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Paradoxically Speaking: The Desk

The days of the £2,000, two tonne, over engineered and grandiosely titled workstation are long gone – eradicated by advancements in technology. But what does the future of the flat surface hold in an ever more complicated and uncertain workplace era. Neil Usher explores the possibilities.

14/04/2021 4 min read

Finally. After several decades of impatiently pacing the dusty corners of workplace strategy, the designers’ dream of a space free of slabs of wood covered in aesthetically offensive monitors hanging on inebriated arms spun with moon-and-back cabling is over. COVID may just have done for the desk what a sustained low-level multi-channel media onslaught was unable – rendered it redundant. Or so it seems.

Yet everywhere the petrified husks remain, littered with half-eaten snacks, long-blown tissues and reminders of tasks undone, awaiting the return of their favoured occupants. The disposal teams haven’t yet been invited in to remove the skeletal reminders of workstyles past. We’re in workstation purgatory. No one’s quite had the confidence yet to act on the cessation of habitualities. That’s because, as far as we can recall, and as far back as the office can be traced, the desk has willingly and obediently done what we’ve needed of it. It’s never pretended to be anything it’s not. It even respected the intrusion of its less-endowed sibling, the table. So it all seems a little unfair on the unstinting servant of individual productivity.

Which is the paradox. The desk works – so we don’t need it anymore. It was always the place at which administrative tasks were completed, whatever the technology that sat upon it and whosoever sat at it. When we needed to meet and converse at any length we left it behind and went elsewhere – markets, halls, cafés, senates. It has been the essential unit of currency in office planning for a millennium, first allocated to a person and then theoretically shared but invariably colonised by a policy deviant. It has given rise to the frontier of mathematics for workplace planners: the ratio. Albeit we can’t agree whether it’s people to desks or desks to people…and, like plugging in a USB stick, we always seem to get it the wrong way around. Twice.

We’re told by our real estate team that when we finally start to return to the office we won’t be there to do stuff on our own – we can do that from the end of the bed – but to collaborate with our colleagues. Cue cold sweat.

In our exile off Main Street we’ve searched the abode for a suitable surface to mimic the functionality of the desk. Nothing is out of scope if it does what’s needed, including an ironing board for its handy height adjustability. Because we need to get some work done. Not in a deckchair in a sandpit or upside down in a yew tree, but with kit, papers, mug, stationery and anxiety-absorbing gonk. Meanwhile, we’re told by our real estate team that when we finally start to return to the office, in whatever numbers on whatever days, we won’t be there to do stuff on our own – we can do that from the end of the bed – but to collaborate with our colleagues. Cue cold sweat.

It’s easy to see why the desk is a design irritation: in its corporate form – resilient, practical, mass-producible. Extreme function. Whatever jaunty angles they’re placed at. Irrespective of the colour of the surface or legs. And the more functional they are, the less likely their occupants are to wander off and use a different setting. So design is stuck – make them awkward to stop people using them, or make them work so people stop using the other settings? The beautiful variety are for home use, captured for our envy, bathed in sunlight diffracted through pristine window shutters, nestled beneath an open staircase, and utterly inappropriately sized for anything other than home schooling on a Stylophone.

Yet what is playing out is an uncomfortable divide. The privileged knowledge worker in free-flowing, multi-setting autonomy, from relaxed conversation to full throttle brainstorming, for whom a desk is incidental – to the process worker, woven into routine and customer-facing interaction, for whom performing the role without a desk is unthinkable. If not impossible. It’s a two-tier society of work in which the hardy desk now symbolises the chasm. Or perhaps it’s the location of our feet while at labour that sets us apart.

Yet is the desk really over for the knowledge worker? The thought of an entire day of interaction is the equal and opposite tyranny of headphones-on, getting increasingly frustrated at people asking if they can disturb us. There’s a midway between our own space and everyone’s space – proximal working. Just being near our colleagues for when we need to ask or be asked, prepared to and prepared to be. A lighter level of focus, a lighter level of interaction. One that doesn’t fit within the questionnaires and models and binary understanding we so often seek doing x or y.

The desk is therefore also both symbol and practical actuality. A symbol of a world of work that we strain to free ourselves from, yet cannot seem to. A practical actuality we still need, whether from compulsion or choice, that continues to do what we’ve always asked of it. While we wrestle with both interpretations, we ignore far more pressing issues. Perhaps it’s time to give it a break. If it survives, it’s because we need it to.

Neil Usher is Chief Workplace & Change Strategist at GosSpace AI, and Author of The Elemental Workplace and Elemental Change

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