Human beings are very quick to adapt to their surroundings, especially when the changes they have to face make their lives easier and more comfortable. It’s easy to take for granted the efficiency and comfort of today’s offices, but it took us a while to get here, and things are still changing. Today’s offices are the result of a really long history of workplaces specifically focused on intellectual production as opposed to industrial or agricultural.
The Dark Ages of the Desk
If we want to go way back, it’s actually medieval monasteries that first had a dedicated room for intellectual work that included maintaining archives and performing bureaucratic work. The monks worked in isolation and weren’t allowed to sit down since sitting was considered a privilege!
In fact, the act of standing while performing bureaucratic-type work became common beyond monasteries and remained that way for a few centuries.
The Renaissance of the Office
With the coming of the Renaissance, intellectual work bloomed and more people found themselves at desks, but now they were allowed to sit down. Trade and commerce developed, as did entrepreneurship. Regions became more centralized with regards to government.
A good example of an early office configuration is the Uffizi Alazzo in Florence. Built in 1581 by the Medici, this building had a number of functions and incorporated archival rooms, administrative departments and a state court, all under one roof. Artists and intellectuals also began to operate in these spaces, leading to a new take on the office as a place of learning and creation. Thanks Renaissance!
Skipping ahead to the early industrial cities of the United States, the office was now better equipped to handle administration with telephones, telegraph machines and railways. This also meant that offices didn’t have to be right next to factory floors and could be at another location completely.
1900s – Taylorism
Frederick Taylor was an American engineer with an obsession for efficiency. Taylor is credited as being one of the first people to design an office space from the ground up. He went for a completely open work area, with a dense layout of desks in a strict order. He separated the managers from the main work area and positioned their offices so that they could overlook the employees at any time. A little creepy Fred.
1950s – Bürolandschaft
Things took a bit of a lighter and more humane turn in Hamburg in the early 50s, where a team of designers following the socialist ideals of the time created the idea of an “office landscape”.
As opposed to strictly arranged lines of desks, the Bürolandschaft approach was a bit more playful and organic. Different departments could have different layouts, and managers weren’t sectioned off. Spaces for creative sessions and social interaction were also introduced.
1960s – The Action Office
In 1964, the well-known office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller developed a product loosely based on the Bürolandschaft approach. Named “Action Office”, the new product was the first modular office space system, offering dynamic work areas and low dividers to define the space without creating isolation. Variants of the Action Office can still be seen all over the world, and are usually referred to by the unflattering term “cubicles”.
1980s – The Dreaded Cube Farm
While the Herman Miller design was intended to create a dynamic human-oriented work place, it inspired a much more extreme approach which lead to what became known as “cube farms”. More and more employees became mid-level managers who needed their own spaces, but who weren’t senior enough for a big corner office.
This gave rise to large arrays of cubicles with employees communicating virtually instead of through physical meetings. It’s not surprising that this led to a decrease in both creativity and morale.
The 2000s – Work and Play Do Mix
The technological advances of the new millennium allowed office spaces a lot more flexibility to experiment with their layouts. Mobile tech meant that you didn’t even have to be in an office, leading to coffee shops becoming a popular choice for professionals looking to get some work done in a relaxed atmosphere.
Within offices, the cubicle began to seem inhumane and leisure activities were introduced to the workplace for employees to enjoy. Most importantly, the office began to take on a social aspect as employees spent more time interacting with each other.
The 2010s – The Office as a Community
It took a while, but today’s businesses realise that when employees are in a beneficial environment, it leads to an increase in efficiency and the overall well-being of everyone involved. This extends beyond the individual employee. The ideas of collaboration and community have taken a more central and significant role in today’s workplace.
Further improvements in mobile technology have given us the ability to take our work with us, enabling us to change our environments within an office space, or to work remotely. The importance of community, advances in technology, and the need for a far more creative workspace ultimately led to the formation of coworking spaces.
People are also becoming more aware of the nature of the companies they work for, and sustainability has become a value that companies are expected to incorporate. Research shows that almost 90% of millennials find it important to work for a company that is ethically and socially responsible. This can be in reference to the service/product that the company offers, or how it functions with regards to energy consumption and other factors affecting the ecosystem.