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