Office design has come a long way, from dim chambers to sprawling multinational complexes. This is a basic history lesson on the evolution of the workplace.
Antiquity and the Middle Ages
The word “office” comes from the Latin term “officium” which used to mean several things, including “bureau,” “service,” or “sense of duty.” Back then it referred to a position, rather than a physical workspace. In ancient times, people worked in either palaces, temples, or at home to build civilizations, maintain order, and engage in trade or commerce. While many monks and scribes sat in dim libraries, hunched over parchment, some religious and aristocratic establishments created dedicated rooms like scriptoria and chanceries for writing manuscripts.
Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution
During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, city populations multiplied. Many buildings were designated as workplaces and distinctions were made between government, military, merchant, or church use. The first purpose-built office buildings were constructed in the 18th century. As global trade flourished and colonialism spread, higher levels of bureaucracy were required. These new offices dealt with banking, accounting, administration, shipping, manufacturing, and document filing to keep up with the rapid growth of industry and infrastructure.
Midcentury Taylorism and the Action Office
Taylorism was introduced in the early 20th century as a scientific method of efficient management. Duties were clearly separated and operations were streamlined. This was largely credited for the unprecedented production that helped the Allies win World War II. Open plan Taylorism was prevalent until the revolutionary Action Office was designed in the ‘60s. The stylish Action Office utilized modular furniture and wall dividers to give workers both autonomy and freedom of movement. It is still considered one of the most effective and trusted office plans today.
The ’80s Cubicle Farm
The Cubicle Farm corrupted the idealism of the Action Office, spreading like wildfire during the ’80s and ’90s. Corporations acknowledged the value of providing workers with dedicated, private spaces, but they often decided to take the cheapest route possible and were perceived to prioritize the bottom line over employee well-being. The Cubicle Farm went on to inspire many satirical and dystopian depictions of corporate drudgery in pop culture.
The ‘90s Dot-Com Bubble and Industrial Parks
The Internet changed everything. It made virtual offices, outsourcing, and telecommuting possible thanks to increased connectivity. Dot-Com entrepreneurs set up hip, quirky offices that were progressive and playful. The fun philosophy persists in today’s Silicon Valley culture, decades after the Dot-Com Bubble burst. The recession also caused multinationals to move workers away from city centers and into massive facilities at industrial parks. Meanwhile, the Hot-Desking trend involved regularly moving between different workstations to help employees interact but they tended to feel less grounded and even marginalized without spaces to call their own.
Globalization and the Casual 2000s
Creative industries like advertising, marketing, art, and design started allowing workers to come to the office in casual attire. The open plan made a comeback and spaces were decorated with homey furniture. Comfort and joy became key. However, open plan offices brought back the downsides of interruptions and distractions. Workspace personalization was encouraged as employers paid more attention to keeping valuable talent happy while they spent longer hours laboring over highly specialized tasks.
The Millennial Workforce in the 2010s
Although Activity-Based Working was formulated back in the ‘70s, more businesses have been revisiting the concept in the 2010s. Activity-Based offices attempt to fix the problem of open plans by offering different workspaces that employees can move between and choose from. As an evolution of Hot-Desking, these facilities provide conference rooms, technology suites, comfy lounges, and dynamic social settings to suit different work styles in today’s wireless world. The system may retain negative consequences unless some dedicated desks are provided, but more companies now focus on attracting millennial workers and younger digital natives who yearn for improved work-life balance, flexibility, motivation, and guidance.
Offices in the Near Future
New generations will continue to enter the workforce with their own set of values. Businesses have been investing more effort and resources into fostering employee satisfaction, health, productivity, and loyalty through sustainability initiatives, mindful design, and support. Office spaces are expected to evolve further as architects push the envelope and designers experiment with transformative aesthetics, green spaces, interesting materials, and advancing technologies.