I work in an office that has few to no spare desks at the best of times. It is rammed!

However, there tend to be desks within the office that are free (due to holiday, business travel, working from home) but people are reluctant to sit at them as they do not know that they are free.

We have tried making colleagues aware that they should take a 'hot-desk' laminate from reception when vacant and put it on their desk. This didn't work as expected as people either didn't comply, or the signage wasn't obvious enough among the sea of desks.

I was wondering if you have encountered ways/ can think of ways that people can let others know that their desk will be vacant - whether the following day or part of the day - to help keep usage of office space as efficient as possible.

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    You can get 12 hour 'hourglasses', could you just leave one on each desk to flip over in the morning? Sand left = desk in use Jan 22, 2020 at 10:54
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    @AaronF then you just have the reverse problem - people forgetting (or failing to comply with a requirement) to remove the "no hot-desking" sign when they'll be away.
    – Steve
    Jan 22, 2020 at 11:23
  • Just curious, who are the people not having a fix desk? It must be a small group of people only, perhaps they are not in the office most of their working time? This could lead to a more specialized solution.
    – puck
    Jan 22, 2020 at 12:57
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    @J... this can often occur when people are out of the office most of the time (think Sales Reps). A pool of desks is used for hot desking and it becomes a problem when more people are in (eg for a conference/meeting) than available desks. If it's an every-day issue, then there's definitely a problem; perhaps the business is expanding quicker than their office space allows.
    – fdomn-m
    Jan 22, 2020 at 13:04
  • @puck We have a large workforce that are based across multiple sites throughout the UK. So we have visitors from them every day. Coincided with that we work with many 3rd parties, who frequently work out of the office. Jan 23, 2020 at 11:43

11 Answers 11


Standing flag

they should take a 'hot-desk' laminate from reception when vacant and put it on their desk

Instead of going elsewhere to get a sign, keep a sign at every desk.

For visibility, make it a toy-sized flag in a stand or something else vertical.

  • When someone sits, they take down the flag.
  • When the person departs, they raise the flag.

The flag never leaves the desk.

Seeing the flag laying on the desk flat should be sufficient reminder to the departing person to raise the flag. But if the departing person forgets, a neighbor nearby having seen the departure can raise the flag.

If the desks are usually dedicated to a specific person, put the flag away in a drawer. When that person plans an absence, they can pull the flag from the drawer for display on the desk. If calling-in sick, any other person can pull the flag out of the drawer as well, taking only a moment without hardly a thought.

  • What about forgetting the flag?
    – Mast
    Jan 22, 2020 at 7:42
  • @Mast just have a box of a few flags for the floor and you grab one to put up. Or do you mean forgetting to put it up? In that case nothing will ever work if you are just going to forget.
    – Tom Bowen
    Jan 22, 2020 at 8:58
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    This is common in many marinas -- every berth has a red sign; when you're going on an extended cruise you flip it to green (and possibly write your expected return date with a grease pen). Simple, effective.
    – KlaymenDK
    Jan 22, 2020 at 12:35
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    I think the primary point of this answer isn't the standing flag, but that the status stays with the desk. A card that has "free for hot desking" (and maybe coloured green) on one side and "unavailable" (coloured red) on the other would do just fine; but now you have the ability to see the state of any desk at a glance; and can change it without effort.
    – UKMonkey
    Jan 22, 2020 at 14:33
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    I want to create a completely over-engineered solution where employee phones use NFC to automatically tell when a user last used which desk and to see which desks are "reserved" and vacant, just because I love over-engineering solutions to the point of absurdity.
    – MechMK1
    Jan 23, 2020 at 9:54

When we're not in the office, we leave a sign that says "This desk is available for hot-desking". I don't think you need anything else than that. If you want to be more specific, mention when you'll be back.

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    +1, but make CERTAIN that if you're logged in remotely to the desktop machine, that your guest colleague understands this and doesn't e.g. unplug the network cable. I would also keep (or know where to find) cleaning products, for the occasion when you come back and find the office slob has been using it.
    – Justin
    Jan 21, 2020 at 12:46
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    And the sign could just be a small whiteboard with a date as to which the desk won't be available anymore. Jan 21, 2020 at 12:51
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    We have tried this method but people are either forgetful or too lazy at the end of the day to comply. Jan 21, 2020 at 12:54
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    @user180146 we still have it in place and have done for a year. The problem was the idea was initially just sent out as an email to all and hasn't been spoken about since. Feel it just needs enforcing but was curious to see if others had any other suggestions. Jan 21, 2020 at 13:39
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    It sounds like they have to get up and go somewhere to get the laminate? Maybe have one at every desk that they can just flip over when they leave.
    – jmathew
    Jan 21, 2020 at 22:26

You can set up desks in an outlook calendar and book openings that way. Have ongoing "meetings" for your desks, and set the availability for when your desks will be unoccupied

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    I feel like this would get unmanagable, with more than 20 desks. OP describes " sea of desks.". which to me says 40+ Jan 21, 2020 at 21:17
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    @LyndonWhite Why would it get unmanageable? I don't know about Outlook, but Google Calendar allows you to easily see available "rooms", which each employee would only need to find one of. Finding a specific desk in the calendar or vice versa should be trivial as long as there's a simple logical structure to it. No-one should ever need to go through the list of all desks. Jan 21, 2020 at 22:40
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    @LyndonWhite companies manage 100s+ of meeting rooms just fine this way. The tricky part would probably be having assigned desks be "default-occupied" and then letting people cancel the reservation when they're gone.
    – mbrig
    Jan 21, 2020 at 23:33
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    @LyndonWhite works for our office just fine Jan 22, 2020 at 3:37
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    Fair enough. It would be good to say in the answer a few more commends about "My company does this" and "We use X calendaring system, but others probably work fine" Jan 22, 2020 at 9:50

Sounds like hot-desking is a short term band-aid here.

If your office is "rammed", then soon(er or later) you will need a larger office. Perhaps try concentrating on that?

If not feasible, I would recommend allowing more working from home.

But it sounds like management has their head in the sand over this one.

[Update, after your comment] Personally, I would be prepared to work weekends in return for two mid-week days off ... worth considering?

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    A new office is in the pipeline - need a fix between now and the move in November Jan 22, 2020 at 9:26
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    Aha! Thanks very much for pointing that out (+1). Perhaps you should update the question to say so? It generally helps to give as much relevant info as possible, in return for which one tends to receive better quality answers. Would it be feasible for some more to work from home until then? Personally, I would be prepared to work weekends in return for two mid-week days off ... worth considering?
    – Mawg
    Jan 22, 2020 at 19:27

I worked in several companies, and there were plenty of times when someone needed to sit for some time (from a few minutes, to a few days): candidates for jobs, people in business trips, ...

There was never any process about it. Someone (insider) would spot a potentially available desk, and ask around if the regular "owner" is using it during that day or not. If not, then it was used temporarily by someone else. Eventually, they asked around (louder) if there is any desk available for XY time.

Alternatively, meeting rooms were used for the same purpose.


Why not make the desks available by default? Change the culture so that when you come in in the morning you can sit at any desk that is free.

This way you maximally use the available space. People won't avoid empty desks because 'Bob usually sits there and he might still come in.' If Bob comes in later, he'll take the next free desk.

This does require you leave a clean desk when you leave for the day.

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    This idea as put forward but was quickly rejected by many as it would require people to constantly move around their desk equipment. Plus some desks are specialized to peoples work e.g. a developer usually has 3 monitors. Jan 22, 2020 at 10:08
  • @JamieHarris It is possible that for your company this is infeasable. Most companies I worked for have a standard desk. Monitor, phone, and a thin client to connect to your VM. All the rest that would be on the desk is personal "clutter", and it's usually more efficient to keep it to a minimum and clean up by the end of the day, as opposed to having it become worse over time. Anyway, I love that your place provides three monitors for developers. But, when desks are not standardized, you can still implement this within the different types of desk.
    – Jeremy
    Jan 22, 2020 at 10:47
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    True hot desking is hated by employees, it never raises morale.
    – WendyG
    Jan 22, 2020 at 17:34
  • @Jeremy: What is the problem with "personal cluttee" and why does it get worse over time? Many people in a classical office setting have nothing but photos of their loved ones and pictures of their children - I don't know why this makes them inefficient?
    – guest
    Apr 23, 2020 at 8:27
  • @guest I wasn't talking about personal pictures. I was talking about meeting notes taken by person A, or his paperwork, or whatever. In a classic setting some people don't have the discipline to not allow them to pile up or become a mess, therefore making them less efficient
    – Jeremy
    Apr 24, 2020 at 9:09

In our office, we have the policy of every desk is free to use. But IF you know you come back tomorrow MORNING, then you can leave your stuff there (Mainly Keyboard, because everything else is put away).

When you know you are absent the next day, put your keyboard somewhere else, like a locker or put it behind the screens or something. If the space before the screens is empty, this place may be taken by anyone.

Works suprisingly well. Even during the day. If it is visibly free, it will be taken. Even the desks of group and teamleaders.

  • Do people know they will be not sick tomorrow morning?
    – guest
    Apr 24, 2020 at 15:47
  • They don't. This does not happen that often. But if they are not in at lunchtime and the desk is needed, then it may be ok to take that desk as well. It does not really happen often, that people are sick. (current situation aside)
    – Sango
    Apr 29, 2020 at 8:41

Perhaps put a label on everyone's usual desk with their email.

When the desk seems vacant for a while, people can email to ask if the occupant is out of the office.

They'll either get an out-of-office response, meaning yes, or if the person is just away for an afternoon and didn't set one, they can always quickly respond yes/no.

For those where the latter happens frequently enough to be annoying, the existing system of putting a 'hot-desk' laminate on their desk will solve it. It'll encourage them to use it!


We have tried making colleagues aware that they should take a 'hot-desk' laminate from reception when vacant and put it on their desk. This didn't work as wanted as people either didn't comply, or the signage wasn't obvious enough among the sea of desks.

You're doing it the wrong way around. You're putting a flag on a "free" table. What you should do is have flags on desks that are taken and no markers on desks that are free for all.

In the start it might cause a bit of friction but if you have the back of people that take a desk that turns out not to be vacant but has no marker that it's taken, then it will work.

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    SAME problem. Instead of failing to mark the desk when they leave, they will fail to unmark it.
    – WGroleau
    Jan 22, 2020 at 20:32

I work in an office that has little to no spare desks at the best of times. It is rammed!

Desks are not exotic commodities. If your company can't afford desks for everyone who needs one, I think we've already found the problem.

However, there tends to be desks within the office that are free (due to holiday, business travel, working from home) but people are reluctant to sit at them as they do not know that they are free.

Also... it's someone else's desk. It seems rude and presumptuous to just use someone else's desk when they're away.

We have tried making colleagues aware that they should take a 'hot-desk' laminate from reception when vacant and put it on their desk. This didn't work as wanted as people either didn't comply, or the signage wasn't obvious enough among the sea of desks.

Why should they comply? I certainly wouldn't want someone using my desk when I was out of the office. It seems rather unprofessional to expect people to scrounge for workspace when they should be focusing on getting their job done. Desks are so cheap - just go buy some and watch this problem disappear.

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    The desks belong to the company, not the person. And offices don't generally have a bunch of empty space in which to put desks. Jan 22, 2020 at 17:23
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    "Desks are not exotic commodities." however space might be an issue.
    – VLAZ
    Jan 23, 2020 at 7:55
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    @j... How am I going to magic up the office space to accommodate for these desks? We have a new office in the pipeline but for the time being we need to make the most of what we have. We can't afford for people to adopt a childlike "This is mine!" attitude with desks. Jan 23, 2020 at 12:06
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    @JamieHarris A similar situation might be akin to a server running out of space and management scrambling to have people sift through their files to clear out bits here and there to save space until the drives can be expanded. If you weren't planning an upgrade when you hit 70% capacity, that's a failure. Same with an office. If you're getting to 70-80% capacity and are still growing, the new office could and should have been in the pipeline then - not when you're at 107% capacity and now in a crisis. In both cases you have to eat some inefficiency until you fix the underlying problem.
    – J...
    Jan 23, 2020 at 12:47
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    @JamieHarris I'd still call that poor planning. In any case, there are many ways you can squeeze for a few months until you get a larger space. A few more desks can surely be fit into the space unless it's already overstuffed. Maybe you have some execs that have large offices - make them bunk up two to a room and make space for 4-5 more desks in one of their old offices - whatever. I suppose the other part of my point is that finding a way to make hot-desking work is not the only solution to this problem - hot-desking is a nightmare, it kills morale and productivity, and just doesn't work.
    – J...
    Jan 23, 2020 at 13:25

My suggestion is to assign the job of maintaining the signs for desks to other people.

The people who use the desk already have a lot on their minds - they can very easily forget to set the flag. Or they might have to rush out and not have the time. Or some might indeed "conveniently forget", too. At any rate, it's extremely error prone, as you've already seen. People are fallible.

Instead, have somebody whose responsibility is to go and set signs for availability of desks either after hours or before the start of the day. If you have cleaning staff, who come in every day, then this is perfect - they (presumably) already clean the desks. Furthermore cleaning staff (also presumably) come in when there is pretty much nobody in the office. So, ask the cleaning staff to put the sign needed on all desks. People coming in will remove the sign as needed. Else they risk going to the bathroom and somebody else sitting on the desk.

If you don't have cleaning staff every day, then you can still assign this task to somebody. Office manager, receptionist, maybe just somebody who comes in early or leaves late. It's best if they are otherwise "in charge" of something about the office, even if it's just stocking the coffee machine, thus it's more of a natural extension to their duties. However, even somebody who is just at a normal job in the office but comes in before/leaves after others can be asked to set the signs. As long as they can be trusted not to forget. Feel free to sweeten the deal with some reward, even if it's not monetary.

As for the the visibility problem, as mentioned in another answer - flags are really good. Or otherwise something tall that will be visible when you look at the "sea of desks" as you describe it. A plaque is indeed too small to be easily spotted. You can also improvise - maybe put a hat, or a box, or a cone on top of monitors, computer, otherwise the tallest part of the desk. Something that is not annoying to see (e.g., no flashing lights) but still visible.

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