Do sad desks make sad workers?

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 #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,” said 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,” said Blake McGowan, managing consultant for Humantech, an ergonomics firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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 said, 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 said, 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 said. “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 said. “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 looking 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 said, 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, California, headquarters.

Referring to a saddesk submission that featured a MacBook computer on top of a cardboard box, he added, “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 said. “I would definitely say (desks) are falling out of grace.”

Besides, lasting workplace happiness transcends desks, he said, 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 said. Workplace happiness is “created by people, not by stuff.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Members of Gravitics' team and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen stand in front of a mockup of a space module interior on Thursday, August 17, 2023 at Gravitics' Marysville facility. Left to right: Mark Tiner, government affairs representative; Jiral Shah, business development; U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen; Mike DeRosa, marketing; Scott Macklin, lead engineer. (Gravitics.)
Marysville startup prepares for space — the financial frontier

Gravitics is building space station module prototypes to one day house space travelers and researchers.

Orca Mobility designer Mike Lowell, left, and CEO Bill Messing at their office on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 in Granite Falls, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Could a Granite Falls startup’s three-wheeler revolutionize delivery?

Orca Mobility’s battery-powered, three-wheel truck is built on a motorcycle frame. Now, they aim to make it self-driving.

Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Grant aids apprenticeship program in Mukilteo and elsewhere

A $5.6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant will boost apprenticeships for special education teachers and nurses.

Peoples Bank is placing piggy banks with $30 around Washington starting Aug. 1.
(Peoples Bank)
Peoples Bank grant program seeks proposals from nonprofits

Peoples Bank offers up to $35,000 in Impact Grants aimed at helping communities. Applications due Sept. 15.

Workers build the first all-electric commuter plane, the Eviation Alice, at Eviation's plant on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in Arlington, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Arlington’s Eviation selects Seattle firm to configure production plane

TLG Aerospace chosen to configure Eviation Aircraft’s all-electric commuter plane for mass production.

Jim Simpson leans on Blue Ray III, one of his designs, in his shop on Friday, August 25, 2023, in Clinton, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Whidbey Island master mechanic building dream car from “Speed Racer”

Jim Simpson, 68, of Clinton, is using his knowledge of sports cars to assemble his own Mach Five.

An Amazon worker transfers and organizes items at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amazon cuts ribbon on colossal $355M fulfillment center in Arlington

At 2.8 million square feet, the facility is the largest of its kind in Washington. It can hold 40 million “units” of inventory.

A computer rendering of the North Creek Commerce Center industrial park in development at 18712 Bothell-Everett Highway. (Kidder Mathews)
Developer breaks ground on new Bothell industrial park

The North Creek Commerce Center on Bothell Everett Highway will provide warehouse and office space in three buildings.

Dan Bates / The Herald
Funko president, Brian Mariotti is excited about the growth that has led his company to need a 62,000 square foot facility in Lynnwood.
Photo Taken: 102312
Former Funko CEO resigns from the Everett company

Brian Mariotti resigned Sept. 1, six weeks after announcing he was taking a six-month sabbatical from the company.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Paper or plastic? Snohomish County may require businesses to take cash

County Council member Nate Nehring proposed an ordinance to ban cashless sales under $200. He hopes cities will follow suit.

A crowd begins to form before a large reception for the opening of Fisherman Jack’s at the Port of Everett on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Seafood with a view: Fisherman Jack’s opens at Port of Everett

“The port is booming!” The new restaurant is the first to open on “restaurant row” at the port’s Waterfront Place.

Tanner Mock begins unwrapping new furniture that has been delivered on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
In Everett, new look, new name for mainstay Behar’s Furniture

Conlin’s Furniture, based in South Dakota, bought the huge store and celebrates with a grand opening this week.