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Companies trade cubicles for 'enclaves' and 'huddle rooms'

Someone is sitting at Chuck Hansen’s favorite desk. But rather than defend his claim to it, Hansen simply finds another place to sit.

As an employee at Capital One in Richmond, Va., Hansen is one of about 1,600 workers who don’t have a desk to call their own. He arrives at 9 a.m., grabs a cup of coffee and then looks for any empty docking station where he can plug in his laptop and get to work.

"It's never a problem," Hansen said of those mornings when he is too late to snare his favorite desk. "I can always find another seat."

Known as "hoteling" or "free addressing," the design concept that allows Hansen and his co-workers to migrate from desk to desk was first used by accounting firms in the early 1990s. Within the last few years, as technology has allowed workers to become more mobile, hoteling has gained in popularity.

Today, several global companies, including American Express, IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, have adopted hoteling to one degree or another. According to the International Facility Management Association, the largest trade group representing office planners and managers, 45 percent of the companies it surveyed last year have created some type of nondedicated work space.

Hansen’s daily routine is similar to that of most hoteling workers, the majority of whom telecommute and spend less than 50 percent of their time in the office. As a senior communications manager, he brings his laptop from home and spends most of his time where his colleagues tend to gather--on the first floor of Capital One’s Building 7.

If he wants to find out where other Capital One employees are sitting on a given day, he logs into his instant messaging system and asks them. If he needs a pair of scissors, a stapler, notebooks or tissues, he goes to the supply desk and takes them with him.

Like all Capital One employees, Hansen has the option of maintaining a permanent desk. But he says he likes the current setup, which the company first created in 2005, because it helps him eliminate clutter. The things that used to sit on his desk, including reference books and computer manuals, are now stored in a 3 1/2 foot wide file drawer the company assigned him.

“They were a bonfire waiting to happen,” he said. “The last time I opened [the file drawer] was three months ago.

The new system seems to be working. In a recent survey by Capital One, 87 percent of workers said they preferred the new system to their old cubicles and desks.

“People are actually more satisfied,” said Bryan Berthold, Capital One’s vice president of corporate real estate.

Sprint Nextel is also in the process of converting traditional work spaces into hoteling spaces within its 180 U.S. branches. Having started the process about two years ago, Sprint Nextel now has 3,000 of its employees working in such stations, said Dan Boutross, the company's director of strategy and planning. The company hopes one-third to one-half of its work force--or 13,000 to 20,000 employees--eventually will use nondedicated spaces.

Hoteling has evolved dramatically since the days when accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers kept mounds of papers in variously colored bins that were delivered to work stations on a daily basis.

These days employees store documents on their computer hard drives and record phone numbers in their cell phones and PDAs. Technology companies have even developed Web sites and software programs that allow workers to reserve work stations days in advance.

The appearance of hoteling stations has also become more sophisticated. Capital One, for example, has created 11 hoteling “neighborhoods” that are compatible to different tasks. Not only are there coffee break areas and conference rooms, but "quiet zones" for individual work, "huddle rooms" for one-on-one meetings and "enclaves" for more relaxed encounters.

Hoteling allows company managers to make effective use of corporate real estate when workers spend limited time in the office. But the practice has not spread as quickly as many design specialists thought it would. Of the companies surveyed by IFMA, 56 percent said they maintain only 10 or fewer nondedicated work stations.

“When I was growing up, I thought we would be living in bubble cities, but we’re not,” said IFMA spokeswoman Karen Ellington. “Just because the technology is available doesn’t mean it’s advantageous.”

Hoteling is not practical for many types of employees, especially those who require access to lots of resources. Attorneys, for example, have bulky law books and client files that would be difficult to lug out of storage every time they were in the office.

Then there is the problem of workers becoming stingy with stations that everyone should be able to use. They leave coffee mugs and other knickknacks around the stations in an attempt to claim the space for themselves.

“I call these people 'wolves.' They mark their territory,” said Daniel Molte, founder of Facility Innovations, a company that creates scheduling software for hoteling systems.

Perhaps most important, some employees simply object to hoteling. They say it makes the work place feel sterile and, considering that it allows them to spend days out of the office, makes them doubt their job security.

Teal Postula, for example, a director of interior design at the architectural office of Dennis Noskin, said she would hate to get rid of the photographs on her wall or the Tibetan lamp on her desk, all of which give her a sense of permanence.

“Human beings, by nature, are territorial,” she said. “Right now, this is a world where everything is shifting under us. It’s very hard to feel like a nomad.”

Boutross acknowledges that hoteling can make employees feel ill at ease, but he says Sprint Nextel has tried to address such concerns by making sure the company’s top managers fully support the hoteling setups.

“It’s a real issue you need to address,” he said. “People do tie their sense of security to a physical space.”

But not all employees do. Hansen said he rarely missed all the mementos and keepsakes that once swarmed his desk.

“I have pictures of my family on my screen saver,” he said. “As for plants, I kill plants. I guess I could carry around a pot of dirt.”

E-mail: tnt2105@columbia.edu