The death of the desk: How collaboration is shaping the new office

Workplace of the future.

The end of the traditional desk and office-space has been trumpeted by the fortunate few for nearly a decade. It’s now here for everyone.

Until recently it was great if you had the money, the investment capital, vision and opportunity to create new working spaces – but most didn’t benefit unless you worked inside Google, Apple, BBC, WordPress and a few other elite companies that are focussed on innovation.

But this approach to work, and workspace is not just the preserve of the super-rich (see how Richard Branson likes to work) or super-innovative companies such as Apple. If you look at the kind of working spaces that these companies have/are building to see that the office space is changing, and changing for good.

Out are cubbyholes, fidgety meeting rooms, hierarchical space and even desks – In are collaboration spaces, booths, comfy chair, atriums, open rambling spaces and flexible/nomad working. These need not be elitist, or expensive to implement – but it takes will, and vision, to see a plan through.

If you think about work – the what, where and how we work is just so very critical – most of our working lives (over 13 years to be exact) are spent at work, and our environment has a huge impact on our lives and health (we consume a staggering 2/3rds of our daily calorie intake whilst at work).

Ideally, we’d all spend less time “at the office” and more time being creative elsewhere – but we’re not all that lucky and the modern world is actually driving us to spend more time at the place of work.

Being more innovative and creative at your regular place of work, and making it more enjoyable is one way to address this imbalance. So you can start off, like Apple or the BBC, by bringing people together and removing traditional desks and offices.

This move away from the office desk as the main place of productivity is one of the developments in workplace design which has seen the real estate departments of large corporations realise that packing employees tightly into spaces will not necessarily result in greater productivity, according to Philip Tidd from the design and architecture firm Gensler.

It’s also fueled the growth of innovative workspace providers such as The Office Group, one of the largest workspace providers in the UK with dozens of buildings totalling 800,000 sq ft. Each building has its own identity, with communal spaces such as libraries, screening rooms and gardens creating inspirational workplaces with a genuine sense of community. They’re all built to get people working together in exciting and exquisitely designed workspaces.

But does it just stop at the death of the desk? Where do you go to if you have something really important to do? Whereabouts are you more creative?

Not just the desk. The office too?

The Industrial Revolution’s “under one roof” model of conducting work is waning primarily to technology that can create virtual workspaces and allow folks to provide their vital contribution without physically clustering together.

Today, the new paradigm is “move work to the workers, rather than workers to the workplace.” According to Reuters, one in five global workers telecommutes frequently and nearly ten percent work from home every day.

In 2012, we followed in the tracks of some pretty innovative companies (most notably WordPress and 37Signals) and ditched our permanent offices. It was liberating, saved a fortune and doubled our productivity. We joined an exclusive band of companies that, having experimented with remote working for a decade, we’re going “all-in” to create a new workplace paradigm.

For a year or so we were, like others, the objects of interest – we did lots of interviews and column inches even reached the heady heights of The Telegraph. But just how have we faired?

3 years later on we still don’t operate permanently-staffed offices. Our workforce is now genuinely location-agnostic and we continue to innovate, but faster than before. The move some 3 years ago has made us so fleet of foot I cannot imagine a time where we’ll get stuck in a rut – there are no ruts!

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Taking the step to “dump the desks” and move to an altogether more contemporary workspace arrangement should not be taken too lightly. We took nearly 4 years, inching ever closer towards location agnosticity and had vision from the top, the capital investment will and the luxury of internal time and resource to experiment.

We also had giants, in the form of Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson at 37Signals (but their book, Remote: Office not required, it’s brilliant) on whose shoulders we could stand. Useful is “A year without pants“, by Scott Berkun who covers the “no-office” mantra at WordPress.

//by Martin Dower, CEO

Disclaimer: All opinions are our own. We do use services from 37Signals (since 2008), Amazon (since 2010), The Office Group (since 2014) and WordPress (since 2008). None of the organisations mentioned have offered any incentive or reward for this content.