Till desk do us part

This blog first appeared on the WCO website on 21st September.

“Desk: A piece of furniture with a flat or sloping surface and typically with drawers, at which one can read, write, or do other work”.

Is the traditional office desk obsolete? The desk, the workstation, that slab of “wood” that the majority of office workers sit at is getting smaller. Gone are the days of the 1800 x 1800 mm corner core, and my 2 m wide and 1 m deep bench desk at an architect’s practice; the 1600 mm wide homogenous bench has become a 1400 mm and recently I worked with an NHS Trust where the standard workstation was a mere 1200 mm but the facilities team were actually rolling out 1 m “back to school” style desks. So by logic and statistical extrapolation alone the traditional office desk is disappearing. Add to the mix the increasing use of tablets, laser keyboards, dictation software like Dragon and virtual reality goggles and it’s not too difficult to imagine a world without people gathering to sit in rows at a flat surface.

Back in the nineties, when I was a junior consultant, our office was undergoing refurbishment. At the time some mysterious “voodoo” technology called Wi-Fi was just being introduced. As we were young dynamic consultants spending most of the time on client sites and only visiting the office to i) socialise, ii) have a team meeting and iii) do expenses, I proposed that we did not need desks. The new office layout could consist of a bar with stools, formal and informal meeting spaces, a breakout area with comfy sofas and a good coffee machine, reading space with carrels, and a print/copy support area. The Wi-FI along with the new 3 kg ThinkPad allowed us to sit anywhere in the office and in the café over the road. But I was an upstart and so we ended up fitting out the office with workstations leaving little room for meeting and social space. My point is that the desk (allocated or unallocated) has never been an attractive option to me, or my consulting peers. We prefer to be illusive, highly mobile and not tethered to a single location. I can type just as well in a café or at home or on the train or an airplane, so surely the desk just takes up unnecessary space?
Well maybe, but perhaps the desk is not actually just a flat surface for typing on. There are certain “go to” people we need access to and there is some comfort in knowing where we can easily find them in person. When in the office, team mates need a place to congregate and this still tends to be a cluster of desks in a familiar (and perhaps team branded) area rather than in some anonymous breakout space or one of the sparse meeting rooms. So whilst it is often said “work is not a destination but an activity” the desk often is a destination.
My own research has shown that certain personality types are more productive, i.e. less stressed, when they know they have a set place to go to. They like routine, familiarity, availability of nearby colleagues, access to office equipment and applications etc. Anecdotally some even associate their desk, that last piece of real estate, with (job) security – one of Maslow’s basic human needs. One element of the desk not researched is the relevance of personalisation – is it territorial, for comfort or security etc? So whilst the need for a desk seems a little alien to me, consultants and designers need to comprehensively acknowledge psychological and personal differences and ensure we accommodate them to maximise the performance of all the workforce.
My conclusion: the physical nature and the purpose of the desk are changing – “it’s a desk, Jim, but not as we know it”. The concept of the desk is already different – it is as much a familiar place to gather than it is a “work station”. So we do need to rethink the desk but it is more likely to evolve than become totally obsolete.

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