Workbenches for craftsmen have been around for centuries. You can find them in 19th-century photos of labs and factories. Thomas Edison had dozens of them for his workers. While cubicles and more traditional desks were the dominant work surface of the 20th century, the need to maximize office space and foster a collaborative environment, as well as the overall practicality of the design, means that the workbench is back. Most people call these modern workbenches “Benching Systems.”
This time, employers are purchasing benching systems to cater to the needs of technology and information workers. Along with the push for efficiency by contemporary organizations, workbenches have been made practical by the advent of the laptop as a primary computer as well as a major paradigm shift in the social dynamics of work towards a less hierarchical more team-oriented work environment. Laptops mean that workers require far less desk space, especially now that cathode ray tubes (CRT’s) are gone. The advent of computers has also led to a reduction in paperwork, obviating the need for as many filing cabinets and bookcases as before. Managers appreciate the benefit of people working in teams with group assignments and they want them to be close together so that they will communicate and collaborate extensively.
Benching systems also fit in with the contemporary minimalist design ethos. They have a low profile and amplify a room’s volume. New types of storage and fittings have been repurposed or reinvented for the workbench, including glass, plastic, and fabric covered divider panels and mobile pedestals with cushions that can be used as both a mobile chair as well as a place to store files, supplies and other materials.
Steelcase, one of the major promoters of the resurgence in benching, has engaged in a comprehensive study of the work surface needs of contemporary organizations. They concluded that there are four types of workers who would benefit from benching systems. These are “Residents”, “Nomads”, “Project Teams”, and “Functional Teams”.
These are individuals whose jobs most resemble the roles of 20th-century office workers. Residents typically have workspace assigned to them for as long as they have a specific job. Given their stable work situation and long-term task-oriented function, they are often relied on to deal with high volumes of information, resulting in a need for multiple monitor setups and mobile pedestal storage units to store materials. Residents are typically more engaged in individual, short-term tasks, and as a result, require some degree of privacy which can be served by privacy panels, both in front and on either side.
This group of people generally doesn’t require an office at all, but they typically come by to touch base with their contacts in the office and maintain relationships. People working in this capacity include consultants, interns, salespeople, and visitors. Nomads generally prefer an open plan area for maximum visibility while they are catching up with their colleagues at the office. They often need movable chairs so that they can meet with many different people in various scenarios. Since they often work with laptops, they’ll need a place to dock their computer. They frequently carry materials in with them, from presentation materials to a suitcase in preparation for getting a flight to their sales territory. This means they’ll need bin storage or plenty of leg room under their bench for items they are carrying.
These work groups are often off-site from the main office. They typically work on special projects with a specific goal or work product in mind. Frequently, an end goal is a major strategic initiative. They are highly collaborative and team-oriented and generally work across disciplines. Since their work is so team-oriented, the type of workbench that suits them resembles a large table but is actually quite different in that it has recesses and conduits running down the middle for electrical power and networking cables.
Steelcase researchers (see Steelcase.com) found that people working in this type of group are content creators whose work is product rather than initiative based. Generally, people working in functional groups come from the same discipline and company division. Individuals in this type of role generally stay in the same place throughout their job and frequently have physical materials they may be working with such as a project file, layouts, photographs or other printed materials. As a result, they often need storage space at their desk which is best handled by mobile pedestals. Functional groups alternate between individual work and collaboration so it is useful to have a panel running down the middle of the workbench for some privacy, but also have areas either at the endpoints or in the middle that are setup for impromptu meetings.