In the 20th century, the image of an endless stream of people heading out to work in offices full of identical desks arrayed in endless geometrical patterns was what many people thought of when they thought of going to work. In movies from 1928’s silent classic The Crowd to 1960’s The Apartment, this image became wedged into the popular imagination. And the aptly named Desk Set from 1957 showed how computers had begun to permeate the world of desk workers.

You might have assumed that, for most people, heading out to work involved going to a desk. But the reality is quite different for many people. For most people – in fact. There’s no desk, and no office either. No break room, no supply closet, no candy dish at the reception desk to sneak a piece from several times a day.

Most of the workforce works without a fixed base location. Whether you’re installing and repairing telecom equipment, fixing plumbing systems, singing arias at the opera, or cleaning the offices where other people work, your work doesn’t require you to start and end your day at a desk in a cubicle farm.

But that doesn’t mean deskless workers don’t need to do many of the same things that deskbound workers spend their day doing. You still need to do things like manage your schedule, coordinate your activities with other people, and capture the results of your work in reports to share with others. You may need to engage subcontractors to help you, or research various topics to help you complete a task.

Just what is it about desks that’s made them go hand in hand with work, at least in the popular imagination if not in reality? You might find some clues in this quick tour of the history of desks.

14th Century: The word “desk” came into use, derived from a Latin word for something to write on. Of course, the act of writing in the 14th century was a rather different affair than it is today, and the design of these first desks reflected that. Much more than a flat surface, they often included a variety of small drawers and cubby holes . Curiously, early desks were designed to be mobile, something you could easily carry to another location. It wasn’t until a few centuries later that desks grew feet and added more robust shelving for storing items with a bit more heft.

19th Century: With the arrival of the industrial revolution, inexpensive paper arrived. And with it came a new breed of professional paper-pushers. There was an explosion in the number of people working primarily at a desk, which prompted the rise in mass-produced office furniture taking the place of pieces produced by highly skilled craftspeople.

1880s: The familiar one-piece school desk, designed by Anna Breadin, rapidly transformed the layout of schools, with individual desks replacing rows of students sitting on benches before long tables.

Early 20th Century: Two innovations dramatically changed the requirements for office desks. The exponential proliferation of paper meant that desks needed to support much heavier weights. And the rise of the typewriter meant desks needed to withstand vigorous and repeated impacts. As a result, desks made of steel, rather than wood, began to take over offices everywhere, with matching steel furniture to complete the look.

1947: Herman Miller’s “Home Office Desk” is often considered the first modern workstation. The influence of Herman Miller on workspaces continues to the present day, with the Aeron chair becoming an iconic symbol of early “dot-com” startups – and fire sales on lightly used Aeron chairs becoming an iconic symbol of the 2000 dot-com bust.

2012: Despite innovations such as the IBM Selectric, with its interchangeable ball that made it easy to change typefaces with a click, typewriters rapidly quickly fell out of favor as PCs began to take over everyone’s desks. In 2012, Brother manufactured the last typewriter made in the UK.

Present day: Standing desks are enjoying unprecedented popularity, both in office workspaces and in the home offices that have become an essential part of life during the pandemic. Standing desks have had their advocates for centuries – it’s believed that Leonardo da Vinci not only painted his masterworks such as the Mona Lisa while standing at his easel, but also wrote and drafted his blueprints for innovations such as flying machines and armored cars while standing. The statesmen Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchil were also practitioners of standing while writing, as were writers Ernest Hemmingway and Charles Dickens. Today, some opt to stand while writing because it sparks inspiration, and many choose to stand because of the growing awareness of the negative impact that a sedentary lifestyle can have on one’s health. (That’s of less concern for many deskless workers, of course, whose work often allows them to be far more physically active throughout the day.)

You can find out more about Zinier's solutions that help deskless workers and the teams they work with here.

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