Peak desk?

I wonder whether we’ll find the idea of sitting in an office all day staring at a computer screen very odd in the future. I still do it on most days, don’t get me wrong, but I’d like to do it less and I can see more reasons for trying new ways of working. I think office design will probably change pretty radically over the coming 5–10 years, indeed it already has in some places. I guess there are three main reasons things might change:

As the economy changes, desk jobs are probably the ones that will disappear. The jobs that are holding up are the ones outside offices — in cafes and restaurants, hair dressers and care homes — places where software can’t really affect productivity by an order of magnitude. We’re going to have to learn to value those more. Maybe Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant did us a favour by unglamourising the office.

Then there’s the health side of things. Sitting is not good for you. Office workers in the UK took 131 million days off in 2011, with the most common causes being coughs, cold and flu, and back, neck and limb problems (although the number has been dropping in recent years).

And finally there’s the creative side of things. Offices are full of distractions. There’s a lovely section in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow where he describes how he walks and thinks in the Berkeley hills (perhaps I’m biased because that’s where I am at the moment). This after he’s written about the technique that he and Amos Tversky used during the most productive academic years of their lives — they went for walks.

I spend a few months each year in Berkeley, and one of my greatest pleasures there is a daily four-mile walk on a marked path in the hills, with a fine view of San Francisco Bay. I usually keep track of my time and have learned a fair amount about effort from doing so. I have found a speed, about 17 minutes for a mile, which I experience as a stroll. I certainly exert physical effort and burn more calories than if sat in a recliner, but I experience no strain, no conflict, and no need to push myself. I am also able to think and work while walking at that rate. Indeed, I suspect that the mild physical arousal of the walk may spill over into greater mental alertness.

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