The History & Evolution of Office Design

February 23, 2022

How the Workplace Has Evolved

In the year 2022, the way we work is unrecognizable from the workplace of 50 years ago. Today's workplace isn't just a facility where everyone gathers; it's also our homes, the neighborhood cafe, and a slew of other "third locations" that double as “the office.” The office remains our second home, and the design and layout of it can have a significant impact on our productivity, mood, and overall well-being, which is why having a well-designed office is so crucial. How did we arrive at today's popular open-plan spaces? What will the offices of the future look like, exactly? Let’s take a look at the history of the workplace, as well as the future of office design.

Ancient Rome

Throughout history, offices have existed in some shape or another as a method for people or groups to perform official admin business. They are based on the Roman Latin term officium, which roughly translates as "bureau" or "human staff." Offices were not so much a physical structure in ancient Rome as it was the officials who lived there. Hence the coinage of phrases like 'The Office of the Prime Minister.' As evidenced by the Pantheon in Rome's business center, the Romans had a special flair for employing only time-tested architectural approaches. This approach to architecture encouraged efficiency and order when working with central governmental operations. However, it wasn’t until the 18th Century that dedicated office buildings began to be created.

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The Roman Pantheon[/caption]

The 18th Century

Two of the first designated office buildings in Britain were built in the 18th century. Built in 1726, the Old Admiralty Office is currently known as the Ripley Building, after its architect Thomas Ripley. This dominating u-shaped structure in Whitehall was the first purpose-built office building in the United Kingdom and continues to dazzle. Most of its boardrooms and offices were designed to be multifunctional spaces. The Department for International Development presently occupies the space.

The country's second purpose-built office building, which was every bit as majestic as the first, opened in 1729. It housed the East India Company's offices, which required a massive headquarters to handle the enormous and complex bureaucracy of overseas commerce with India and Asia.

A UK government report on office space layouts mentioned the design of these 'new' office buildings, saying:

“...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”

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Rendition of The Ripley Building, formerly the Old Admiralty Office, built in 1726[/caption]

The 20th Century, Rise of the Open Plan

The Larkin Administration Building, which debuted in New York in 1906, was designed by Wright as an open-plan factory with minimal partitions. Work and communication processes were changing with the introduction of electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, typewriters, and calculators. Buildings could now rise greater than 10 stories for the first time, thanks to the discovery of steel frame construction. Skyscrapers would be built all over the place, allowing massive workforces to live in ever smaller square feet on more costly property.

The workplace set up at the time was extremely regulated, with employees seated in endless rows of desks and supervisors in neighboring offices peering in. Because of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting, new high-rise buildings didn't require much natural light or ventilation, and workers were more walled off from the outside world.

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The Larking Administration Building, circa 1910's[/caption]

The Rise of The Skyscraper Open Plan

We can thank architect Frank Lloyd Wright for bringing the open-plan office environment to the public - a layout that has dominated our office history, whether we like it or not. The opening of the Johnson Wax Company's open-plan workplace in 1939, exemplified this trend. The goal of this workplace was to boost productivity, so it put over 200 salespeople on one level. It also contained wholly new components like bright lights, inviting areas, and cork ceilings, which helped to absorb office noise.

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Johnson Wax Company circa 1939[/caption]

The 60’s Bürolandschaft

With the introduction of Bürolandschaft – office landscaping – in Europe in the 1960s, conventional methods were tossed out the window. Staff would sit in more organic arrangements here, with plants and furnishings loosely segregating regions to allow for simpler interaction between groups. As a result, the workplace became a more open space with desks and teams grouped together, in a less scientific manner. Based on this progressive model, staff of different managerial levels began to sit and work together.

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Example of Bürolandschaft - "office landscaping"[/caption]

1980’s Cube Farm

Cheap and reliable movable walls caused a sea of cubicles to rise up in offices all over the world in the 1980s. Cubicles appeared as the number of middle managers increased as a result of economic growth. These were employees who were valuable enough to be granted more than a desk, but not so important that they were given their own office or a window seat. The history of office design at this point moved and became a ‘stack them highly and sell them cheap’ model, and could be regarded as one of the most unenthusiastic periods in office design. This approach became the standard for more than two decades. It took the introduction of technology in the workplace to compel businesses to consider the workplace in a more multifaceted, human-centered way. So, where does the history of office design go from here?

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Example of the Cube Farm - circa 1980's.[/caption]

Today, the 21st Century

Workers grew more flexible as technology evolved. Laptops, smartphones, and WiFi eliminated the need for wires and tethering. Open-plan offices were reintroduced, allowing employees to break free from the confines of their cubicles and connect and cooperate more freely in the workplace.

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Hootsuite, by Fusion Projects | Photo by Upper Left Photography[/caption]

Moving Forward

Businesses will strive to establish social, professional, and creative places within flexible working environments as many employees find working from home lonely. Increased flex places for socializing, playing, exercising, and eating will aim to make employees happier and healthier than they would be at home. Google's new Googleplex, which has indoor cycling and running tracks gives us a sense of what's coming.

As we've seen during this trip, one of the most crucial and fundamental aspects of a company's success is employee experience, which begins with the design and evolution of the simple office space.

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