Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
The position of a person’s desk whether on a podium, down a dust-blown corridor, facing the corner is tacitly understood to signify the difference between success and failure but office seating areas are fast becoming a free for all.
Fifty years ago, an employee would be allocated a desk, wooden probably, beside a shelf of box files in a small office shared with a couple of colleagues. Years of service might be rewarded by being granted the largest desk and the window position, a promotion by getting a corner office, a meteoric rise by being moved upstairs. It was all very clear. Now not so. The American, Herman Miller designed Action Office One, the first open-plan office in the 1960s as an egalitarian way of accommodating white collar workers, encouraging communication while giving each a bit of privacy. As more workers were squeezed into the same space, more dividing panels were added and the open-plan offices evolved into cube factories, rows of identical desks in identical cubicles (standard cubes are 8 by 8 feet and 4 to 6 feet high) which then had to be customised to denote rank.
In Europe we’re still adjusting to the idea of open-plan, most companies offering a mix, with a 40% including the BBC, intending to further reduce the amount of private office space over the next twelve months, according to real estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield. Slowly, the executive offices in prime corner positions and flanking the windows are being reallocated as meeting areas, their occupants ejected to join the throng, their status desks replaced with something more totalitarian, in keeping with the general look and feel of the floor, and the hierarchy, no longer denoted by desk size and location, disintegrating.
Having senior management out in the open isn’t revolutionary – J.P. Morgan had a desk on the trading floor, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of new media CEOs voluntarily opted to join the troops and the directors of office design consultants, DEGW, sit in a central club area visible to all, but it’s not particularly welcome either. Carsten Sørensen of the London School of Economics says “The move from individual offices to open plan made everyone visible and immediately accessible. It also made it clear to everyone who is at work and who is not”. He says there’s a correlation between open plan offices and longer work hours.
For perhaps not completely unrelated reasons, 84% of workers surveyed in recently by recruitment company Office Angels said they would prefer to work in closed rather than open-plan offices. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Hang on! Where is your desk? It’s probably gone. We may work over 40 hours a week, but according to DEGW people typically use their desk for 35% of that time. And Sony Ericsson study found 81% of workers had their best ideas outside of the office. Although surprisingly the pub was at the bottom of the poll, cars and beds both proved more inspiring environments than desks, and 6% claimed to have their best ideas in the toilet. Having shown that workers can think without desks, companies are systematically removing them and replacing them with break-out areas, coffee bars, and things like the Thinkubator ‘a creative meeting space’ from Chicago Innovation Specialist SolutionPeople, with giant chair sculptures, disco lighting, a sound system, a professional karaoke system and a rooftop sun deck.
Instead of having their own desks, employees who find they actually need one to do some work can hotdesk – find and use a space for a limited period of time. With wi-fi, a laptop, a VOIP phone all they need is a surface with a power outlet. Working on visual designs with offices around the world don’t even need a laptop, but can use smart desks with sensors to pick up and digitise output from ultrasound pens.
All very convenient, but the transition to hotdesking can induce panic, says Jonathan Hall of Space Planning UK “We work with a lot of councils who are battling to get rid of desks but staff like a base. They see them as their territory, and feel threatened”. Where hotdesking has been intrduced, he says “staff arrive earlier and earlier to try to bag a desk for the day. I’ve seen offices where the hotdesks are largely empty, but crucially each desk has been claimed for the day by a mysterious jacket on the back of the chair, and a laptop on the desk.”
The solution is ‘touch down desking’: “rather than give them chairs, we give them stools. That way it’s more difficult to leave a jacket to claim their spot and go off for a meeting.” Hotelling, a variation on the theme, allows staff can pre-book a desk online and has the positive benefit of enabling them to choose a seat within that day or week’s project team.
Choosing the Right Desk
Can a corporate lawyer look convincing at a ‘touch down bar’? Do the suited executives pictured uneasily perched around the café tables in one of the Metro Design Consultants’ office makeovers look forward-thinking? Isn’t a mahogany leather topped claw foot a pre-requisite if you’re to manage a bank? Desks play a key role in our perceptions. Persch claims there are three psychologies of a typical office: Square desks and tables where the people sit on opposite sides, seem formal, confrontational and much like a standoff; Round tables are more functional and user-friendly, with no head and foot, offering a sense of collaboration. A low table or no table at all, provides an intimate, relaxed and inviting atmosphere.
“Employees perceive how their company feels about them through the layout and furnishings of the office. says Dr. Bruce Etringer, a Utah business psychologist. “The external aspect is equally important. People like dealing with successful companies. A company has to demonstrate its success in a material way–that’s the nature of the society in which we live.” Hence the number of offices that have designer desks visible from the lobby and meeting rooms, and battery farm Formica tops one block back.
Cheap, no queues, good company and no reservation necessary. That’s why the office desk is the venue of choice – at least two or three times a week – for 75 percent of office workers in the US (according to the American Dietetic Association). The man who was caught cooking up some burgers on a George Foreman grill in the privacy of his cubicle recently was creating a fire hazard, but the real danger lurks on the average desk itself which, as confirmed by NEC-Mitsubishi, plays host to 400 times more germs than a lavatory seat. Every year desks cause accidents: “Office furniture isn’t designed to be as sturdy as the furniture in your local pub” the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the TUC point out “so dancing on desks could do them and you a lot of damage. Likewise, the boardroom table is meant for weighty documents, not overweight executives.”
By simply being the wrong height for your chair desks are the provocateurs behind Desk Rage aka Irritable Desk Syndrome endured by millions, not to mention back ache which is suffered by 35% of British office say BackCare, largely because they slouch. NEC-Mitsubishi constantly visits different organisations’ premises to analyse their desk-top monitor needs attests managing director, John McGrath. “In any organisation I can guarantee that at least 50% of the desks will be set up incorrectly.”
According to Deskologist, Nigel Robertson of Open Ergonomics, if you sit up straight with your arms dangling by your sides the right height of desk should be level with your elbows. The other major contributors to the latest phenomenon, Desk Rage, are utter boredom, lack of control and neighbouring colleagues. Nearly 40% of office workers have considered changing jobs because of a colleague’s irritating habits. Recruitment agency Office Angels list the top irritants as receiving emails from people a few feet away, sitting beside people who listen to voicemails on speaker phone and people who swear at their computers.
SORREL DOWNER / BUSINESS LIFE, 2007