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How many desks make an office?

Fathom Architects’ Rebecca Thomas asks: in a landscape where we can work anywhere, what is the purpose of the office desk?


3 min read

No6 Babmaes Street

Words: Rebecca Thomas, Director at Fathom Architects
Photography: James Balston

Recently, Fathom Architects submitted a workspace project – widely published in property/design press and shortlisted for numerous awards – for a British Council for Offices (BCO) Award. But it didn’t comply with the entry criteria. Why? There weren’t enough desks.

Reflecting on this, we’re baffled as to why desks are still being used as a measurement tool for workspace. Although the evolution of offices through the pandemic and beyond has been widely discussed, the overriding assumption here seems to be that we go to offices to sit at desks.

The completed project – 6 Babmaes Street in St James’s, London – was delivered to our client in March 2020, just as the world went into lockdown. Finally opening its doors in October 2021, 6 Babmaes Street was quickly heralded as one of the first examples of a new ‘social workspace’ – designed primarily for collaboration, connection and wellbeing. In over 650 sqm there are only 8 desks.

To understand the journey to a virtually deskless workspace, Fathom had explored the historical function of offices. Large offices initially met a demand for mechanical, process driven work which could only happen in the building – their scale aided by the introduction of steel frames and lifts, and the relaxation of height restrictions. Many significant buildings became important physical beacons for an organisation’s brand, think Stirling’s Olivetti centre in Surrey or Rogers’ Lloyd’s of London.

In the second half of the 20th century, a digital revolution changed the landscape with repetitive, process-driven work being increasingly undertaken digitally – although still on desktop computers fed by servers on site. This freed up people to invest more time in innovation as part of a burgeoning knowledge economy.

A more recent seismic shift has been the influence of the mobile internet. With cloud-based servers and powerful processing in the palm of our hands, access to data and global talent has been transformed. In a landscape where we can work anywhere, what is the purpose of the office desk?

We don’t believe offices have lost relevance – teamwork is at the core of most businesses, and this value is best created when people are in the same space, working together. But workspaces are no longer brash, branded statement objects. They represent a living and breathing culture which underlines an organisation’s values – from how they collaborate, nurture staff and operate as a responsible business.

The environment needs to be somewhere people not only can, but want to spend time in. A well-designed workspace will attract (and retain) staff and offer space to come together collectively. Desks still exist for focussed work, but they don’t need to be occupied for hours/days on end. Space can be better used for showcasing values & expertise, hosting meetings or events, mentoring younger team members, creating areas for ideas and exploration.

So back to 6 Babmaes Street. After 2 years of restrictions, people returned to offices with a more acute sense of how their personal wellbeing is linked to experience and motivation at work. An innovative client brief and a characterful retrofit had created a timely focus on workspace as somewhere comfortable to connect with people, nature and enjoy ‘third space’ elements including food, drink and wellbeing facilities.

If the success of offices is really based on the number of desks, then we’re happy to skip the aforementioned award and keep creating workplaces that drive value by providing spaces people enjoy spending (some) of their time in.

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