June 4, 2020
Work-life is changing drastically for all types of businesses around the world right now. But change isn’t necessarily new to the office space. Over the last 300 years, the evolution of the office has followed the events, beliefs, social practices, and economies of their time.
While we’re adapting, take a look at how offices have changed shape, size, and purpose as innovation and disaster carved new paths for how we work.
The mid-1700s brought about the first development of offices that congregated workers in a single space. Among the first was the Old Admiralty Office to process paperwork and concentrate operations for the British Royal Navy and the headquarters for the East India Trading Company both built in London.
The design of these ‘new’ office buildings warranted a mention in a UK government report on office space layouts which said:
“…for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it…”
Open plan offices grew in popularity throughout the early 20th century. ‘Taylorism’ — the methodology created by mechanical engineer, Frank Taylor — maximized industrial efficiency in the office space. Productivity was key to this model with little attention to personal or social comfort.
At the same time, large skyscrapers designed to accommodate numerous companies and their staff began appearing in cities across the US, and in the UK. This innovation came largely due to the invention of electric lighting, air conditioning systems, and also the telegraph system which meant that offices no longer had to be built beside factories in order to have a system of communication.
Open plan offices were still popular 50 years into the century, but not designed to encourage communication and collaboration, rather carryover from the “assembly line setup on factory floors where all workers could be observed by management to ensure productivity.
Meanwhile, high-ranking employees often had their own offices and corner offices became status symbols for senior management.
One of the first examples of this model was the opening of The Johnson Wax company’s open-plan office, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939. This open floor contained over 200 sales staff, but included completely new elements that hinted at better accommodation to employees needs such as bright lights, warm spaces and cork ceilings to control acoustics.
In the early 1960’s, the workplace really started to change with the adoption of a more socially democratic layout.
The concept of “Burolandschaft” or “office landscape” developed in Germany and advocated a less rigid approach to office layouts and placed far more importance on meeting the needs of the workforce with less geometric construction.
As Burolandschaft evolved, a new approach that became known as the Action Office emerged. This model differed from Burolandschaft in that it included a variety of alternate work settings for staff, increased freedom of movement, and a greater degree of privacy when working.
Thus begins the beloved and loathed “cubicle farm.” The Action Office began with three-walled spaces designed to be open while still allowing each individual employee privacy.
What also contributed to this setup was an influx of female workers that required a greater level of privacy, with many female workers demanding a ‘modesty board’, which was a plywood section that covered the front of a desk, and critically their legs.
The cube farm conquered the 1970’s as well, however, ergonomic designs also trended in this decade. Office designs also shifted to greater measures of freedom for individuals to work autonomously and creatively.
The 1980s were a decade where corporate culture ruled. Office design subsequently took on a modern aesthetic — clean lines, glass and concrete and the computer hit the mass market which radically changed workplace design and operation as PC’s became essential for individual employees to have available for everyday use.
Office design in the 1990s slipped back into more utilitarian and functional models. Open offices started becoming popular again, but for different reasons than they were in earlier decades. Collaboration over intense productivity shaped the open concept resurgence.
The term “coworking” was coined in San Francisco in the 2000s while all across the U.S. and around the world, remote professionals and independent contractors were becoming more common.
Mobile technology and the ease of internet access developed and turned offices into more flexible spaces. This shift brought about the concepts of Agile and Activity Based Working (ABW) where employees are given the freedom of a flexible schedule, choice of where they work and how they collaborate with their teams.
Coworking continued to rise as WeWork and other coworking brands grew.
Meanwhile, some large corporations took office design to extremes for the sake of sustainability, wellness, and community within their businesses. Think Apple Park–Apple’s ‘spaceship’ campus in Cupertino, or Bloomberg’s European HQ–rated the world’s most sustainable office building.
In contrast to the 1900’s functional, factory-inspired construction, offices began to look and feel more like a home, with bright, warm colors, softer lighting, and comfortable seating. In part, this trend comes from a greater emphasis on the wellbeing of staff and the desire to attract and retain the very best talent as competition grows.
2020 and beyond
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak at the beginning of 2020, the open, collaborative, comfortable offices of the early millennium were still growing in popularity. Some were even moving toward “biophilic” design — design that brings outdoors into the space — such as live plants, increased natural light and air, and living walls.
As we adapt to the safety measures needed to keep employees health a number one priority, we can continue to expect that the office will become a place that is defined by flexibility, sustainability, wellness, and remote technology.
As you adapt to the new design for your office space, let us know how we can help. Transcend is uniquely positioned to offer strategic spatial design services, technology enhancement, and promote the values of your culture in-office and as your teams work from home.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for your Workplace Assessment today for a complete office, tech and culture consultation with practical steps to carry your team forward safely and efficiently.