While the way we work has evolved beyond any conceivable recognition over the past 50 years, so too has where we work, and here we take a look at the history of office design.
Where today, we have laptops, tablets and mobiles that enable us to work effectively from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, older workplaces were designed to facilitate rows of manual white collar workers and typists, packed in tightly in an effort to maximise efficiency.
Office design has become a much more cultured process with an increasing focus on creating workplaces that centre around the individual, and that promote not only productivity and efficiency but also creativity and wellbeing. But where does the history of office design begin?
The first office (design)
There is evidence to suggest that the first offices originated in ancient Rome as spaces where official work was conducted, and that similar spaces existed in some form throughout the ages. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that dedicated office buildings began to be created.
With the British Empire expanding and engaging in an increasing level of trade with other parts of the empire (and world), the first office building was built in 1726 in London and became known as The Old Admiralty Office. It served to handle the masses of the paperwork generated by the Royal Navy and included meeting spaces and the Admiralty Board Room, which is still used today.
This was followed swiftly in 1729 by the construction of East India House on Leadenhall Street in London, which acted as the HQ for East India Trading Company and its legions of workers. By now, the advent of a centralised, concentrated space to administer increasing amounts of paperwork had gained traction, with new offices popping up throughout London.
Taylorism and the rise of the open plan office
The earliest modern offices were remarkable for their scientific approach and emphasised efficiency and the adoption of a rigid, regimented office layout that resulted in workers sat at endless rows of desks with managers located in encircling offices where they could observe.
These early, open plan offices which grew in popularity throughout the early 20th century, followed the principles of ‘Taylorism’, a methodology created by mechanical engineer, Frank Taylor, who sought to maximise industrial efficiency. There has been much criticism of Taylor’s approach, as it failed to take into consideration human and social elements and focused exclusively on ensuring employers gained maximum productivity from their staff.
At the same time, large skyscrapers designed to accommodate numerous companies and their staff had begun to appear in cities across the USA, and in some parts of the UK. This new architectural phenomenon was made possible by the invention of electric lighting, air conditioning systems and also the telegraph system which meant that offices no longer had to be situated beside factories.
However, it was the birth of the lift and of steel frame construction, that ushered in a radically new way of working, and consequently heralded the growth of office design as a discipline, and so the history of office design entered a new period.
In the early 1960’s, the workplace really started to change with the adoption of a more socially democratic layout which consequently encouraged a great degree of human interaction and engagement.
This office design style became known as Burolandschaft, an originally German concept, which translates to ‘office landscape’, and after becoming popular in northern Europe, began to spread around the world.
Burolanschaft advocated a less rigid approach to office layouts and placed far more importance on meeting the needs of the workforce. As a result, the workplace became a more open space with desks and teams grouped together, in a less scientific manner than Taylorism, with plants rather than partitions creating organic boundaries.
Subsequently, the workplace became a far more social affair with collaboration between teams, now placed beside each other, taking place on a much more regular basis. Based on this progressive model, staff of different managerial levels began to sit and work together, and as such, Burolandschaft is often referenced in relation to the principles of modern office design.
Over time, the Action Office concept evolved to a point where employees each had their own high, three-sided vertical division that defined their individual space, and which they had autonomy to personalise. This should sound somewhat familiar as it is frequently credited with the rise of the often-ridiculed cubicle farm workplaces in the 1980’s.
Office Design and Technology
As technology developed, workers became more mobile and ushered in a golden period for office design where new, more flexible ways of working such as Agile and Activity Based Working (ABW) became increasingly popular.
As staff became more mobile, it became evident that they could work anywhere and were no longer wed to their desk. It became normal to see people working in cafes, coffee shops and from home, as companies began to adopt these new ways of working. As mobility became the norm, office design began to embrace ‘hot desking’ where staff weren’t allocated space, but rather picked an available space to work from.
The rise of technology enterprises also led to the creation of new office design norms, with cooler, hipper companies desiring funky, colourful offices that included a variety of spaces that staff could choose to work from, and so signaled the birth of the break out space in the modern workplace.
It also became critical that technology could be used from any part of the workplace and where possible that it integrated seamlessly with furniture and other devices such as screens and digital whiteboards. A sense of fun was also instilled with the addition of leisure areas and creative spaces with pinball machines, beanbags, table tennis tables and dart boards.
The History of Office Design Today
As the history of office design continues to unfold, today it has reached a point where the modern workplace takes inspiration from the home, through the use of warm colours, intimate lighting and soft seating. It also continues to focus on the comfort and wellbeing of staff as companies have become aware that the office is an important tool that can be used to attract and retain the very best talent in a competitive marketplace.
While trends tend to come and go, there has been a significant rise in biophilic office design and companies bringing a little of the outdoors into the work environment. This is achieved through the addition of fresh shrubbery, increased access to natural light and air, and in some cases the installation of living walls as a feature.
As the history of office design continues to be written, we are also witnessing a rise in co-working, with companies working in shared spaces, facilitated by companies like WeWork and Regus. This flexible arrangement has proved attractive to many with co-working spaces now dotted throughout all major cities in not only the UK, but in Europe and the US too.
Office furniture has also had to keep pace with office design and the popularity of workplace wellbeing, and as a result we have seen sit stand desks become an integral part of many offices. Many of the larger manufacturers have also created and marketed their products as ergonomically friendly which is again, a major concern for many companies.