Office technology and design are constantly evolving, and this year’s hot new thing could be next year’s fax machine. With that in mind, Robin brings you The State of the Office 2018—a series of in-depth articles detailing how innovations in technology and design are changing various aspects of the workplace, and what everyone from CIOs to office managers needs to know to stay current. Each week, we’ll issue a new report focusing on a different section of the office. This week: the desk/cubicle/workstation.
Look around you. Are there drab fabric walls high enough to block your view of anything else? If so, you might be a time traveler—because cubicles, and the monotonous rat-maze model of “cubicle farms,” are increasingly a thing of the past. In 2018, offices are increasingly being designed not just with the efficient use of space in mind, but with a focus on employees’ well-being. (A happy employee is, after all, a productive employee.) That means shared workstations, communal areas with amenities aplenty, breakout rooms, and other non-cubicle spaces that convey openness, friendliness, and flexibility.
Here, we explore four trends influencing how desks and workspaces are being designed and utilized. In the future, desks might not even look like, well, desks.
Employees are spending more time away from their desks—sometimes the office entirely—than ever before, with research suggesting that up to 40% of office space is vacant at any one time. The cost of real estate is the biggest line item for most corporations, after salaries and technology. These facts have led to a boom in hot-desking, the cost-effective workspace-sharing model in which employees outnumber desks.
“Increased density” — or what the common folk call shared workspaces — ”is not only a financially driven best practice. It also drives engagement and social interaction in the office.”
– Bernice Boucher, Managing Director and Workplace Strategy Practice Lead at JLL.
Unsurprising, then, that two-thirds of companies plan to have a shared-desk workplace strategy by 2020, according to a CBRE survey.
Some companies are ahead of the curve. Lego designed their London office, for example, around the concept of “activity-based working,” which, according to former CEO Bali Padda, means that “[employees’] activities during the workday determine where they are—not what department they are part of.” The setup creates “a more flexible environment where employees meet new colleagues all the time.”
At the New York City office of ClassPass, there are six long high-top tables that can fit eight people each, according to IT manager Topher Wheeler. Airbnb, Dropbox, and 99designs, to name just a few innovative companies, also have shared workspaces in their offices.
But it’s not only toy companies and free-thinking Silicon Valley startups with unassigned workstations. Hot-desking is being embraced by stereotypically buttoned-up industries long associated with dystopian cubicle farms.
Communications? Yes. At the BBC’s headquarters in central London, there are 3,500 desks for over 5,600 employees.
Banking? Sure. At Citigroup’s Long Island City office complex, 200 employees share 150 unassigned desks.
Consulting? Absolutely. At the Edge in Amsterdam, the “smartest office space ever constructed,” around 2,500 Deloitte employees share 1,000 desks. In Toronto, Deloitte’s new headquarters have “about 18 different types of workstations on any given floor,” according to partner Ryan Brain, who oversaw the transition to the new space. One consultant even calls her backpack her office.
2. Health-promoting desks
“Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation,” the Harvard Business Review wrote in 2013. The negative effects of sitting for extended periods of time are as scientifically well-documented as as they are acutely felt by America’s sedentary office workers.
In response to those medical concerns, office-equipment makers have created desks that keep you moving. Used across a wide variety of industries, the treadmill desk has become a symbol of the active-office movement.
Industry titans like Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff, Hearst chief content officer Joanna Coles, TV personality Al Roker, and Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan all use treadmill desks from LifeSpan. Omnicom Group CEO John Osborn might be the O.G. treadmill desker—he’s used one since 2012.
If walking isn’t your employees’ thing, try a bike desk (or desk cycle). The Flexispot Deskcise Pro is one comprehensive desk-replacement option that balances work and wellness. For something smaller, the DeskCycle fits under an employee’s standard desk and lets them pedal at one of eight resistance levels while working on passive tasks. In between, there’s the LifeSpan Solo under-desk bike, which transforms a standing desk into a source of exercise.
3. Smart desks
The Internet of Things has made objects “smart” by connecting them to the internet—door locks, fitness trackers, home appliances, cars, and more. Now, the IoT is future-proofing the workspace.
Herman Miller, the maker of the iconic Aeron office chair that’s as pricey as it is comfortable, recently released Live OS, a cloud-connected system that links height-adjustable desks with an app and digital dashboard. The company says that sensors on “connected work surfaces capture space utilization data”; the app lets employees “set posture preferences and make progress toward activity goals”; and the dashboard “offers insights that help control operational costs, improve space utilization, and enhance employee well-being.”
Similar in function is the Stir Kinetic Desk, designed “with the express purpose of promoting movement during work.” Over time, it learns employees’ work habits, like how long they stand before needing a break. Employees can set goals using its embedded touch screen, such as standing for a certain percentage of the workday, to spark healthier habits.
If your office already has height-adjustable desks, you can equip them with sensor boxes to make employees’ work choices more scientifically driven. The Humanscale OfficeIQ, for example, sends employees sitting-versus-standing data and alerts reminding them to get up. It can also provide aggregated, anonymous data about occupancy and utilization rates to help you make smarter workplace decisions, from design to scheduling.
4. Workspace-surface technology
Employees no longer need ample desk space for papers, manila file folders, Xerox machines, and clunky old desktop computers. For many employees, a laptop, monitor, keyboard, and mouse are all that sit on their desk. (Okay, maybe a Mason jar of cold brew, too.) As such, there’s a new wave of office technology that facilitates productivity for small desk surfaces.
Wireless charging pads, for instance, eliminate employees’ need for annoying cables and makes charging their smartphone as simple as placing it on a desk. Check out The Wirecutter’s recommendations of wireless charging pads here.
Speaking of cable clutter, some desks even have built-in cable management systems, because tripping over wires isn’t good for anyone’s productivity. The Herman Miller Airia is one such beautifully designed desk. There’s also the infinitely customizable Evodesk, with a smart cable pass-through and an optional power dock, that’s used by brands like Apple, General Mills, and Microsoft. Other options include the Jennifer Newman Gap Desk; the BlueLounge StudioDesk, with a hidden storage compartment; and the minimalist, bar-height Bernhardt Design Powerbar.
In the future, employees might even send emails, write code, and manage their to-do lists in midair—with augmented reality. Workspace, AR software made by Meta, overlays holographic imagery on the immediate physical world, letting users manipulate numerous virtual displays at once to pull hand-drawn notes from their phone to the air in front of them or, per Bloomberg, “manipulate 3D models with their hands.”
We might be far from the day when an office workspace is no more than a chair and an AR headset. But at least we’re distancing ourselves from the days of gray grids of dehumanizing cubicles.
Hold onto your popcorn, people. There are more design and tech trends coming right up. Next on the docket: social areas.
Check out the other posts of The State of the Office 2018 series:
- Conference rooms
- Social Areas
- Executive Offices
- Interview with Gensler Associate Alan Robles
- Interview with KAA Design Partner Duan Tran
- Bonus Round: Digital Workplace Tools
And download our free guide to get access to the tech throughout every corner of the office.
sources: Theluxurist, The Long + Short, JLL, The Australian Financial Review, LEGO, ZDNet, Bloomberg, Woodworking Network, Harvard Business Review, LifeSpan, AdAge, Flexispot, DeskCycle, LifeSpan, Architect Magazine, Herman Miller, Stir, Humanscale, Forbes, The Wirecutter, Evodesk, Jennifer Newman, BlueLounge, Bernhardt Design, Meta, Bloomberg