Dedicated desks at the office: Who’s still asking for them and why

The rise of the shared desk

Dedicated desks are in danger. There are two main reasons, both of which are pushing shared workspace to replace dedicated desks. First, when used deliberately and appropriately, shared workspaces—the antithesis of dedicated desks—greatly reduce workspace costs by increasing utilization. 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% of U.S. office stock.

What exactly do we mean by “shared workspace”?

We’re referring to 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 what it’s termed, should shared workspace displace all dedicated desks, becoming the norm for all employees across functions, levels, and personality types? Assuming not, which is safe for most absolutes, how can you consider a mix of dedicated desks and shared workspace as you plan your company’s workspace? Let’s answer those questions by examining which types of workers might ask for a dedicated desk, which workers might actually benefit from a dedicated desk, and a few of the underlying reasons.

Who’s asking for dedicated desks?

Dedicated desks are more consistent, cozy, and familiar. They typically include a locker to keep belongings overnight, they can be personalized once and remain that way, and they’re always in the same place, though the neighbors may change. Downsides are that they’re often on or beyond the periphery of shared workspace energy and kitchen convenience, there’s less interaction and idea sharing due to that, and dedicated desks are typically more expensive.

Examining who typically asks for a dedicated desk within an organization, the top reasons are that a worker needs to:

  1. Customize workspace due to a disability or other ergonomic requirement
  2. Protect specialized equipment
  3. Have a wired Internet connection for bandwidth and/or security
  4. Accommodate moderate or severe social anxiety
  5. Personalize the space for sentimental or convenience reasons

These are all compelling reasons, and it’s a good idea as you consider workspace plans to consider the details of these needs:

  1. Disability and ergonomic requirements: Even minor ergonomic and 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, a desk equipped for a wheelchair user.
  2. Protect equipment: Similarly, workers who use cameras, audio mixers, or other specialized equipment may find storing it in a central location overly inconvenient. If there’s a shared locker in a workspace that the worker typically uses or passes by anyway, though, that may be sufficient.
  3. Wired connection: Workers may require the bandwidth of a wired connection, which is still 5x faster than even the fastest WiFi, in addition to not varying depending on interference and other environmental factors. If they’re doing heavy real-time video editing and backups, for instance, a dedicated desk might be the only solution. And other workers, particularly if the role or company deals with highly sensitive information, may require the security of a wired connection—nearly 50% 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 her 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. Life stage seems to play a role here: While there’s no hard and fast rule, personalization seems more common among mid- or late-career workers. Part of that could be family- or child-related, or due to the fact that more experienced workers have picked up lucky souvenirs or inspirational tchotchkes.

It’s apparent that a company considering shared workspace vs. 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., easily accessible lockers, light ergonomic equipment that can be taken for the day, and support systems to ease anxious workers. And most importantly, be open and empathetic to workers’ needs as they benefit from—but also adjust to—the shared workspace shift.

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