Furniture, like most things, is not monolithic from a physical standpoint—though there are pieces that are so highly revered that they are given museum artifact status. Characterized using descriptions of luxurious or rare materials, the background of a reclusive, pioneering designer, or the no-doubt painstaking process of production, countless home goods brands have spent copious sums on copywriters whose sole task is to conjure up images of opulence, prestige, and self-indulgence. There are also pieces that are so pragmatic, practical, and relatively low in cost that the manufacturers assume no pretense and their customers don’t expect the products to survive more than two seasons (if the customer is lucky, they may even receive a free Allen wrench to add to their tools-rendered-useless pile!). If we look even further down the spectrum, we’ll see hand-me-downs and alley/curb finds. I’m looking at you, brown couch from one of my first apartments in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. As hardy as it was ugly, its utilitarian nature was a perfect pillar of the bachelor-pad condo overlooking Lake Michigan that I shared with two friends. Emblematic of that period in our lives, we couldn’t be concerned with trivialities such as interior design or feng shui. Of all the pieces of furniture we owned as a collective, I’m fairly certain that we took the best care of the maroon-felted pool table that lorded over the dining room like a more agreeable Jabba the Hutt.
Tucked in various corners of my historical relationship with furniture lie a multitude of notables, but there is one piece that is forever etched in my being as a cornerstone of my formation and upbringing. My father’s desk, although quite large, was nothing special. Light in color, it was perhaps made of oak. Or of maple. Or perhaps some dense composite material that is commonly referred to by an acronym. It had three drawers on either side of its patron and a deep two-and-a-half-foot tall hutch above it. My father’s work as an environmental risk assessor was one that came with many an official-looking binder and book. These tomes took up residence on the shelves of the hutch like elder statespeople, passing judgement upon my missteps when it came time to have my father check my homework. The mistakes were many, but it is from these mistakes that I came to understand just how important my father’s desk was to my memory of my childhood.
It was from this desk that the original Gino chose to take work that would allow him to be home with his children. It was from this desk that he dug in his heels to ensure that he produced the superior quality of work that he became known for among his peers. If he was signing his name to a report, one could be fully assured that it was going to be well-researched, airtight, and comprehensive. It was from this desk that my father kept a close eye on both entrances to the home that he and my mother worked so very hard to purchase. I couldn’t come home from school without passing the desk. On the days that I had something to hide from him, I prayed that he’d be on a call so that I could quickly hug him before darting down to the basement to my room to hide out for a bit while I carefully mapped out the strategy for my impending deception. On the days where I needed a hug from him, I couldn’t wait to get beside that desk and collapse next to him to complain about the latest, and no doubt momentous, injustice that had befallen me. My father’s desk gave him the real estate needed from which to do great work, provide for his family, and provide a steadying influence for the variety of personalities that were blossoming under his roof.
From his desk, my father built a reputation as a tough but fair parent who knew only one goal: His children would succeed, and they would surpass his achievements. Success is subjective, as is the lens with which we regard the levels of respective achievements. My father’s desk allowed him to achieve one thing that not one of us can claim, however. My father was an early pioneer, adopter, and champion of remote work. In the mid-1990s, only a select group of enterprising corporations were tinkering with allowing their people to work remotely. Companies like American Express, IBM, and AT&T saw the value in letting people work on their own terms and gave them the space to do so. In spite of this, there were still many companies that viewed the inability to have an eye on your employee as a cost with little ROI. Therefore, plenty didn’t dare allow their workers to work remotely. As we enter 2020, the tide has changed substantially. Technology makes it impossible for the opportunity to be ignored. Many companies are still resistant to the idea, but the social and business cases are clear. Employees can be happier and more productive when given flexible options for working. Real estate and other associated brick and mortar costs may be lower. Before the research was conclusive, my father’s heavy oaken/maple/composite desk was giving top talent the freedom to live and work as desired back when the Chicago Bulls were basketball royalty.
I also have a desk. It’s not as large as my father’s desk, but it’s plenty heavy. The storage in my desk is also sorely lacking. I don’t have a hutch. It sits on the same right side of the living room as my father’s desk still does back at home. I have the same sightlines to the front door as my father did and for the same reasons. My desk gives me the freedom to do the most meaningful work I’ve ever done from my home in Portland, Maine, while most of my treasured teammates sit on the other end of a 3,152-mile road trip in metropolitan Seattle, Washington (with a few of them along the route).
There are thousands, if not millions, of desks just like ours. Desks where parents and non-parents alike sit, after a non-rushed morning of breakfast and school drop-off, ready to work from the comfort of home. These folks may not be completely free of worry, but the added stress and cost of commuting is not a burden. They are free to work diligently, productively, and comfortably.
Try as one might to resist, the future of work is flexible. It has to be. There are plenty of circumstances that do require face-to-face communication and there are a multitude of industries (furniture-making being one of them, ironically) where one simply has to be somewhere. For the others, it is time to fully embrace the flexibility of remote work. Let desks sit wherever employees want them to be. Additionally, let people decide whether they ever want their own desk, or if they’d like to work from a different place every day. Allow people who continue to provide value for organizations set their own terms about where they want to live and how they want to work, desk or no desk. Give people the freedom to be present for their families.
For me, my father’s desk was a mainstay. It was a place for him to provide for my family while simultaneously providing an anchor in our home. We laughed at that desk. I fought him dozens of times at that desk. He warned me about the stark juxtapositions of the beauty and ugliness of the world at that desk. He taught me everything he knew and didn’t know about fatherhood at that desk. What my father doesn’t realize is that even from afar, memories of his desk provide guidance daily as I look to strengthen my work-life balance with my own young family and son.
Furniture, it turns out, can be monolithic, but in a metaphorical sense. It can be an anchor, a safety mechanism, or a steady pillar within a variety of contexts. For me, it was the first sign of my life to come and the life I would strive to build for myself.
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