People in offices work at desks, don’t they? But even a quick glance around most offices reveals an awful lot of empty ones. Observation surveys show desk occupation rates of about 50% on average – it’s never much higher.
This holds across all sectors, and the figure includes unoccupied desks where their owners have got up to go somewhere else. Deduct these and actual bums on seats can easily be closer to 35% on average.
So what’s going on?
We know why desks lie empty. It’s because of maternity and annual leave, sickness and secondments, as well as short-term absentees off to meetings, lunch appointments, entertaining visitors, or just gone to the loo.
You might have empty desks set aside for future growth, or perhaps their owners have left the business or been made redundant. Perhaps they are just an unavoidable consequence of modern business life, like parked cars in street – owned, but silent and empty.
The thing is, people really like their desks, even though their essential function has withered dramatically. There was a time, not long ago, when there were things you could only do at a desk. Starting with scribing and record keeping, later we made phone calls and shuffled paperwork, cranked ‘adding machines’ and then typewriters (remember those?). Desktop computers arrived with screens the size of washing machines and electric cables chaining you and your kit to a desk. We have been conditioned to consider the desk an essential icon of white collar work life. For many people, if you don’t have a desk, you don’t have a job.
Today, all that tethered kit is portable. The laptop, tablet and mobile phone don’t need a permanent home. Most office workers can pick up everything they need and tuck it under their arm. The desk is a handy place to use them, but not the only one. They work equally well at home, on the train, in a hotel or within an air terminal. So do we still need desks?
Facility managers would like fewer of them, as they aim to save space and control costs. Fewer desks mean less space, less rent and more savings. Why have twice the number of desks you need? If everyone and everything is mobile and flexible, let’s walk the talk and save the money.
“Most office workers can pick up everything they need and tuck it under their arm.”
But again, people really do like their desks. It’s just their function is different. In an era of mobility, hot-desking is not as common as you would expect. It remains a minority sport.
Status matters, and an office worker without her name on a desk can feel unimportant or out of the game. It’s also practical, as it’s really handy to have a place to throw your stuff, leave your jacket and, if you are looking for someone it’s nice to know where they are likely to be or leave a note if they are away.
Youthful and mobile employees in tech firms from California to Old Street carry their laptops everywhere as they jump from one meeting or client to another, skinny latte in the hand. But they still have their home base. The simple utility of the desk keeps it centre stage. Tech firms can’t run the risk of alienating their people.
They know the cost of a desk space, even in the city, is always a fraction of the cost of the person, so why rock the boat?
The unstoppable change is the increasing value placed on human interaction, which is why Yahoo! Oracle and Hewlett Packard ask their people to return to the office after years of encouraging home working. It is no longer an argument about cost; there is a visible change in behavior.
If people do turn their back on desk ownership by choice rather than coercion because they see better places to be, maybe the money saved could be spent on other things that make us happy and productive?
We just need to decide what they are.