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Hybrid working has made it open season on swiping people’s stuff when they are not there

Hotdesking undermines the reasons people were brought back to the office: to boost collaboration and innovation and help newbies learn

For hybrid working to run smoothly, organisations need to make sure employees have what they need to do their jobs effectively. It sounds like a no-brainer but tell that to the people who’ve turned up on their designated days in the office to find that keyboards, cables and even the internet hubs they need to connect to have gone walkabout.

Office etiquette for hybrid working is still evolving but, in the absence of a formal playbook, basic good manners might be expected to prevail. Apparently not. Managers have been fielding complaints about all sorts of things from missing chairs and employees having to evict detritus before they can use communal lockers to finding half-eaten sandwiches mouldering in desk drawers.

Debretts, arbiters of etiquette and good manners since 1769, has produced a guide to the new etiquette for hybrid working. It touches on topics such as punctuality for virtual meetings, dress codes and not bringing bad habits developed working from home into the office. The guide also mentions appropriate desk-sharing behaviour, advising workers to: “employ good hot desk etiquette: leave everything exactly as you found it; give the computer and screen a quick wipe; check that you have not left coffee mug rings or food debris in any hidden nooks or crannies; remove all your personal possessions; and don’t swipe the Post-its or pens ... ”

While this is how folks should behave, they don’t, and despite the frustration felt by many workers, team leaders, HR departments and facilities managers are shrugging their shoulders because they can’t see how to address the problem without nailing things to the floor.


The frustration seems to be most acute for those who were used to having their own desk or working area before the pandemic. Many new recruits hired during the lockdown have never worked in an office, so they don’t know the drill

“There is no easy way to police this sort of antisocial behaviour. We can hardly walk around checking if people are using their own stuff or someone else’s,” says one HR lead in a data services company that employs just over 100 people.

“The best I can do is ask our maintenance people to ensure that the necessary equipment is there and working, and remind team leaders to ask their people to be a bit more considerate. We discourage eating at desks, and each shared desk has a sign asking people to run a wipe over it when they’re leaving. Do they do it? Who knows?

“Hygiene practices have definitely lapsed. I think it was Goethe who said that a man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait ... from what I’ve seen there are a few mirrors with big cracks in them around here.”

The frustration seems to be most acute for those who were used to having their own desk or working area before the pandemic. Many new recruits hired during the lockdown have never worked in an office, so they don’t know the drill while people already used to hot-desking have always had a flexible attitude to space. As they were never sure where they might end up (post-Covid booking systems have changed that to some extent), they tended to carry everything they might need around with them.

Permanent deskers, however, were used to finding things where they left them, and a straw poll of seasoned office workers who have gone hybrid uncovered a seam of frustration at finding items missing, unavailable or not working as they should because maintenance has been reduced with fewer people in the office.

One interesting aside to crop up was that hot-desking may not be the panacea it has been billed as.

Several managers said hot-desking undermined the main reason people were brought back to the office, which was to boost collaboration and innovation and help newbies learn by watching and listening.

“We have three floors and hot-desking means my team are spread out because it’s not easy to block-book desks to get everyone together,” one manager said. “To be honest, if I want someone who is up three floors, I’ll message them, not waste time going up. How’s that different to working from home?”

Companies are dealing with hybrid-related problems in different ways. Some have installed new desks with no drawers, others have marked desks and their accompanying chairs and other equipment with the same code on brightly coloured sticky labels that won’t peel off, so transgressions are obvious. Another company dealt with the locker problem by simply getting more so people don’t have to share, and they have somewhere secure to leave headsets, keyboards and other office paraphernalia.

Others have been adding a page about good office behaviour to their onboarding documents. Cue eye-rolling as to whether that will make any difference.

The niggles with hybrid go deep, even extending to a frustration with a scarcity of “essentials” when people go into the office, whether that’s a half-empty stationery cupboard, not enough tea bags or nowhere to have a private conversation.

In many cases this is the fallout from businesses using hybrid working as an excuse to cut back, streamline and declutter. A glance at second-hand office furniture sites shows that companies have been flogging off all sorts of things, including sit-stand desks, AV equipment, whiteboards, coffee makers, plants and even the trendy sofas from reception.

At a high-profile auction in San Francisco, Twitter reportedly sold a variety of items deemed surplus to requirements. This included a pizza oven. And if you’ve always yearned for a big blue neon bird sign, it could have been yours for a bit over $22,000.