Is Ditching Individual Desks the Key to Effective Space Management?

by James McDonald on November 22, 2016

If you’re not working in an open office, you’re among the minority. According to the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), about 70 percent of U.S. offices have either low or no partitions dividing workspaces. While many open office advocates laud these unpartitioned spaces as the key to interdepartmental collaboration, critics are quick to point out the open office isn’t always suitable for everyone. 

But while the open office vs. cubicle debate rages on, facilities managers are facing a new quandary: Is it time to ditch personal desks?

Community tables for collaborative huddlesThe Argument: The Case for a Desk-less Environment

Over the past three decades, the average desk space has been entirely transformed. Folders filled with documents, photos of loved ones, address books, memos and workplace correspondences have all disappeared from the literal desktop and now inhabit your computer’s virtual desktop and mobile devices. People display fewer and fewer personal effects around their workstation as the workforce becomes more and more mobile.

Advocates for a desk-less workplace are quick to point out that desks as we know them are quickly becoming archaic. Instead, personalized and “assigned” spaces should be cast off in favor of community tables and reservable workstations. This allows workers to move about the environment and sit in whatever space they choose — whether that’s a shared table, a sofa, a collaborative huddle room or their own private station. From a space management standpoint, a variety of workstations mean less space is going unused.

The Counterargument: Why Desks Should Stay

Human beings are creatures of habit. Sit on a city bench at the same time every morning and you’re likely to notice this phenomenon: The same woman will be walking her dog, the same man heading to the cafe where he’ll order the same double latte, the same group waiting for the bus — and the same person nearly missing it.

Critics of eliminating assigned desks say even in an open office with multiple spaces, workers are likely to choose the same spot — so why not allow them the opportunity to personalize? After all, since the lines between work life and home life and blurred by flex hours and mobile devices, shouldn’t the workplace include those familiar homey touches? Studies show comfort significantly impact productivity, and a personalized space can certainly make workers feel more comfortable.

Assigned desks allows employees to personalize and add a homey feelWhat’s Best?

When it comes to effective space management, answers are rarely black and white. Your company is composed of workers spanning multiple generations who work best in a wide variety of environments. And as a facilities leader, you know there’s no way to please everyone.

If you’re trying to decide whether to eliminate individual desks, take time to answer the following questions:

  • What percentage of the workforce works remotely most or all of the time? If you’re moving toward a model wherein most employees work outside the office, personal desks can be a waste of space.
  • What percentage of the workforce sits at their desk for more than four hours per day? If the majority of employees are mobile, it may be time to eliminate personal desks.
  • What does your workforce want? If you haven’t taken a survey, now is the time to do so. While you might assume everyone wants to keep their personal desk with their own potted plant and cup of pens, you may be surprised to find most people prefer the opportunity to switch up their workspace throughout the day.

We predict the workplace of the future will offer a little bit of everything — from large expanses without partitions to small one-person private spaces, and nearly everything in between. While we don’t believe desks will ever completely disappear, the way in which your company uses them depends on which option supports a happy and productive workforce.

The way your corporation uses space is evolving and presenting new challenges every day. To stay ahead, check out our free resource, The Great Workplace Space Race: How Successful Enterprises are Solving Spatial Challenges.


James McDonald

James McDonald is a sports enthusiast, brother in Christ and once swam in a tank with the infamous TV sharks.

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