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The Meaning and Value of Desks at Work: Pivoting Toward Tomorrow

Brady Mick

The workplace desk has undergone a steady evolution, convergent alongside technology and the very function of the office environment itself. What started as metal desk rows lined neatly—easy for supervisory observation—evolved into a sprawling cubicle farm and then into an amalgamation of open desks peppered with multiuse spaces. As we look forward, however, we see a future for a workplace desk that is reimagined to accommodate a digital-first workplace culture.

Looking to the Present to Project into the Future

The diminishing future of the working desk became apparent in a recent personal experience; when visiting my 21-year-old daughter at her apartment. I found her sitting in her butterfly chair with a laptop appropriately propped across her knees. I noticed her roommate was in some precarious position sprawled across her bed and tapping away on her laptop. I laughed at them both and off the top of her thoughts my daughter said, “We don’t do desks dad.”

There has been appropriateness in the relationship between a person and their desk. Like sleeping in a bed, working at a desk is hardly questioned. But there is value in thinking of ‘what’ furniture someone will use in 2032 and beyond when they ‘work.’ Through watching the behaviors of people at work today—like my daughter and her friend—when they are not at an assigned desk working the correct answer for the future is, “anywhere but at a desk is best.” And regarding an assigned cube, I have never heard someone exclaim with any truth that they ‘love their work station.’ Usually, the affection is more along the lines of, “it’s mine and don’t mess with it.”

We are on the edge of a full generational shift in work. Workers who today are 42 years old don’t recall with personal experience the Reagan years. Some workers—I among them—remember rotary phones with long twisty cords, but today’s kindergarten-age child will not experience a life of communication tethered to a wall. As they grow through overlapping life stages and learn how to be socially dynamic, the past uniformities of the desk will become boundless. Each individual, so motivated and encouraged through meaningful relationships, will be immersed in a context where their individuality can become productively networked. Our future pivots on such potentiality.

Networked

Technology is never the means to an end. Possibly the greatest human adoption of technology has been the use of the wheel. The wheel networked people across greater expanses of space and time. Each street, highway and alley has been constructed to allow for the ongoing use of wheels to define community, society and culture. The wheel enables people to traverse, trade and transcend previously fixed borders. Today, wheels lift us into flight and carry every type of commerce upon which we rely for quality of life. While technically speaking a car dashboard is not exactly a desk, it does contain very similar qualities to what a desk does for us; a dash is a surface that allows us to work productively with our wheels.

The internet and the devices we use with it are equal to the value to the wheel. Our networked technology is defining what it means to be a person among people. Our networked devices are converging with the desk as we progress. In 2032, the virtual desk will be fully functional. The binary and polar limits of our online experience today will move from simple indicators of activity to an avatar experience within virtual space. Like a desk sits in an office, the virtual desk will hold space and time for us to reside in a place shared among others.

Boundless

The translation of the physical to the virtual is well underway, but the integration of the gaming and a socially networked world that today’s young people are experiencing has not broken through the traditional organization of learning institutions and working corporations. In the future, we should expect our technology to be significantly integrated with our physical experience so that our choices and agility to change will be boundless. 

Above all, the future of the desk is intimately tied to one human truth: we are better when we are in relationship with one another.

Such notions conjure images ranging from utopia to Armageddon. As such, the human need for reliance, predictability and safety will continue the life of the individual and physical desk to work. The physicality of the human body will not change in any way that will alter the basic physical specifications of what a desk is.

For a desk to keep pace with the boundless horizons of our technological growth, the desk must be smarter. The future workplace desk will be a networked device integrated with biometric interfaces and augmented reality overlay. Why place a computer monitor on top of the surface when an ocular engagement headset will supply a ready-made physical/virtual experience? As of today, the cost versus value equation has not been met. The future economic gain is yet to be proven.

Social Dynamics

We are seemingly in a race. As the population of humanity grows to 9 billion individuals in 30 years, will our exponential technological advancements outpace the consumption of our environment? Will artificial intelligence counter environmental collapse? The nature of a desk seems trivial in comparison to such daunting questions. But it is likely that AI will not be the single answer to the coming challenges of humans in such quantity living in society on one shared and beautiful planet. The desk may be a pivot point of all pivot points that will close the gap between humanity’s burden in balancing creation and consumption. The desk will become a shared experience of highly tuned social interaction bent toward people creating results in teams using technology.

Consequences

Imagine the perfect archetypal image of a desk. The universal ideal has common characteristics: a flat surface elevated above a floor with sufficient area for a function; a chair; holding areas for storage; light to see; power to supply; and a context in which to sit. The material used for desk construction varies, but wood is likely an intuitive form. In western culture the height is roughly set at 29 inches from the flat floor, allowing for greatest ergonomic advantage. The minimum floor area equals the width of the work surface times the depth including space to comfortably maneuver the chair. The variables increase in order to imagine the work accomplished on the desk. Equipment, tools and technologies have changed dramatically through the decades of office work, but the baseline complements of what a desk “is” have not.

  1. From Individualization, to Collaboration, into Networked
  2. From Uniformity, to Agility, into Boundless
  3. From Life Stages, to Complexity, into Social Dynamics

If the desk were to become the work equivalent of what home is, we could come together as a creative network of people driving value. Above all, the future of the desk is intimately tied to one human truth: we are better when we are in relationship with one another. Time is needed to engage together as a team at work. Personalities need time to develop trust and truth together. Converging belief systems need time to coalesce in order to create value.

If we imagine we are rowing a boat together to achieve a distance, the time needed to cover that distance is proportional to the ability of the people to work in unison. But the work of the future looks to be delivered by more robotic machines and fewer people. If we imagine we are solving a complex puzzle, the time needed to close the borders and fill in the middles is relational to the clarity of the people creating the solution. But the work of puzzle-solving looks to be delivered by intelligent learning machines and fewer people.

Desks may become the most excellent places for such emergent behaviors to socially ignite. A networked, boundless and socially dynamic workplace is where today’s kindergarten students will create their vital and creative work results.

SHP is exploring the history, form and function of the one piece of furniture ubiquitous at every stage of life: the desk. This is the third and final part of a three-part series examining how the desk has evolved—and where it may still go—in the workplace. While this piece examined the future of the desk, previous posts have looked at the mid-twentieth century beginnings of the workplace desk and the unique position of the desk in today’s workplace.

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