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How the bench became the symbol of millennial office design trends

Posted on January 29, 2015 by Paul Goodchild

office design

Many of the contemporary debates about workplace design and management have been ongoing for at least twenty years. The emergence of the Internet and mobile technologies mean that the workplace design scene came alive in the 1990s as it became apparent that we were no longer tied to specific buildings and personal workstations. As we approached the Millennium, fresh ideas and emerging technologies wove themselves into the grand narrative of new ways of working. There was no longer one best way of doing things and a new generation of office design explored the new possibilities.

In New York, Chiat Day’s offices featured touch-down desks, garish crimson floors and walls and a reception framed by a huge pair of plastic, glistening lips. In Helsinki, Sol Cleaning Services did away completely with ideas as outmoded as desks and working hours. In the UK, British Airways gave their staff olive groves and indoor streams to work alongside. And in London a small media company called Michaelides and Bednash had offices that consisted of a room furnished with a single 20m long serviced table for its 20 staff to share.

Such workplaces were surely one-offs, footnotes to the main story. The eminent workplace theorist and designer Frank Duffy wrote the following of the Michaelides and Bednash office in his 1997 book The New Office: ‘The Michaelides and Bednash table would not work for many of the companies featured in this book. The office space is very specific to the business it houses.’

And that should have been that. Except for one thing. The long table with a core of data, comms and power servicing favoured by Michaelides and Bednash – now commonly known as a bench system – has become one of the great office design success stories of the last 20 years. Most furniture manufacturers now have a bench system as a standard offering.

But why should this be? With all the space planning and product options now available to us why should such a product have taken off in quite the way it has? As designers we are free to create whatever working environment and recommend whatever products we think best meets the needs our clients.

Well, for a start benches are a cost effective way of creating open plan workstations. But there is also the practicality of bench ownership to consider. Facilities mangers spend a great deal of time and money each year moving desks around, finding they haven’t got the right leg frames, unhooking IT, reconnecting it elsewhere and so on. We know this as churn and are well aware that it is a cost that most organisations have to bear. These costs can frequently be mitigated through careful consideration of the use of the space from the outset. Benches are often democratic, static and architectural in their use, meaning they allow people to move rather than furniture. By moving the individual or team instead of the infrastructure, costs are significantly reduced.

Benches aren’t just appropriate to one type of job. We’ve found creative agencies, lawyers, libraries, banks, accountancy firms and leisure/retail companies all embrace the bench culture for what it brings to their people. They are therefore an ideal solution in certain applications and for certain cultures. However, they are not the panacea for all working environments.

Typically benches work best where teams or mobile knowledge workers can come together or where workers don’t need a lot of personal workspace. They want the reassurance of being able to make that space their own for the duration of their task. It’s important to recognise this and to ensure that those elements of personalisation are available – screens, wipe boards, power/data sockets, paper holders, and of course the ubiquitous cup holders.

So while a bench can be inflexible, impersonal and regimented when used in the wrong place or the wrong way, when it’s specified with the appropriate tools, it becomes cost-effective, easy to maintain and makes valuable use of space in ways that allow people to get on, to communicate, to focus and to do what they do better. Contemporary organisations have a wider range of planning models, finishes and products than ever before. The bench system may be ubiquitous but it is also only likely to be part of an intelligent and well designed workplace.