Covid Has Changed The Office Desk Forever

The desks of yore are dying.

For centuries, they were hulking pieces of furniture, a reflection of the needs of their owners to write letters, balance ledgers or intimidate subordinates.

As technology permeated the modern workplace, they were crammed into increasingly shrinking cubicles or cramped open floor plans, stuffed with unread employee handbooks, unused office supplies and forgotten snacks. They were also the mantle on which to place photos of loved ones, bobbleheads and joke calendars.

For decades, the standard office desk underwent very little change.

But after two years going largely unused, the office desks of 2022 are going to look quite different than their predecessors.  

“There’s going to be less personalization at a surface because I think things are going to be more on-demand use, not assigned,” OTJ Architects principal and Design Director Alyssa Smiroldo told Bisnow. “So gone are the days of tchotchkes and personal items on everyone’s desk, because it might be a shared environment now.”

Manufacturers and dealers say there has been a trifurcation in the desk design game, among larger, unassigned desks, adaptable, mobile desks that can accommodate people working in different positions in different locations, and desks in spaces designed for when they need to put their heads down and complete solo work.

Standing or height-adjustable desks, a relatively new sight in the office, are also growing in popularity. Standing desk market share is estimated at $6.7B in 2022, but that figure is expected to rise to $10.3B by 2028, according to a Market Reports World analysis. The global office furniture sales market is expected to grow from $69.2B in 2021 to $82.2B in 2028. 

It would be good news for U.S. manufacturers, whose overall seasonally adjusted furniture output declined during the pandemic, dropping from $72.4B in Q4 2019 to pandemic lows of $67.5B in Q2 and Q4 2020, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

Most notably for office owners, post-pandemic design trends mean larger desks and, in turn, larger footprints. While 8-foot desks were once the office norm, the average desk size had been dropping before the pandemic to between 4 and 5 feet in the last five years, Studio Other President and Creative Director Charlotte Wiederholt said.

Now that remote workers have had two full years to build out their home offices to their own specifications, employers have to contend with the comfort and choice that work-from-home provided. 

“I would say 100% of our clients are challenged with people [getting] very comfortable at home. They’ve built an office at home, they like staying home — it’s easier to stay at home,” Wiederholt said. “How do you inspire or engage people to come back to the office, and how do you create a space that doesn’t feel like you’re just going back to the old office you had two years ago that’s just been sitting empty for two years and sort of has no life to it, it feels dead, it has no vibe or energy?”

Even before the pandemic accelerated the trend away from the heavy, immobile, storage-burdened desk, 17 billion pounds of office furniture ended up in U.S. landfills annually, according to Environmental Protection Agency data from a 2015 study cited by The Huffington Post.

Although the manufacturers and designers Bisnow spoke with said their clients try to reuse what they can and donate the rest, not every piece is reusable or ripe for the secondary market. And employers aren’t finding that reuse is an effective tactic in inspiring an office renaissance.

“We find that about 30% of our clients, the offices they’re building out are the old-school vibe: Everybody gets a dedicated desk. They’re doing the same things that they’d done before the pandemic,” Wiederholt said. “And about 60% to 70% of our clients are exploring, ‘How do we change the desk?’”

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The pandemic is hastening the death of the cumbersome old desks workers left behind in March 2020.

Wiederholt, whose custom workspace design firm is based in Los Angeles, said that of the 60% to 70% of Studio Other clients looking into shaking up their pre-pandemic layouts, about 70% are employing a hybrid model, with employees coming to the physical office two or three days a week. Since not all employees are there full time, one of the main concerns has been figuring out how in-office workers can take video calls at their desks. 

In many cases, that means desks that can accommodate dual-monitor setups, Smiroldo said, adding that employees want more space to safely distance themselves from co-workers, in addition to options to improve posture and decrease sedentary time.

“Density is not a priority anymore; safety is and well-being,” she said. “Employers and companies are really thinking about what they can do to the workplace, inclusive of desks and the environments people work in, to make them feel safe and comfortable to come back into the work environment.”

After false starts brought on by coronavirus variants, it looks like a mass return the office may finally be on the horizon. Covid-19 case counts were down 51% nationwide over the two weeks prior to Monday, marking their lowest levels since the summer, and tech companies with massive office footprints like Google and Apple expect at least a part-time return to in-office work by April. But offices still aren’t close to as full as they once were.

Keycard swipe data compiled by Kastle Systems shows that average office occupancy across 10 of the largest U.S. cities was at 38% of pre-pandemic figures the week of March 2, up from 36.8% a week prior, leaving a vast majority of pre-pandemic office workers still toiling away on the couch or in the backyard hammock.

As companies design a more vibrant workspace to bring employees back, technology can help them figure out what their office needs really are. While Kastle’s data shows the proportion of employees in the office — or, in this case, not — it doesn’t show where within the office they work.

“Now you have some added technology that’s becoming a lot more affordable that can actually give you data to show how often things are being used,” Interior Investments Vice President of Strategic Accounts Ed O’Neill said.

His Chicagoland-based furniture supply firm is working with one of the top three credit reporting bureaus to implement a pilot study as it ushers employees back to its Denver office, he said. The credit agency has left its office exactly the same, but the plan is to install nearly 200 seat sensors and review the data after three and six months to see where people are gathering and how they are using the space, O’Neill said.

The agency plans to survey its users, asking them how they feel about the office, then compare the sentiment responses to employees’ real-life habits, allowing the company to make office design choices with hard data in hand.

That kind of data has applications beyond employee comfort, he said, including prioritizing safety.  

“What if there’s an active shooter, but we know everybody is hanging out in one corner of the office which is farthest from the exit, because that might be the best seating?” O’Neill said. “I’d say there might be a shift toward that technology being more useful to people, less as a Big Brother tool — less as a, ‘Who’s in their seat and how often they’re there,’ because that’s dumb data, you’re just knowing that someone’s there. But more in the [sense of], ‘How do we effectively plan for this?'”

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Courtesy of Steelcase

The pandemic proved that everyday work traditionally done in the office can be done at home, but companies insist that the office is a place of collaboration, mentorship and team-building. Now they have to get employees to buy in to get them back through that revolving glass door, and they have to do so for a variety of workers with differing needs.

“What we’ve seen is more of that increase in variety and the ability for users to have more choice and control to find the right place to work for their preferences versus it being a one-or-the-other solution,” Steelcase Furniture Category Director David Cooper said.

Flexibility is key, and that is evident in the selections office occupiers are making in their desk choices and where those desks are placed. Furnishing private offices has been a growing area of business, Cooper said, and those offices aren’t reserved only for the C-suite. He said Steelcase is designing multipurpose products for spaces that, when they aren’t utilized as private offices, can accommodate two or three people with a large monitor for videoconferencing with even more. 

Wiederholt said she is working with a tech firm she declined to name that built out an office before the pandemic in the Kendall Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for about 1,000 employees, each with their own desk. 

After the pandemic hit, the firm’s head of real estate decided to move offices to 130K SF in suburban Waltham. Instead of permanent, individualized seating, the firm opted for exclusively touchdown desks, and Studio Other was tasked with creating a space that could work for every single department and that would compel workers to return.

A detailed survey of the tech firm’s users revealed they weren’t interested in tightly spaced, 60-inch desks anymore, Wiederholt said. Although they won’t have dedicated desks, they wanted to have personal space around them, with at-desk small-group collaboration capabilities and the adaptability to turn the touchdown desk into a more private setting.

Studio Other designed a space with 6-foot desks and offset seating so that employees aren’t face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder. The design also includes whiteboards at each desk.

“At my desk, all I have to do is slide 3 feet to the right or 3 feet to the left, and I have a whiteboard that I can access,” Wiederholt said. “And then my co-worker, who is 6 feet away from me safely, can also slide over and have a conversation with me at that whiteboard.”

The design is complete with acoustic screens with wings that office users can pull out when they need to complete solo work or take a video call, which has the added benefit of giving fellow office users cues on when it is convenient to collaborate and engage and when it isn’t.

Various desk types, adaptable, semiprivate spaces and multiuse private offices are only a partial answer. While trinkets and baubles on a cubicle-confined desk may become less common, diversity of furniture is on the rise. Landlords are selling the office as a place for socialization and even a place for romance, and they are working to provide spaces that engender such camaraderie.

“One of the biggest things is now supporting community socialization, so for that kind of activity and that kind of situation, you really need to have within your floor plan ancillary spaces,” said Maria Paula Zajar, who leads manufacturer Herman Miller’s desking portfolio in the Americas. “You need to have soft seating that will gather people in a different way.”

Cooper called increased employee choice and control an ecosystem of spaces — a wide range of options complete with a social hub or café for people to come together and connect. But they aren’t just for play and socialization.

“We believe that some of our solutions are uniquely tailored to make those places hard-working, because oftentimes those are places where people are doing real work, individually and together,” he said. 

Employers are ready to bring their workers back, but that doesn’t mean their workers are ready to fully leave behind the comforts of home. So while employees need spaces for hard work, companies are working to give them a slice of remote work — spaces with warm lighting, comfort seating and, perhaps most importantly, an absence of the stuffy old two-ton desk they spent most of their waking hours sitting at before the pandemic.

“People have pulled little things that they like from home and want to maintain that in an office,” Smiroldo said.