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The Meaning and Value of Desks at Work: Our Present at a Turning Point

Brady Mick

From metal desk rows that defined mid-century offices, toward the 1990s-era cubicle farms, the design of desks in the office has evolved alongside the prevailing view of the American worker. In a previous post, we examined this history and what it meant for workplace culture. Understanding the history of workplace desks lays the foundation for a look at today’s desks and what that may mean for the future.

A Design in Transition: Desks Today

While the constant of change is one of the few absolutes, the patterns of change alter pace over time. The past dozen or so years have seen massive changes to patterns of learning and working, and it seems that the change variables are only at a midpoint of resolution. Much future change is expected.

For example, through the past few decades, individualization has flipped into collaboration at work; or the need for people to work in teams. Uniformity has transitioned into agility; or the need for the ability to change faster with less effort. While the life stages that define the maturing of a child into an adult hold true to psychological predictors, life stage changes are heaped with challenges that blend into overlapping experiences.

With these changes, the original nature of a desk is being eroded to a point of questionable value to the people they were designed to serve. The desk is becoming a different proposition to learning and work.

Collaboration

The expectation for a personal desk has not tipped to open un-assignment in most workplaces, but the inclusion of collaboration spaces has bloomed. Today’s workplace is not just fixed on furniture solutions that fill space with private offices, work cubes and reservable conference rooms.

Today’s workplaces are peppered with huddle rooms, quiet rooms, play areas, rooms with technology to join together remotely, and a plethora of cool food areas to encourage inspired collaboration of people. The explosion of open collaboration work settings has settled into banquets, harvest tables, perch stools, and soft seating areas to rival employees’ living rooms at home. A demand for ever-higher levels of innovation underscores the recent evolution from collaboration as a team function, to cross-functional teaming as an idea generation function.

The workplace under the guises of innovation is taking on a new look and feel of open collaboration well beyond the metal desk of the mid-twentieth century. (There are many errors in this current paradigm, but I will remain on the actuals of today and leave the shortcomings of a purely collaborative desk environment aside.)

Agility

The uniformity of the desks of the past has evolved into the constant activity of working within change. Teams reorganize constantly. The quality of meeting time has pushed past senior leader level, through management at all levels whose calendars are double- and triple-booked, to an employee meeting intensive work experience. Added to this spike in meeting time is the fact that our work technology has succeeded in untethering a new percentage of people from only being productive at their assigned desk. Add further the advent of distributive teams of people working together across expanses of geography, and the result is work happening more often without the desk.

The demands of the workplace to keep up with the pace of these changes has ushered in the need for agility (Agility includes the disciplined scrum style management of teams but extends the idea to agile workplaces that are adaptable to continuous change). This need for agility is not limited to desks and seats, it is dependent on continuous improvement of the tools we use and the business management systems that organize productivity. Past designs, prized for their uniformity, net in an office with nearly as many empty desks as there are people. Just as these desks take up valuable space, there’s an increasing need for collaborative spaces that remain unfulfilled.

Complexity

Possibly one of the hardest adjustments we are making in our lives is the shift from achieving clear life stages into the possibility of achieving growth at different points from our peers. The patterns and systems that used to direct living a steady and productive life have blended, personalized and otherwise have grown incredibly complex.

Basic education systems retain the dying beliefs of grade levels based of pedagogical standards; i.e. “graduating” 8th grade to enter high school. Intuitively, basic psychology has shown for decades that human being mature along different paths. We are each endowed with a unique set of psychological standards yielding each of us with unique skills, strengths and passions. Productivity is more likely to be achieved when the complexity of this individualization is encouraged to develop positively, other than the stigma of being held back a grade level, or the pressure of being advanced a grade level.

Engaging in teams increases the complexity as we endeavor to interchange our uniqueness with the uniqueness of others to have a productive experience. Since the physiology of the human body benefits from sitting, the desk is an excellent tool to use to engage with others. Today’s desks have modified to the complex needs of people. There are just as many paired desks with two chairs as singular desks. Desks have wheels. Desks designed for one person may be manipulated to agilely fit together in sets to supports ever-changing teamwork. Desks are motorized for people to both sit and stand, encouraging we who are kinesthetic to move, if but a little.

And most interesting, desks have in part returned to a pre-Action Office II state where individual may not have cubical-like walls. Today these desks are often called “benching.” Complexity has swung the design of the desk 360 degrees to function in truly ‘open’ places of learning and work. (Again, there are a number of fallacies to this point of value of today’s desk, but I leave this aside to move forward with tomorrow’s desk.)

If it feels like we’re standing—or, more aptly, sitting—on the edge of change, it’s because we are. Desks have always reflected the nature of the worker. As what it means to be an employee undergoes a revolutionary shift, the desk will follow. In this sense, a desk is as much a bellwether as it is furniture.

SHP is exploring the history, form and function of the one piece of furniture ubiquitous at every stage of life: the desk. This is part two of a three-part series examining how the desk has evolved—and where it may still go—in the workplace. This piece follows a look at the 20th-century origins of the office desk, while part three examines the future role of the desk at work.

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