Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Shrinking Desk Leads to the Disappearing Cubicle

The desktop computer is not what it used to be, and it is a sign of the declining importance of the desk.

Corporate desktop computers are smaller than they used to be, inexpensive enough that they are usually placed on the floor under the desk rather than on the desk, and quick to set up compared to what you would have seen five years ago. Many workers are now issued portable computers, which are even quicker to set up.

But if the computer is getting smaller, the paper files and bookshelves are shrinking faster. Many companies no longer provide printed versions of employee manuals and telephone directories. Computer printouts are still commonplace, but are used for convenience and rarely survive more than a month.

All this is leading toward the possibility of doing away with the personal, assigned desk.

The first sign of this came 20 years ago when some companies started to assign desks, hotel-style, to workers when they arrived at the office in the morning. At first, this was limited to sales people who were in the office only an average of one day a week. It has since expanded to cover many workers who are in the office two or three days a week.

The telephone used to tie people to their desks, and that is still a consideration for people whose job it is to talk to customers on the phone. But telephones are used less and less for communication inside companies, with workers relying instead on email and other forms of written electronic communication. If phones are becoming less important, computers more portable, and papers smaller, what is there to keep workers at a desk?

Of course, when push comes to shove, you don’t need your own desk to get work done. As a consultant, I have worked more than a few days in which I didn’t have a desk assigned to me at all. If I was spending half of the day in meetings anyway, it scarcely mattered where I would sit down for a stray hour between meetings.

The corporate world could do away with personal desks entirely. That would mean the end of the cubicle, which has served as the symbol of the corporate world for ages. Well, actually, it hasn’t been ages. Cubicles did not become the dominant fixture of the corporate office until around 1984, 27 years ago. We may take them for granted, but they aren’t cheap, so if they also aren’t as necessary as they used to be, it seems fair to guess that they could start to disappear within then next 15 years, giving way to something new.