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Bankers rebel against new hot-desking surge in Hong Kong

Hot-desking banks Hong Kong

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Global financial institutions in Hong Kong are expected to force more staff to share desks as office rents surge while banks look to cut costs.

But many bankers in the territory aren’t taking too kindly to this new wave of hot-desking.

Hong Kong is the most expensive city globally to rent office space in a tower building and will remain so for the next three to five years, according to a new survey by Knight Frank.

As result, “more and more banks” in Hong Kong’s Central district will soon launch new hot desks to save space and boost their cost-reduction drives, Ada Wong Ka-ki, chief executive of Champion Reit and a former J.P. Morgan investment banker, told local media last week.

While some banks in Hong Kong already use hot-desking, making it more widespread at a time when staff are feeling the effects of ongoing redundancies could damage morale, say industry sources.

“There will be initial backlash, which will partly be resistance for resistance’s sake,” says a manager at an international bank. “Many senior people in banking think a desk is a reward for years of toil. They would hate it to be taken away from them, even if it’s better for the bank and better reflects modern ways of working.”

Losing a permanent desk can also be a blow to a banker’s ego.

“It’s all about perception. In Hong Kong, perhaps even more than elsewhere, banking jobs provide lots of status,” says Henry Chamberlain, an industrial psychologist and former head of selection at Standard Chartered.

“Hot desking is normally associated with low-ranking or temp staff. So bankers may well perceive it as a threat to their status – even if it’s not – and will therefore react negatively and try to find ways to avoid or minimise its impact,” he adds.

There are other personal reasons why bankers might regard hot-desking in a negative light, says Chamberlain.

“Autonomy and certainty concerns are among the factors most likely to trigger a negative emotion in the brain. And this could apply with hot-desking because of the lack of predictability and control associated with not having your own work space,” he explains.

“And no matter how rational the bank’s intentions are, if they are perceived to be unfair they will have a negative motivational impact on employees,” says Chamberlain. “Some of these factors may seem trivial, but it’s important to remember that the primal brain is not a rational device.”

Banking professionals in Hong Kong are also expressing more practical concerns about the rise of hot-desking in the city, says Dean Stallard, regional director of recruiters Hays.

“For example, without direct access to your boss it can be difficult to get facetime. By contrast, some colleagues abuse hot-desking by avoiding their managers and slacking off at work,” says Stallard.

“I get feedback that banking employees can be left cleaning up other people’s coffee cups and general mess from the previous day,” he adds. “And hot-desking stops them being able to personalise their own space with family photographs etc.”

Worth it in the long-term?

In the long-run, however, those affected by the recent increase in hot-desking may just have to get used to it – this is no passing fad in Hong Kong.

A few global banks already use hot desks in their Central buildings, with some staff – especially those in support functions – moved to full-time seats in less costly locations such as Quarry Bay, Kwai Hing, and Kwun Tong.

“At BAML, for example, I had a permanent desk in Quarry Bay and a hot desk in Central,” says Warwick Pearmund, a former Jefferies trader and BAML recruiter, who’s now an associate director at Harvey Nash Executive Search in Hong Kong. “That’s becoming more common.”

Meanwhile, other employees just move between hot desks with no fixed abode. “The bigger banks often have had several offices spread around the city, so there’s already a number of transient staff who spend time in one office and time in another without actually owning their desk,” says Stallard from Hays.

Hot-desked staff typically come to see the benefits of the system, but only once the initial shock has worn off, says the manager at the global firm.

“Personally, I think hot-desking is a great idea as it optimises space, encourages people to adopt a flexible mindset, and enables more connections between colleagues from different parts of the bank,” he says.

Image credit: Johnny Greig, Getty

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