Bench Desks. A good investment? Perhaps not.
By Crispin Maby
Bench style desks have some advantages over individual desks, but if you ever need to do an office re-configuration, or take your investment with you to your new office when you move, it could prove to be a costly mistake.
It used to be very simple. If you wanted to maximise your office space and populate it with as many desks as could reasonably fit, you’d buy lots of regular rectangular desks and set them out in long rows end-to-end, back-to-back. But a few years ago a designer at one of the big office furniture manufacturers came up with the idea of a bench-style desking system and now absolutely everyone (manufacturers and dealers) offers at least one, or a number, of such solutions. Furthermore, they are now very popular and more often than not it seems that businesses are buying these, rather than single desks. So what’s the thinking behind bench desks and are they a good deal, or are businesses being sold a concept that they might regret later?
A bench desk is defined by its design – one of long and/or wide work surfaces supported on a shared (bolted together and normally metal) framework and legs. The original concept, apparently, was to promote flexible workspace whereby you could utilise as little or as much desk space as you needed dependent on the task in hand. Fundamentally, no-one owns a fixed area of desk and everyone shuffles up and down the length of the bench to allow more people to join into the work group, or to have access to a larger bit of desk if they have big documents, or lots of documents to work on at any one time. This is facilitated by the fact that the well designed bench desk has fewer legs beneath the desk top, and those that do exist are inset from the desk edge so that you don’t bang your knees as you wheel your chair up and down its length, and, perhaps more significantly, you can sit in any position without having to sit astride a set of desk legs.
That’s the theory anyway, and although I’m sure that someone, somewhere, uses these desks in this way, I’ve yet to see it. The problem is that people still seem to like their personal space, even when hot-desking, even if the defining factor is simply the join at the sides and back of the desk where the worktop meets the next desk in the row. But more fundamentally, no one wants to sit on the join between two desktops, no matter how discrete it is, and even though the bench unit might be many regular desk widths in length, it will invariably be too big for a single sheet of worktop (there are limits to the size a single MFC board can be practically manufactured and what can be carried into a typical office building), so we usually end up with lots of standard desk-sized worktops all bolted together. The net result is that most bench desks are little or no different from the top to a series of regular desks sitting side-by side. Only the structure of the framework underneath is fundamentally different.
So given this, why are people buying them? The manufacturers sell the concept that shared components means fewer legs and less metalwork overall which in turn results in a reduction in price. But in my experience, where there is a cost reduction the difference is very small, but more often than not these systems are pretty expensive bits of kit and very often considerably more costly than the equivalent stand-alone desk.
There are clearly some advantages but in my opinion the single biggest disadvantage outweighs any and all advantages.
- Fewer legs makes the underside of the desk more open and access to under-desk cabling is easier.
- The open design makes it easier to incorporate a shared cable management system (one great big long cable trays basically).
- Because the framework and desktops are bolted together, the desk is generally very solid and sturdy and less inclined to wobble or move.
The downside, and this is a very major downside, is that once you’ve got these things, you’re stuck with a set of very large desk clusters that can’t be moved – not easily anyway. The problem arises mainly when you need to re-configure your office (perhaps to get more people in or because you need to change the working group arrangements), or when you need to shift furniture around to re-carpet tile the office, of if you move office and want to take your bench-desks with you. This is when you discover how extremely inflexible the bench system can be. You can’t just pick up a couple of desks and shove them onto the end of another group, because they’re sharing a framework. And you if you need to reduce the length of a bench by, let’s say, 2 desks and put those two somewhere else, you can’t just unbolt those 2 units either because the framework supporting them probably also supports part of the next positions in the line, and in any case you will end up with at least one set of desks with no legs. Although the manufacturers tell us that you can buy the extra components you need to re-configure these systems, it can be complicated trying to work out what is required, the extra bits can be expensive and you will almost inevitably end up with a big pile of metal framework that can’t be re-used, and therefore wasted. Also, by time you need to do the reconfigurations, the manufacturer might have changed the design of their product and you might not even be able to buy compatible parts.
But let’s say that you can get all the bits you need to do the re-configuration, is that “problem solved”? No it’s not, because now you have the enormous headache of getting everything done over night, or at a weekend, and have it all up and running again when the staff come into work the following day. If you have individual desks, its a pretty simple process – you simply lift them up and move them around. But with bench desks, you will have to work out weeks in advance exactly what parts you will need and get them ordered in time for the move. Your furniture fitters might then have to spend time dismantling and re-building entire rows of desks, just because you need a couple of desks off the end of each, and this might have to be repeated throughout the office. That means that not only do the desks need to be cleared and computers and phones unplugged for the specific workstations that are being re-sited, but potentially many others too. Of course, it depends on how extensive your office re-configuration is, and also what type of bench system you have, but what might take just a few minutes to complete with individual desks, could take an entire weekend with a bench system.
By the way, we sell bench systems, but that’s because people insist on buying them. That said, I always try to encourage customers to buy smaller units – for all the reasons explained above.