Dedicated office desks: Who wants them and why

Not every employee needs an assigned desk. Activity-based working gives them the freedom to work where they want

As shared workspace becomes the norm, dedicated desks are in danger of becoming obsolete. When used deliberately and appropriately, shared workspaces greatly reduce workspace costs by increasing utilization. (If one employee is out of the office, another can sit in that space.) That’s really appealing to companies of all sizes. Second, shared spaces provide employees with an environment conducive to collaboration and creativity. That’s appealing to workers and companies alike. So it’s no surprise that by 2030, the shared workspace market is expected to represent 30 percent of U.S. office stock.

What exactly is “shared workspace”?

A shared workspace is a desk or other work area not dedicated to a single worker, aka flexible workspace and coworking space. “Coworking” tends to evoke startup-only imagery, and “flexible workspace” can be confused with space that has easily configurable ergonomics, so we use the term shared workspace.

Regardless of how you phrase it, the rise of shared workspace begs the question: Should it displace all dedicated desks, for all employees across functions, levels, and personality types? If not, how can you best consider a mix of dedicated desks and shared workspace as you plan your company’s workspace? Start by examining which types of workers might ask for a dedicated desk, which workers might actually benefit from a dedicated desk, and why.

Who’s asking for dedicated desks?

Dedicated desks are consistent, cozy, and familiar. They usually include a locker to keep belongings overnight, they can be personalized once and remain that way, and they’re always in the same place, although the neighbors may change. The downsides: They’re typically more expensive and often beyond the periphery of the shared workspace and kitchen convenience, resulting in less interaction and idea sharing.

Typically, when a worker asks for a dedicated desk, it’s for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Disability and ergonomic requirements: Even minor ergonomic requirements can be inconvenient or impossible to set up and take down each day, and some shared workspaces may not accommodate disability requirements. For example, not all desks might be equipped for a wheelchair user.
  2. Protect equipment: Workers who use cameras, audio mixers, or other specialized equipment may find storing it in a central location overly inconvenient. Alhough if there’s a shared locker in a workspace that the worker typically uses or passes by anyway, that may be sufficient.
  3. Wired connection: Workers may require the bandwidth of a wired connection, which is still five times faster than even the fastest WiFi and doesn’t vary depending on interference and other environmental factors. If an employee is doing heavy real-time video editing and backups, for instance, a dedicated desk might be the only solution. Other workers, whose role or company deals with highly sensitive information, may require the security of a wired connection—nearly 50 percent of IT decision makers say that wireless networks are the weakest point in IT infrastructure.
  4. Social anxiety: Accommodating socially anxious workers is a delicate topic. They’re more likely to ask for, and need, dedicated desk space. Shared workspaces usually require sitting near new people each day, and perhaps even asking a stranger to move his bag. For workers with moderate to severe social anxiety, sandwiching between strangers every day can be a stressful experience.
  5. Sentimental personalization: Whether it’s keeping a child’s picture in a frame on their desk or being able to play with their lucky Slinky, some workers really want to personalize the look and emotional appeal of their workspace.

It’s apparent that a company considering shared workspace versus dedicated desks should really consider a mix of both environments. Consider giving workers the opportunity to test both, while priming them with the benefits of each. If your company is stretching its budget to accommodate dedicated desks, think about how to equip workers to use shared space more like dedicated space, e.g., with easily accessible lockers, light ergonomic equipment that can be taken for the day, and support systems to ease anxious workers. And most important, be open and empathetic to workers’ needs as they benefit from—but also adjust to—the shared workspace shift.

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