With COVID-19 vaccination programs underway, many companies are hoping to reopen their offices in the not-too-distant future. Most are looking to a hybrid work model, where employees split their time between working in the office and working at home. Although office reopenings may be put on hold as cases surge throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, it’s not too soon to begin making plans for a safe return for employees.

The office that workers return to will look quite different as companies reconfigure their office space to support safety guidelines around social distancing, cleaning and disinfection, and capacity limits. The concept that an employee has a permanent desk or office goes out the window if that employee only works in the office two to three times a week, or if the number of workers exceeds the number of available workspaces. To manage this, companies are turning desks and cubicles into common workspaces that anyone in the company can reserve for the day.

That’s where workspace booking software comes in. Booking software for the office has been around for years, traditionally allowing employees to reserve commonly used spaces such as conference rooms or smaller “huddle room” areas. Several of these software vendors have expanded their offerings to allow for desk booking, along with other features such as visitor management tools that provide a desk and resources for contractors or freelancers to use while visiting.

The current demand for desk booking capabilities has also allowed other enterprise software vendors, such as those that offer facility management software and even IT service management (ITSM) software, into the market, said Juliana Beauvais, a research manager with IDC’s enterprise applications team. “We’re seeing companies that did contact tracing, workplace management, or calendaring get into the space because it’s not that hard to code and set up a reservation system,” she said. “Because there is such a demand for it right now, it’s an in-road for a lot of vendors to sell their other products.”

How does desk booking software work? Key features to look for

Desk booking software assigns employees to a specific workspace for a day or more. In some instances, workers can reserve a desk in advance — a practice known as hoteling. In others, they simply show up at the office and claim an available desk on a first-come, first-served basis; this is known as hot-desking. Although they may use different terminology, most vendors offer customers both of these options, so you could have hotel desks in one area and hot desks in another if you wish.

Most of these platforms allow companies to upload an office floor plan that shows individual workspaces (desks and offices) in addition to meeting rooms and common areas. Managers can designate each desk as available for advance reservation, available as a hot desk, or permanently booked (for fixed spaces where they want the same employee to work every day).

Employees use web or mobile apps to search available workspaces for a given day and reserve a desk in advance, or, in a hot-desking scenario, they check in at a physical desk in the office via QR code, RFID tag, or touch-based display. As long as the pandemic continues, employers may want to favor hoteling, since it prevents situations where too many employees show up for the available desks on any given day.

When an employee submits a reservation request, the request is either approved automatically or goes to a manager for approval before it’s finalized. To ensure social distancing, some platforms let managers make adjacent desks unavailable and/or shift employees around as needed, and some platforms can make such adjustments automatically when an employee makes a reservation. 

Some desk booking platforms allow groups of desks to be assigned as “neighborhoods,” where employees with similar roles can gather (such as an area dedicated to sales, engineering, or customer support). Some platforms let employees search for co-workers to see where they are sitting, so they can book spaces close by for easy collaboration.

Some platforms integrate the software with hardware, such as displays that can be placed outside meeting rooms, devices on individual desks that indicate availability (with green or red lights, for example), or even facilities equipment like employee badges. Most of the hardware features are optional for customers, and their usefulness typically depends on the size of the company. An enterprise with thousands of desks and hundreds of meeting rooms and other rooms would have a greater need for such hardware than a small office that could just use QR codes for check-ins.

Larger companies might also want to look for a system that provides detailed maps to help employees find their booked desk, especially when desks could be located on different floors of a building.

Many of the desk booking platforms offer integration with other enterprise software, such as Google Workplace, Microsoft Exchange/Outlook, Jira, Slack, and/or Microsoft Teams. Some platforms add contact tracing features and health questionnaires that ask employees how they are feeling before they enter the office. Most of the platforms include analytics tools that tell office managers how spaces are being utilized, and larger facility management software platforms also include tools for reorganizing spaces based on this data.

Pricing for desk booking software is all over the map and partly depends on the features you want. Many vendors offer either a free trial period for their software or a free tier with limited features so you can test them out before you buy.

Other important considerations

In addition to the features discussed above, organizations looking to purchase and deploy desk booking software should keep the following considerations in mind, according to Beauvais and other sources.

Can you add desk booking to your existing scheduling software? Companies that already have a meeting room scheduling system (beyond Outlook/Exchange calendaring) should check with their vendor to see if desk booking is an option. With so many vendors adding desk booking to their existing software, there’s a good chance companies can quickly add it to the software they already own.

Look for modular systems that let you try desk booking, then expand later. Larger room scheduling platforms often have multiple modules that provide tools such as visitor management, facility management, move management, and more. Be sure you can pay for just desk booking if that’s all you need.

How important are employee health features? While specific regulations around COVID-19 vary by city, state, and country, workers everywhere want to know that their employers are looking out for them. If this is important to you, look for products that offer health-related features, either directly or through third-party integrations.

For instance, some vendors offer a health screening questionnaire that employees fill out at home before they come into the office. If an employee reports any symptoms of COVID, their reservation is cancelled and they are denied entry into the building. Some platforms also offer sensors to ensure a safe distance between employees, contact tracing for employees who have been exposed to or diagnosed with the virus, and automatic notifications to cleaners when a room needs sanitizing.

Of course, if you have separate systems in place that offer similar functionality, they’re not needed in your desk booking platform.

Do you want to have bookings for other assets in the office? Some platforms include features that let employees book other things besides desks, such as parking spaces, lockers, catering orders, and other amenities to use while they are in the office that day. Beauvais said some companies tie these systems in with IT service management systems or facility services, which trigger tickets for specific equipment or initiate a cleaning process when a desk is reserved.

Beware of complexity, and have a backup plan. If a system is overly complicated, employees may not want to jump through its hoops to book a spot in advance. You may end up with people “squatting” in an area where they didn’t make a reservation, similar to situations in pre-pandemic times where impromptu meetings would occur in conference rooms reserved by someone else. Conducting pilot programs, getting employee feedback on any software you’re considering, and educating employees on new platforms and policies can help prevent this scenario.

You might also consider having some hot desks available at all times for workers who are unaware of the policies or forget to book in advance. If you have to turn people away after their commute, you’ve created a larger problem.

Don’t forget about security. With employees’ private data, including their whereabouts, on the line, make a point of finding published security information for any product you’re considering and be sure it offers enterprise-grade encryption, privacy standards compliance, and other security measures such as support for SSO.

Use the tools to save costs on space, but be careful. When the pandemic began, companies went from full offices to practically empty spaces with only a few essential staffers present. But empty spaces still cost money, through rent, heating, electricity, and other expenses. Companies moving to a hybrid workplace can reduce their costs by downsizing their office space. But it’s important to maximize the space efficiently.

“If you are going to have fewer workspaces than you have employees, you have to have a system that can manage this,” said IDC’s Beauvais. “Because the first time that a vice president comes in and doesn’t have a place to sit, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Some of these tools, particularly those in the facilities management area, can help companies figure out how far to downsize to maximize space-per-employee cost. The most cautious approach would be to begin slowly, rolling out desk booking in phases while keeping some desks available for emergency usage or overflow purposes. With the analytics tools many of these platforms provide, after a few months companies can discover patterns that will let them know if they can reduce physical space to lower their costs.

Use the data to optimize space, not track employees. Many of these systems provide tools that companies can use to track which desks get used, where the most popular areas are located, and so on. That data can help companies manage their office space effectively. But these tools should not be used to monitor individual workers, such as by tracking the number of times an employee has checked in at the office. Having individualized tracking data can tempt managers to (consciously or unconsciously) favor employees who come into the office frequently over those who spend more time at home.

“If you are truly giving your employees the option to be hybrid workers in the future, but then you turn around and essentially punish those who don’t go in and reward the ones who do, then that’s the behavior you’re going to drive,” said Beauvais. “Any tracking should be anonymized and used just to make real estate footprint decisions.”

Top desktop booking software

With so many vendors offering desk booking capabilities, it’s highly likely that you can find a product that meets your company’s specific needs. We selected the following products, arranged alphabetically, through independent research and discussions with analysts.

Because so many different categories of software providers are adding desk booking capabilities, this list could easily be twice or even three times as long. Inclusion in the list is not a buying recommendation, nor is exclusion a sign not to buy. Rather, this is meant to be a starting point that highlights vendors, core features, and other unique functionality that companies might want to consider when choosing a desktop booking platform.

AskCody: A larger platform that offers meeting room scheduling, visitor management, and meeting services. The Room Booking feature is an add-in for Microsoft Outlook that lets you search for rooms, desks, and other bookable resources across multiple locations within Outlook/Exchange or Microsoft 365 environments. Includes Teams and Skype for Business integration.

Condeco: Connects users to workspaces via mobile apps, on the web, or through Microsoft Outlook. Offers visual floor plan view for locating workspaces. Includes desks (fixed, flexible, bookable) and zones/teams (neighborhoods); supports hardware such as desk screens and kiosks; and allows search for co-workers also booked.

The CXApp Desks: Recently acquired by indoor beacon vendor Inpixon Indoor Intelligence, the CXApp combines connected workplace features into a single mobile app. Desk booking features include assigned seats, hot desks, hoteling with availability map, Bluedot guidance for turn-by-turn directions, and the ability to reserve a workspace based on amenities such as lighting, equipment, and accessibility. Also includes automatic release of desks, contact tracing, and advanced booking rules for controlling office capacity.

Envoy Desks: Offers a full range of desk booking options, from hot-desking to hoteling to permanent desk assignments. Employees can select team neighborhoods to sit with co-workers by organization, team, or project. Other features include interactive workspace maps, desk utilization analytics, and an option that lets employees free up their desk when they no longer need it. Integrates with Envoy’s Protect and Visitor applications.

Fischer & Kerrn Concierge Booking Software: Meeting management, scheduling, and visitor management software that also includes desk booking software. Availability via Microsoft Office calendar or mobile device, with visual maps. Desks can be assigned by department or made available to all. Filters include searching by desk locations, colleagues, silent zones, or hot desks. Hardware integration with monitors and desk panels. Workplace analytics include utilization stats and most frequently used areas.

Flowscape Desk Management: Offers a modular design and customizable features for booking in any type of office environment. Users can book desks on arrival or in advance, book desks on behalf of others, create zones/neighborhoods, block and unblock desks to ensure social distance compliance, search for desks based on equipment, check if specific seats are available, use the colleague finder to locate team members, report equipment errors, request desk sanitation, generate tracing reports, and analyze workspace utilization. The system also supports hardware such as lights, desk presence sensors, and kiosks. Flowscape also offers meeting room booking, parking space booking, and visitor management.

Fm:Systems Desk Booking: Offered as a feature of Fm:Systems’ facilities management software, desk booking controls allocation and reservation of workstations. Includes visual interactive scheduling and configurable business rules to adhere to social distance and sanitation requirements. Visualizations can be seen on kiosks, laptops, and tablets. Other features include mobile booking via iOS or Android; QR code reader for check-in, check-out, and auto-release; and on-the-fly reservations. Bookings can be limited to one week, one month, or even six months in advance, and the system integrates with Outlook, Webex, and Cisco TMS videoconferencing.

Joan Desk: Part of a workplace management system that includes meeting room and visitor management plus related hardware, Joan Desk lets users book desks via mobile app. Includes contact tracing, health questionnaires, and in-app room booking. Single Sign-On available for Microsoft and Google applications.

Jumpree: Centralized workforce management system from Smarten Spaces that includes desk booking app, social distancing, colleague finder, wayfinder (directions to desks), web booking, analytics, seat allocation, work-from-home rostering, contact tracing, and the ability to monitor utilization through sensors.

Meetio Desk: Part of the Meetio suite of software, which includes Room (meeting rooms) and View (large touchscreen for maps). The cloud service for management and booking connects to the Meetio app or Meetio View map. Booking can be done through the app, with check-in happening via QR code at the desk once in the office.

Nspace: Combines space management, booking hardware, and desk and meeting room scheduling. Desk booking includes floor plan views, amenities and location filtering, data on when desks were last used and cleaned, and a colleague finder. Occupancy sensors and contact tracing let companies safeguard wellness, with automatic notification to cleaners for desk and meeting room sanitation.

Officely: This desk booking tool lives in Slack instead of requiring any additional software. Features include desk booking, capacity management, contact tracing, health surveys, and team scheduling.

OfficeSpace: Offers desk booking as an option along with move management, meeting room scheduling, and work order request management. Desk options include hot desking, hoteling, sensor-based ad hoc desk check-in, neighborhoods with varying permissions, touchless check-in, Slack integration, and analytics.

Oomnis FlexO: Workspace management system that lets you manage meeting rooms, huddle spaces, desks, shared facilities, and equipment (projectors, whiteboards, etc.). Features include individual desk booking and hoteling, web portal for booking, synchronization with Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace (cloud or on-premises), analytics reports, API integration, and booking for parking and lockers.

Pronestor Workspace: Part of a system that offers meeting room scheduling, visitor management, and hardware for meeting rooms, Pronestor Workspace offers desk booking reservations to support activity-based working. Features include booking via app; colleague search; hot desking (book on the spot), flexible desk (book in advance), and fixed desks (non-bookable); and analytics.

Robin: Workplace experience software platform that includes space management, meeting room scheduling, and desk booking options. Desks can be managed from a map, with restrictions based on office policies to control who has access to different areas of an office. Features include physical distance planning, seat assignments, drag-and-drop maps, mobile functionality, hot desk and hoteling, and search tools with filters by amenities or space type. Analytics include stats on daily or date-range desk usage, as well as contact tracing.

Roomzilla: Going beyond its meeting room booking system, Roomzilla includes hot desking and interactive office maps, with the ability to schedule desks right from the map. Rooms and other resources can be blocked off for cleaning and sanitizing. Integration with Google or Microsoft 365 calendar available.

SharingCloud Instant Flex: Part of SharingCloud’s other services (such as videoconference booking, guest booking, and meeting rooms), Instant Flex manages hot-desking and flexible office scenarios. Booking can be done through a web portal, mobile app, QR code integration with the company’s BoxPad hardware, or with infrared presence sensors linked to the Sigfox network. With an RFID/NFC reader, a company badge can be swiped across the screen for the LED to turn instantly red, authenticating a booking. A no-show feature releases the desk if booking is not confirmed, releasing it for others to use.

Skedda: Scheduling software for meeting rooms, sports venues, academic labs, professional studios, and other types of “spaces.” Includes self-service desk booking, with hoteling, hot desk, and seat allocation options. Other features include interactive floor plans and maps with directions, advanced data security, and single-sign on (via SAML SSO).

SmartSpace Global: Meeting room management software that includes desk hoteling and hot desk booking. Features include social distance and contact tracing; booking via office displays, mobile devices, or web browsers; and wayfinding to help users find their desk. Desk space usage monitoring and reporting via sensors let you track which desks are being used, see data usage patterns over time, and discover underutilized desks and workspace pain points.

Space Connect: Part of a meeting room and visitor management platform, Space Connect also offers desk management. Via mobile app, users can locate and book available desks or check in to vacant desks inside the office. Features include passive desk check-in/out via docking stations or sensors, desk and colleague wayfinding, and desk usage data analytics.

SpaceIQ: ​​Meeting room management software that also offers desk booking options, including social distancing features, mandatory reservations, contact tracing, mobile check-in, push notifications, and calendar integration. A wireless e-ink display at each desk can show custom messages and other details about the desk status, including identification of the current and next employee booked.

StaffMap: Part of Browse Lab’s location mapping software offering that also offers asset management, move management, and meeting room scheduling. StaffMap supports time-based desk booking (an hour, a day, or other length of time), reservations from maps, and integration with Azure AD.

Teem by iOFFICE: Teem is hot-desk booking and desk hoteling software that was purchased by iOFFICE, which makes workplace and facilities management software. Features include hot desking, booking via mobile device, real-time availability, amenities filter, ad hoc booking, capacity management, and utilization analytics.

Tribeloo: Cloud-based desk management and meeting room platform; includes artificial intelligence features that can automatically assign workspaces to employees. Desk-booking features include team locator, mobile device reservation, and maps. Also offers targeted cleaning, contact tracing, SSO, analytics, office manager dashboards, integration with Outlook and Google Calendar, and automated emails for employee communications. Hardware integrations include support for touch displays, tablets, and desk sensors, along with QR code and NFC tags.

YArooms: Desk booking is part of this hybrid workplace software that also includes meeting room scheduling. Desk booking includes hot-desking and hoteling, with web interfaces; mobile app; and Outlook, iCal, and Microsoft Teams integration. Additional features include capacity enforcement, compliance questionnaires, and interactive floor plans. Desks can be configured with information such as “dual monitors” or “window seat” to help employees find a preferred location.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.