No, the desk isn’t dead

But the reasons for keeping it alive are new.

The slew of respected international news outlets bringing the workplace of the future discussion to the masses is timely, relevant and overdue. But the often-binary predictions around what should be a nuanced and complex debate is neither constructive or helpful to employee or their confused employers.

The Wall Street Journal’s ‘The Death of the Desk is Upon Us’ certainly succeeds in grabbing attention. The author, Chip Cutter, is not alone in reporting on the impending demise of the office as a place for focus and concentration. But these now-common suppositions too often hinge on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the majority of knowledge workers work, and what they need from their workplaces.

As business leaders and their real estate teams scramble to make sense of their post-pandemic workplace strategies, one common prediction is that employees will stay at home to do focused work while the office becomes a place for them to meet, collaborate and socialise with colleagues. As author Chip Cutter rightly reports: “A number of employers say corporate spaces should exist largely, or in some cases entirely, for team-based projects.”

On the surface, the media predictions could be deemed reasonable. Our own independent research into employees’ experience of corporate and home working environments, led by Dr Peggie Rothe and Dr Madalina Hanc and covering a combined sample of more than 900,000 employee responses, reveals that 82.7% of employees can agree their home supports their personal productivity. With just 63.8% able to say the same for their corporate workplaces, the historic status of the office as the productive engine room of organisations could be numbered. Statistically at least, the average home is more supportive to the employee than the average office.

Yet predictions of the death of the office or its desks misses several key dimensions in its hypothesis.

Firstly, data quite clearly demonstrates that personal sense of productivity is most closely associated with how well our desk-based focused work is supported. Under COVID-19 imposed lockdowns, almost all work feels focused on a screen that is desk-based. And so, with more focus and perhaps fewer distractions, our individual sense of a productive day is easier to reflect on as having been positive. Whether, with collaboration and knowledge transfer clearly impeded, the nature and quality of what is actually produced is as valuable to the outputs of the organisation, is yet to be fully understood.

The data also shows that those whose role is extensively collaborative (37%) are almost equal in number to those whose role is biased towards focused activities (33%). It also reveals that just 5% of employees have a work profile based purely around collaborative work. Regardless of the extent to which an employee collaborates or doesn’t, knowledge work is just way more nuanced. Any hypothesis that posits the death of the desk or the offices in which they sit, must first more deeply understand the nature of work and the motivation for visiting and using corporate spaces over other spaces.

We also know from previous work published by Dr Rothe that for employees to agree that their collaborative work is well supported, the support for concentrative and focused work must also meet with their approval. It turns out that the space to support focus is a fundamental element for successful collaboration.

Our belief is that this aligns with the nature of a typical knowledge worker’s workday. A day at work – be that office or home – is segmented. There are moments of focus and moments of collaboration.

It is rare that a full working day is wholly focused or wholly collaborative for most employees. The infrastructure needed must be tuned to both work types.

Offices free of desks, designed wholly around collaboration, will fail if they do not also allow for those moments of focus.

We have also observed another intriguing phenomena. Two key differentiators between the highest-performing workplaces and the average, is the availability of communal space and of the variety of different types of workspaces made available to employees. So post-pandemic, where organisations allow homes to be one of the many spaces available to employees, employers should see the benefit. But if homes are the only space available to an employee, then variety and community are lost. And with it, competitive edge.

Office extinction hypotheses equally fail to acknowledge the millions of global knowledge work employees who are struggling to support either collaborative or individual work effectively from home, simply because they lack the space to insert an adequate desk or workspace. Data from 160,000+ globally distributed employees tells us that one in four now home-based employees work from a “non-specific” work setting like a couch, kitchen counter or dining room table.

For this group of sofa-surfers who yearn for a desk, the problems aren’t just practical or ergonomic – they also reported lower sense of personal productivity, connection to organisation and to their colleagues.

To dismiss the contribution offices make to the meaning of what work represents in its widest social sense to employees is hasty.

We must first develop a much better understanding of how social connection, common cultural direction and collective purpose contribute to bottom line performance. So, yes, “sitting next to someone day after day can deepen relationships and workplace bonds” but it almost certainly then contributes to better problem solving, creativity, and pride. Key attributes in knowledge work.

Is any organisation so confident in the strength of its cultural bonds that it would risk limiting access to its office spaces to just the collaborative minority? Or in a new ‘blended workplace future’, does it trust the rest to make the right decision to return to its offices for those moments of collaboration?

In February 2020 few organisations trusted all of their people to work from home most of the time. By April, every one of them was given a laptop and asked to work remotely. Trust was central to the success of the crisis management response last year but will be equally pivotal in the return to office phase post-pandemic. Because the death of the office desk prediction also hinges on whether employers trust employees to make the right informed decisions on when they should stay home and when they should venture back to the mothership.

Pre-pandemic studies that measured who used offices and when, repeatedly revealed that those employees granted choice of when to base themselves at the office or home would rarely be seen in the office on Mondays or Fridays. If this flexibility is extended to all employees, the office will be a buzzy and vibrant hub mid-week but likely deathly quiet either side. Organisations contending with pandemic-imposed economic upheaval will doubtless struggle to justify the costs of seven-day-a-week assets optimised less than half of those days.

The riposte is to implement systems that require employees to book space in the office, allowing organisations to load balance across the working week. But this is reminiscent of budget airline carriers charging a premium for passengers who want to choose the preferred window or aisle seats. If organisations cannot trust their employees to load balance the days they return to the office, Mondays and Fridays will soon be the office equivalent of the middle seat in economy.

That the workplace landscape will change is not in doubt. That offices will be valued more for their role in collaboration, problem solving, and knowledge transfer is clear. But the cost of offices will also be acutely analysed and on a spreadsheet, having employees based solely from home looks like an attractive opportunity to offload that expensive real estate.

Dr Rothe’s work shows that organisations must make the effort to deeply understand the nature of work in their organisations before making knee jerk reactions based merely on headlines, and instead seize the opportunity now to craft a new post-pandemic workplace ecosystem that puts the employees’ working effectiveness at its epicentre – ultimately for the benefit of the organisation.

The desk will remain an integral part of an effective workplace. Who uses that desk and for what will vary hugely across the organisation. But as millions of employees also try and carve effective space in their homes to support their remote work, the desk’s future in the office seems very much alive.

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