, but continues to gain ground with steady, but not overly strong, year-over-year growth of 3.8%. Over the past 36 months, the index increased 10.5%, indicating a slight slowdown in growth within the sector compared to earlier this year. Industry stocks hit new all-time highs earlier this year, and there has been what we believe is a rotational pullback as profit-taking takes place, yet profitability remains steady, if not strong, at several of the major multi-nationals.

Pierre Villere

Pierre G. Villere serves as president and senior managing partner of Allen-Villere Partners, an investment banking firm with a national practice in the construction materials industry that specializes in mergers and acquisitions. He has a career spanning almost five decades, and volunteers his time to educate the industry as a regular columnist in publications and through presentations at numerous industry events. Contact Pierre via email at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @allenvillere.

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