Briefings Magazine

The End of The Humble Desk?

Workers need space to collaborate more than they need desks.

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By: Arianne Cohen

It’s a problem of global proportions. It occurs in every country. It upsets operations. It’s wildly wasteful. It keeps executives up at night. What is it?

The humble office desk.

To the likely frustration of office planners, the latest data shows that 36 percent of office desks are empty all week. That’s according to workplace-utilization data firm XY Sense, which studied nearly 25,000 work areas across nine countries, and also found that only 14 percent of desks are used at least five hours per day.

The figures wipe out the common view that workers put in “full days” at their desks, and reflects how modern workplaces are utilized. “People come to work to collaborate, to network, and to see project teams,” says Michael Chappell, strategy director and studio director at Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm. “The desk is just not designed to support collaboration.”

Experts say that though these figures are jarring, they represent only a mild acceleration of trends dating back to well before the pandemic, when workspace-observation studies indicated that desks were in use only around 40 percent of the time. Sure, some people remain very attached to their desks (and offices), but the underlying problem, says Chappell, is that many workplaces were designed to maximize the number of desk spaces, creating an imbalance with their actual use. In practice, many workers spent their days shifting among conference rooms, lounge space, private offices, and coffee areas.

But most firms continue to be slow to absorb this message. The US office-furniture market has continued to grow post-pandemic, reaching nearly $15 billion in 2022, and is expected to rise to north of $22 billion by 2030. “It’s a truly incredible amount of wastage,” says Shivaun Ryan, head of customer success at XY Sense.

In contrast, conference rooms and smaller enclosed meeting areas are occupied during 67 percent of the workday. This leads to large swaths of unused office space and hard-to-book meeting rooms. “You have situations like 12 empty offices and two filled conference rooms,” says Juan Pablo González, sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Professional Services practice.

One industry has been far ahead of the curve, however: management consulting, whose executives realized decades ago that their workers were often on the road visiting clients. When those employees did return to the office, they primarily needed to connect with coworkers. Management consulting was an early adopter of so-called “hospitality” spaces in the workplace, or activity-based areas resembling restaurant booths, focus rooms, libraries, coffee shops, and clubhouses.

For firms still staring down hundreds or thousands of desks, the solution, says Chappell, is to rebalance desk space with activity space. For example, in an industry where employees mostly use small laptops, a workplace layout can minimize storage and desk-surface area to create more meeting and collaboration spaces. The trick to avoiding the notoriously dismal experience of “hot desking” is listening to the needs and preferences of people and surveying them about what sorts of spaces they’d return to work for, says Chappell. “Hardly any reply ‘desks and offices,’” he observes.


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