The desk is dead – long live the desk!

Share this

M Moser’s Steve Gale, tells us that the desk is dead – long live the desk!

People in offices work at desks, don’t they? But even a quick glance around most offices reveals an awful lot of empty ones. Observation surveys show desk occupation rates of about 50% on average – it’s never much higher. This holds across all sectors, and the figure includes unoccupied desks where their owners have got up to go somewhere else. Deduct these and actual bums on seats can easily be closer to 35% on average.

So what’s going on?

We know why desks lie fallow. It’s because of maternity and annual leave, sickness, and secondments, and there are short term absentees – meetings, lunch appointments, entertaining visitors, even going to the loo.
You might have empty desks set aside for future growth, or their owners have left the business or been made redundant. Maybe empty desks are an unavoidable consequence of modern business life, like parked cars in a street – owned, but silent and empty.

The thing is, people really like their desks, even though their essential function has withered dramatically. There was a time, not long ago, when there were things you could only do at a desk. Starting with scribing and record keeping, later we made phone calls and shuffled paperwork, cranked ‘adding machines’ and then came the typewriter – remember them? Desktop computers arrived with screens the size of washing machines and electric cables chained your kit, and you, to a desk, so now we are conditioned to make the desk an essential icon of white collar worklife and, for many people, if you don’t have a desk, you don’t have a job.

Today all that tethered kit is now portable. The laptop, tablet and mobile phone don’t need a permanent home. Most office workers can pick up everything they need and tuck it under their arm – the desk is a handy place to use them but not the only one. They work equally well at home, on the train, in a hotel or an air terminal. So do we all still need desks?

Facility managers would like fewer of them, as they aim to save space, and try to control costs. Fewer desks means less space, less rent, more savings. Why have twice as many desks as you need? If everyone and everything is mobile and flexible, let’s walk the talk and save the money.

“Most office workers can pick up everything they need and tuck it under their arm.”

But once again, people really like their desks – but now their function is different. In an era of mobility, hot-desking is not as common as you might expect. It is still a minority sport.

There’s status – an office worker without their name on a desk can feel unimportant or out of the swim. Practicality – it’s really handy to have a place to throw your stuff, and leave your jacket, and if you are looking for someone it’s nice to know where they are likely to be, and leave a note if they are away.

Youthful and mobile employees in tech firms from California to Old Street carry their laptops everywhere as they flit from one meeting or client to another, skinny latte in their other hand. But they still have their home base. The simple utility of the desk keeps it centre stage. Tech firms don’t run the risk of alienating people.

They will know that the cost of a desk space, even in the city, is always a fraction of the cost of the person, so why rock the boat?

The unstoppable change is the increasing value placed on human interaction, which is why Yahoo! Oracle and Hewlitt Packard ask their people to come to the office after years of encouraging home working. It is no longer just an argument about cost, there is a visible change in behaviour.

If people do turn their back on desk ownership by choice rather than coercion, because they see better places to be, maybe the money saved could be spent on other things to make us happy and productive?
We just need to decide what they are.