When images of grim work spaces appeared on Twitter in droves in late October, they fed a competition promoted by Wired Magazine.
One desk was stashed in a forbidding storage closet. One was crammed into a corner. Another was curiously isolated in a large, spooky warehouse and surrounded by skids stacked with boxes.
When the images of grim work spaces appeared on Twitter in droves in late October, they fed a competition promoted by Wired Magazine. The technology and business publication had asked readers to accompany the photos with the hashtag #saddesk, from which it collected the 15 “winners” in a Nov. 7 blog post.
Ergonomics experts say while the #saddesk Twitter craze seemed to summon the most extreme cases of workplace blues, there is a very real undertone — and danger — to a dismal desk.
“It will undermine your feeling of self-worth,” says Alan Hedge, a Cornell University professor whose teachings and research focus on the effect of workplace ergonomics on the health, comfort and productivity of workers. “The sad thing about it is that people are putting up with these stupid designs.”
Several academic studies tie physical office space to increased productivity for the two-thirds of the nation’s workforce identified as office workers.
“People want to have an inviting, comfortable, warm environment where they can kind of just forget about comfort and focus on what they’re doing,” says Blake McGowan, managing consultant for Humantech, an ergonomics firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
One of the #saddesk contestants, an office worker in Texas who requested anonymity because her contract does not permit her to talk to media, posted a photo of a boxy desk sitting on stacks of papers and phone books: “My legs are too long to fit under here and I work for the government, so this is how I raised my desk …”
“I think it’s definitely a prevalent problem,” she says in a phone interview, adding that her office also gets “some really unfortunate chairs,” forcing her to shift and incessantly get up to walk around during the day. “It cuts into the workflow process. It’s not pleasant to be there. If I could do the work from home, I would.”
Because she works at a publicly funded mental health facility in Texas, she says, the challenge of fixing workplace design is twofold. For one, management is limited by a small budget and an aging building. For another, there’s a certain guilt in asking for a better desk, given the struggles of her clientele.
“I’m OK making some sacrifices at work,” she says. “We’re all kind of suffering.”
But ergonomics experts largely debunk the myth that workplaces fixes are prohibitively expensive. The solution for most office setups is pretty straightforward and simple, McGowan said, noting that, paradoxically, even some of Wired’s choices of the saddest desks had relatively expensive technological equipment on them.
“It’s a pretty clear illustration of what people value when they do work,” McGowan says. “It’s interesting to see that everyone has a very capable computer that was fairly new, latest technology of phones and things like that. Those are personal choices to leave your workstations look like that.”
However, comparatively dingy work spaces could be more of the norm than the exception, acknowledged Mark Benden, director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center.
Most Americans work for small businesses, he says, which “are the last to receive a three-story slide with a ball pit at the bottom,” a jab at the campuses of tech giants like Facebook and Google, the latter of which boasts a roller hockey rink and “nap pods” at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.
Referring to a #saddesk submission that featured a MacBook computer on top of a cardboard box, he adds, “If the furniture industry was as adept and able to change as fast as the tech industry, this would be a whole different world.” Of course, with the rise of the “mobile workplace” that runs on Cloud services and employees working from home, the physical, individual desk could be on the way out in future office redesigns.
“The work environment has become very, very portable. We don’t have to be restricted and tied down to the same desks,” Benden says. “I would definitely say (desks) are falling out of grace.”
Besides, lasting workplace happiness transcends desks, he says, and it lies in the psychosocial relationships workers form with their bosses and co-workers.
If relationships are good, employees “will sit on milk crates and be happy, and I’m not exaggerating,” Benden says. Workplace happiness is “created by people, not by stuff.”