In these budget-cutting times, expect to see more desks, cubicles and offices free of Post-It notes, family photos, finger paintings and any other traces of Joe or Mary or Bob. Depersonalized office spaces characterize the system called hotelling (or hoteling), which some North American offices adopted in the early 1990s. In 2009 hotelling appears poised for wider conquest, boosted by the high cost of commercial real estate, the pressing need to cut costs and technology that severs a worker’s tether to the workplace.
David T. Wise wrote in the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2001: "Where the average ratio for office space is 250 square feet per person, hoteling space can be reduced to as little as 100 square feet per person." The space-saving figures vary in other reviews, but “dramatic” applies to all of them. Hard figures for and impartial evidence of the vaunted gains in productivity and efficiency are lacking, and the ergonomics-related risks and benefits of hotelling are hazy. The relatively copious research into other aspects of the system – human resource management, industrial and organizational psychology and sociology of work – open the window part way on some of the ergonomics issues. Authors Christine Avery and Diane Zabel synthesize this varied research in “The Flexible Workplace” (2000). The book also tracks the evolutionary path of the system.
The concept of an office continues to evolve, just as the nature of office work is changing. The industrial revolution ushered in the bullpen, characterized by battalions of typists and scribes at regimented desks in a large open area. The 60s ushered office workers into dense cubicle mazes. Most or all would still be in partitioned enclosures but for a renewed appreciation for open space: Today’s office designs arrange workspaces around the perimeter of an open area.
From the bullpen through the post-cubicle era, the idea of personal workspace has prevailed. The hotelling concept strips it from the office scene.
“With hoteling, an employee calls the office to reserve space when he needs to be there, checks in at the given time, and then checks out with another employee checking in after him — just like a hotel,” St. Louis Business Journal reporter Patricia Miller wrote in May 1991.
Hotelling is designed for mobile workers, who often carry their entire office on their laptops and communicate wirelessly via email, the Internet and intranets. A “concierge” manages their bookings for desks, offices and conference rooms with reservation software that also directs the employees’ telephone calls to their temporary location.
Implementing the System
Michael Brill, president of the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (BOSTI) and a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, credits himself with inventing hotelling in the early 1990s. Consulting firm Ernst & Young wanted to consolidate three buildings into one, and Brill’s firm was hired to find ways to use less space. “What we recommended for their auditors and management consultants, who were out 65 percent to 90 percent of the time,” he explained in an interview with Paul Weinberg for the November 1997 issue of Report on Business, “was literally running the place like a hotel.”
The company saw his suggestion as a logical solution to reduce high real estate costs. Using a ratio of one office for three or four consultants they reduced US office space by 2 million square feet (25 percent) between 1992 and 1994. Annual occupancy costs went from $145 million in 1992 to $120 million in 1994.
Weinberg observed that hotelling slid easily into the management-consulting, financial and high-technology sectors, which see unused leased office space because their employees are out much of the time serving clients.
Other sectors followed in the 1990s, including Aetna, General Electric and Boeing. At the aerospace manufacturer, some 13,000 employees work without a permanent office through arrangements that allow them to jobshare, telecommute or drop into any one of the 25 hotelling centers in the company’s far-flung empire.
Michael J. O’Neill, author of “Ergonomic Design for Organizational Effectiveness” (1998), is among the experts who recommend diagnosing the culture of an organization carefully before redesigning offices for hotelling or any other system.
Fiona Potter touches on the cultural issue in an undated article on the changeover to hotelling in Canada’s federal offices. She warns employers interested in the system to expect resistance. “Space, to a large extent, still equals status and as a result, is a hard thing to let go of.” She points out that not everyone will love the idea of not having the same office to sit in, or worse still … the same chair!
“Every person becomes territorial, even though they’re supposed to share,” said a Canadian union steward in the Weinberg article. The steward said that 75 percent of the auditors in his union have filed individual grievances against the employer and observed that the poisoned atmosphere does not augur well for their ability to catch tax cheats and bring in valuable revenue for a supposedly cash-strapped federal government.
Ergonomists William Marras and Waldemar Karwowski present hotelling as one of five alternatives for office and work design. They don’t appear to rank any one over the others, and present social issues as a more important consideration. “The movement of information in an office does not require much attention to the arrangement of workstations,” they write in “The Occupational Ergonomics Handbook” (2006), “but the social environment (including color, décor and esthetics) is important in an office.”
Mark R. Lehto, James R. Buck are unequivocal about the benefits of the system in the 2007 book, “Introduction to Human Factors and Ergonomics for Engineers.” They explain that hotelling has helped companies cut costs. “The affected personnel find reduced travel time, improved communications and reduced project cycle times in product designs and project development.“
The least equivocal opinions on the productivity aspects of the system come from organizations that are unlikely to be impartial.
The developer of the Mobile Workforce Manager claims its hotelling software “gives employees — and employers — the benefits of increased mobility and flexibility, while also helping to save money on real estate costs and boosting productivity.”
Planon taps into today’s anxiety about climate change. Promoting the “green” benefits of its hotelling software, Planon suite v2009, the company boasts it has added the "Green Workplace Economics(TM)" concept to its product. “Buildings contribute more than 35% to global CO2 emissions. Market research shows that on average today’s workplaces are occupied only for 50%. In a downturn economy this offers huge potential for short term cost reduction, to save money for your core business, and to become much more flexible in supporting the company’s workforce."
Ralph Herman, a spokesperson for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), believes that hotelling, in its various incarnations, hurts productivity because it eliminates the informal socializing and learning among employees sitting next to each other. “You need to talk to your associates,” he explained in the Weinberg article. “You need to run ideas past them. What do they think about something like this? Have they seen this before?”
The Case Against
The manufacturers of office furniture, fittings and equipment also can’t be regarded as an impartial jury about the value of hotelling: The system is bound to bite into their sales.
Unsurprisingly, office furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc. doesn’t favor hotelling and uses cognitive ergonomics to challenge the claims used to support it. Jay Brand, an organizational behaviorist at Haworth, argues that “clean-desk policies, hoteling and telecommuting programs, fixations on real estate costs, and a limited understanding of what hinders and supports cognitive tasks can all adversely impact office workers’ performance.”
The company says its research and development group, Ideation, focuses on cognitive ergonomics to create work environments that help people think. “A key principle Ideation is applying to the office environment is that traces of a person’s thoughts are consciously and unconsciously off-loaded into their surroundings – then called cognitive artifacts – in essence making the work space an extension of their mind,” according to Haworth.
In support of its case, the company quotes Daniel C. Dennett, director of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies and the author of “Kinds of Minds” (1997): "Putting deliberate marks on the environment to use in distinguishing what are for you its most important features is an excellent way of reducing the cognitive load on your perception and memory … A human mind is not only not limited to the brain but would be rather severely disabled if these external tools (artifacts) were removed — at least as disabled as the near-sighted are when their eyeglasses are taken away."
Jeff Reuschel, manager of officing research at Haworth, equates the stripping away of cognitive artifacts as "environmental lobotomies." With each move or cleaning of the desk at day’s end, he explained, “people lose the cognitive artifacts and embedded cues that a more steady environment provides. Workers in such environments can sometimes feel like they spend more time getting organized each day than working on actual projects."
In June 1998 Reuschel wrote that the importance of thinking in today’s information-driven, knowledge-based workplace is universally applauded, but the attention given to supporting and improving thinking is virtually missing. He underscores the value of what he describes as cognitive resonance – a harmonious relationship between a person, their cognitive tasks, and their surrounding work environment.
Hotelling “inventor” Brill makes no claims that it will boost employee productivity. “There are no drops in job performance or job satisfaction; there are no increases either,” he told Weinberg. “But then, it is not designed to increase job performance or job satisfaction.”
Arguments against hotelling are unlikely to come from employers: The potential savings in the cost of real estate and office furniture and fittings could make them deaf to the productivity questions raised by Brand, Reuschel and others.
The vision of savings also appears to have made employers insensitive to employees’ feelings about hotelling. One employee’s assessment of the final week of conversion to hotelling at the Toronto office of the Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group was “Gruesome,” according to the Weinberg article. It said most of the employees at the Toronto office were formally stripped of their permanent offices and told to surrender voluminous paper files. All new data were to be stored on the computer network.
It’s a truism that no two employees are alike, and that many will welcome the relative freedom of the virtual workplace. A national survey by Ceridian Employer Services in 1999 found that workers under the age of 40 are twice as likely as their older counterparts to see fewer problems and more benefits in boundaryless work arrangements. Younger workers are substantially more likely to believe boundaryless work is valuable for rewarding employees, beneficial for all types of work and a good way to increase job satisfaction, Ceridian reported.
Ceridian also noted that success “depends on the technology tools that are put in place and the overall planning related to the effort."
Reporter Weinberg observed that Robert Propst, who invented the now-ridiculed office cubicle 30 years ago, has publicly expressed his regret at the negative impact the concept has had on the mental health of employees by packing the maximum number of people into the minimum amount of space. The reporter noted that hotelling does genuinely appear to cut office leasing costs, but it also tampers with the idiosyncratic way jobs are accomplished. He cited British essayist Bruce Chatwin, who described humans as natural wanderers with a contradictory “emotional, if not the actual biological, need for a base, cave, den, tribal territory, possessions or port.”
Wise, David T. "Identify Goals before Setting Up Open-Floor Office." Los Angeles Business Journal. February 19, 2001.
The Flexible Workplace: A Sourcebook of Information and Research” By Christine Avery and Diane Zabel (Quorum Books 2000)
Miller, Patricia. "Employees Check in and Out of New Office Hotels," St Louis Business Journal, May 13, 1991
Weinberg, Paul. "The Space Race", Report on Business, November 1997
“Ergonomic design for organizational effectiveness” By Michael J. O’Neill (CRC 1998)
Potter, Fiona. “Hoteling: Rethinking the Office…who’s been sitting in my chair? – Innovative Officing in the Canadian Federal Government.” InnoVisions Canada-Canadian Telework Association
“The Occupational Ergonomics Handbook
by William Steven Marras, Waldemar Karwowski (CRC Press 2006)
Introduction to Human Factors and Ergonomics for Engineers (Chapter 5)
by Mark R. Lehto, James R. Buck (CRC Press 2007)
Planon Ltd., (UK)
“Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness” By Daniel Clement Dennett (Basic Books 1997)
"Boundaryless Workforce Vary by Workers’ Age, Position, Company Size – Ceridian Employer Services" (Jan. 27, 1999) InnoVisions Canada-Canadian Telework Association
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-06-10.