Why traditional office desks are about to die out

While collaborative work-spaces won’t suit some industries, they are catching on fast

There’s no longer room for space-guzzling furniture in the workplace.

For all the talk of ergonomic office furniture and standing desks, a more fundamental issue is often overlooked: do we need desks at all? It sounds far-fetched, but with increasing restraints on office space, and technology reducing clutter and making us increasingly mobile, the staple desk is shrinking before our eyes and could disappear altogether.

STRUCTURAL CHANGE

With rents continuing to rise, there is increasing pressure on office space in London. To reduce their costs, firms are choosing to pack even more people in rather than upsize. This compact office environment has had a knock-on effect, with desks getting smaller and smaller in order to fit more people in. Space-guzzling corner desks are disappearing, replaced by smaller, more space-efficient rectangular desks.
Technology has played an important part in this transformation. Twenty years ago, the desk was a sign of power; a standard desk could be as long as 2 metres to accommodate huge monitors, printers and endless files and paperwork. Technology is now more compact, with flat screens, portable tablets, and lockers in place of three drawer pedestals. Thanks to cloud technology, we are also far less reliant on paper, meaning the average desk has now shrunk to approximately 1.4 metres.

FLEXIBLE AND VERSATILE

This has sparked a wider debate. In a society driven by technology and portable tablets, what is a desk? Is it a meeting table? The arm of a sofa? The commuter train? Or a cafe booth? It can be any and all of these; employees are less reliant on fixed working stations and have the freedom to work from almost anywhere. Not only are desks shrinking but the concept of a desk as a place (as opposed to a function) is beginning to disappear altogether. Do we need a desk at all?
Employers are recognising the need for agile space as they begin to take a look at how people work. A third of our clients now opt for desks for just 60 per cent of their staff, leaving the rest of the space for agile, flexible working. For the more forward-thinking this ratio increases to 50 per cent. Workers are calling for more collaborative spaces, such as breakout areas, social hubs and video conferencing centres, which encourage knowledge sharing and generate greater levels of interaction. Desks are being confined to specific zones, keeping the rest of the office flexible and versatile.

ATTRACTING THE BEST

Companies are aware that, by creating comfortable, collaborative, flexible working environments, they will have a greater chance of attracting and retaining the best talent. Employees are influenced by the environment they get to work in. Spaces that allow them to be agile and mobile are invariably the most popular.
Where will this end? Desks will always be part of the office, but spiralling real estate costs, cloud technology, and the need for a more agile working environment mean that we may have to change our perception of personal space and privacy. The stationary desk is increasingly surplus to requirements. Instead, employees need a place where they can break away from the open environment if needs be.
Justin Bass is managing director of Sketch Studios.

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