So long to the office desk

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IF YOU thought that "hot-desking" - the practice of allocating desks to people on a day-by-day basis rather than permanently - was bad, it could get worse. A new study predicts that in five years the office desk will start disappearing altogether.

It will be replaced by free-standing "lay-bys" within the office, where "nomadic" workers with cordless phones will stand up to plug in their laptops.

Philip Ross, who studies work patterns for the London-based consultancy Morgan Lovell, says the fast-food style office has already arrived. "Early versions of this system are being used by Chiat Day, an advertising agency in Los Angeles, as well as the drugs company Zeneca, Digital Equipment in Sweden and, to a limited extent, the BBC." At Chiat Day staff arriving in the morning can decide which part of the office they want to work in. At Digital, there are no fixed desks, and workers pick up a cordless handset that they can use anywhere in the building in a "lay-by".

At present, an estimated 1 per cent of office extensions can "wander" with their user, according to Morgan Lovell. But by the end of the decade that figure is expected to reach 30 per cent. Cordless handsets are useful because modern work patterns mean that employees are often away from their desks. Studies by British Telecom have found that 70 per cent of business calls fail to get through to the desired person, and that 15 per cent of an office worker's time is spent "circulating" away from the desk - equivalent to more than an hour in an eight-hour day.

"Only 30 per cent of a typical worker's time is spent at his or her desk," said Ross. "The rest of the time they're either in meetings or out of the office."

It was this trend that first led to "hot-desking" early in this decade, when companies keen to cut costs began allocating desks daily on a first- come, first-served basis. It is now common practice in many companies.

The next stage, says Mr Ross, is to take away the desks. Telecoms companies are developing cordless handsets to operate within large buildings. "Once you have those, you don't need desks. You can have lay-bys off the circulation routes where people can work when they need to. People think more clearly on their feet."

One City worker retorted yesterday: "You may think more clearly standing up - but only until you collapse with exhaustion."