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CRE Opinion: An Obituary For The Desk

One of the most long-standing office elements appears to be dying off. Or is it just evolving?

The desk. For as long as people have worked in offices, it’s been a staple of workplace design. But as spaces have changed, so has our view of the desk. Employees are becoming more flexible and more nomadic. And, as our view of how and where work is performed, our view of the desk continues to shift.

Recently, real estate has seen a significant change in the permanent assignment of workspaces. In the past, everyone was assigned to a specific desk—the desk was the place to work. Now we work anywhere, anyplace, anytime, and the desk has evolved in size, shape, and locale. But, in the wake of this shift toward a more mobile workforce, desks still play an important role.

The Psychology of the Desk

Let’s consider why a conversation about the demise of a desk is happening at all. There are often certain psychological issues related to desks. It all ties back to territory—people identify a desk space as theirs, it’s a part of their “worker identity”. We see this played out in how workers decorate their desks with personal effects and pictures of their family and friends. The desk has a grounding effect; it roots workers in their sense of place—and for some, losing it can be difficult.

While a place to work and plug in will always be important, the evolution of technology means people are now finding it less important to claim territory or “my space” in a work environment. Many jobs are performed from a laptop and companies are becoming increasingly mobile. The desk, though it may look increasingly different, isn’t dead, it’s just evolving.

Jo Staffelbach Heinz

Desks will still be important for those “non-nomads,” or individuals who can’t perform work remotely. The key purpose of the desk has evolved from an assigned home base to a stopping point. Employees are now able to choose from various work venues. Choice is the operative concept today. Millennials have made us aware of the different preferences of how to get work done, but this preference for choice is not limited to their generation. Individuals of all ages and work styles need the choice of where to work, when to work, how to work, and to be able to select surroundings that allow them to be productive and efficient. We all work differently today. When a workspace offers choices for workers, it encourages engagement.

Developers, owners, and designers can and should work together to create workspaces that are supportive of employee choice. I don’t believe the desk will ever go away, it will simply continue to evolve and take on different forms. We already see this evolution in the increased use of benching desks, sit/stand desks, and desks that are moveable and connectable. The desk of tomorrow will be linked to spaces that support connection, collaboration, sharing and team problem solving.

When it really comes down to it, the successful workplace is a place workers want to be. Real estate is able to enhance that, to continue the push to transform the workplace of today into a flexible venue with varied opportunities. The workplace may look different tomorrow than it does today, but I believe the desk will continue to survive and play a vital role in real estate. Perhaps then, it’s not time yet to write that desk obituary.

Jo Heinz is a Dallas-based Principal at DLR Group / Staffelbach.

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