Peak desk?

I wonder whether we’ll find the idea of sitting in an office all day staring at a computer screen very odd in the future. I still do it on most days, don’t get me wrong, but I’d like to do it less and I can see more reasons for trying new ways of working. I think office design will probably change pretty radically over the coming 5-10 years, indeed it already has in some places. I guess there are three main reasons things might change:

As the economy changes, desk jobs are probably the ones that will disappear. The jobs that are holding up are the ones outside offices – in cafes and restaurants, hair dressers and care homes – places where software can’t really affect productivity by an order of magnitude. We’re going to have to learn to value those more. Maybe Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant did us a favour by unglamourising the office.

Then there’s the health side of things. Sitting is not good for you. Office workers in the UK took 131 million days off in 2011, with the most common causes being coughs, cold and flu, and back, neck and limb problems (although the number has been dropping in recent years).

And finally there’s the creative side of things. Offices are full of distractions. There’s a lovely section in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow where he describes how he walks and thinks in the Berkeley hills (perhaps I’m biased because that’s where I am at the moment). This after he’s written about the technique that he and Amos Tversky used during the most productive academic years of their lives – they went for walks.

I spend a few months each year in Berkeley, and one of my greatest pleasures there is a daily four-mile walk on a marked path in the hills, with a fine view of San Francisco Bay. I usually keep track of my time and have learned a fair amount about effort from doing so. I have found a speed, about 17 minutes for a mile, which I experience as a stroll. I certainly exert physical effort and burn more calories than if sat in a recliner, but I experience no strain, no conflict, and no need to push myself. I am also able to think and work while walking at that rate. Indeed, I suspect that the mild physical arousal of the walk may spill over into greater mental alertness.

  • Good thought. Although I’d be interested to understand what sort of spaces really lend themselves to small group (as opposed to 1-2-1) casual interaction- which is where stuff like open plan ‘office’ working can help. But if we are nearing the end of Orwellian massed banks of cubicles/ desks, then bring it on, I say. Here’s some related listening- a useful summary of the issues (though where the enquiry goes next will probably be more interesting, I suspect…). Enjoy the West Coast, and the walks!

  • Always worth looking at science fiction I reckon. I sometimes wonder whether office design owes more to Orwell (or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) than actual measured efficiency.

    Nobody ever seems to sit in a desk chair in a Neal Stephenson novel… although they do occasionally convert armoured trucks into movable work places. Maybe not.

    I’m really interested in the small group spaces at the moment because we’ve got the opportunity to redesign the Ada Lovelace space at Nesta – let me know if you come across good ideas!

  • You don’t mention standing desks, which shake things up a lot.

  • I’ve been thinking of trying it out for a while. Do you use one? Wondering about having them as an option in the new office.

  • Yes, I have a Kangaroo (see and I move up and down all day.

    Stowe Boyd and The Messengers | | @stoweboyd | 1.703.966.9854 <- back to my cell phone: the mini experiment failed

  • lucky you! a fascinating challenge. Will keep an eye out- my personal experience almost always involved the negative (Brazil-esque) end of the spectrum, but I live in hope.