A Brief History of Office Design

If you’ve been working in an office for the past ten or twenty years, you’re likely to have noticed some changes in the way workspaces have been designed over this relatively short space of time. Many of today’s offices have evolved from cubicle-based layouts in which everyone had their own personal desk to open plan, more flexible designs where hot-desking, co-working and multi-use meeting areas have become the norm.

So, how did we get here? The story of how the modern office came about takes us far back in history. In this blog, we take you on a whistle-stop tour of some of the major office design periods.

Ancient Rome: the birthplace of the office

The origins of the modern day office go all the way back to Ancient Rome. The word ‘office’ itself has its roots in the Latin word ‘officium’, meaning ‘duty’ or ‘service’. While the word wasn’t necessarily used to refer to a particular place, but more to the people who make up a workforce, Ancient Roman architecture was based on order and organisation and inspired these principles in people conducting business in the buildings. The first basilicas, for example, where business and legal matters took place, were rectangular walled buildings with a long open hall with raised platforms at one or both ends. The hall was lined by side aisles punctuated by colonnades. By today’s standards, these public buildings looked more like churches than the modern offices we are used to.

18th century Britain: the first offices in the UK

The first true offices didn’t arrive in Britain until the 18th century. One of the first purpose-built offices served as the base for the East India Company during the expansion of the British Empire. Built in 1729 and located in Leadenhall Street in London, the office handled the large amounts of paperwork generated by the trading company. The magnificent building was designed in Palladian style, which concerned itself with symmetry and perspective. The interior was lavishly furnished with elaborately carved boardroom tables and velvet upholstered chairs for the Chairman and Vice-President. Oil paintings adorned the walls and sculptures of notable officials were displayed.

1900s: Taylorism

American mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor was one of the first people to design an office that looked like something we might recognise today. Aiming to maximise productivity, Taylor created offices that prioritised ‘the system’ ahead of the individual. The layout resembled a factory production line with workers crowded together in open spaces sitting in long rows of desks with managers watching them from private offices. This layout was adopted by organisations and businesses throughout the US and Europe.

Post World War II: Bürolandschaft

After the devastation of World War II, economic growth and a desire to break from the past with innovation led to a new way of working. German consulting group Quickborner shook up the status quo in the 1950s when they created a type of office design planning called Bürolandschaft (meaning office landscaping). Their aim was to replace the strict, anonymous workplace culture of Taylorism with its uniform, uninspired rows of desks with a more organic approach. A desire to create a non-hierarchical working environment led to managers being brought out of their private offices and onto the office floor with everyone else. With the individual at the heart of the design, they aimed to create collaborative workspaces and prized worker wellbeing. Workers were separated by plants and office screens and desks were laid out in clusters to aid team communication. An informal space known as a break room was created for leisure and refreshments.

The lack of walls and use of moveable partitions made this kind of design affordable and flexible, meaning upsizing and downsizing was straightforward.

1960s: the ‘Action Office’

In the 1960s, after studying worker behaviour and communication and how open plan offices affect performance, designer Robert Propst created the cubicle. Its aim was to give employees privacy, reduce noise and allow them to personalise their space without impacting on other workers. After some trial and error, the ‘Action Office’ was born. It featured two or three sided mid-height vertical panels that marked territory but still allowed workers to communicate freely when necessary.

1980s: Cubicle Farms

While the Action Office aimed to liberate workers from the noisy open plan office which was thought by some to actually impede rather than encourage communication, the 1980s saw cubicles taken to the extreme by business owners who cared more about profits than worker wellbeing. Dubbed ‘cubicle farms’, offices of the fast-moving 1980s saw panels becoming taller, making it impossible for workers to see around them. This style of office marked a low point in office design history, with organisations cramming as many people into a space as possible without concerns for their wellbeing.

2000s: Remote Working and the Casual Office

The emergence of high speed broadband brought remote working to the masses. With the ability to work from home, a hotel room or even a train, the role of the office changed. While the office of yesteryear was the sole location for completing tasks, modern offices were designed around collaboration and networking. The distinction between work and home began to blur with tech giants like Google creating casual offices, complete with everything from social spaces and quiet rooms, to lactation rooms and sleep pods, that were designed to encourage its staff to stay at work for longer.

Non-assigned workbenches became the norm in many organisations and lockers were added to workplaces to give workers a place to store their documents and personal items at non-assigned locations. Many firms replaced floor-standing dividers with banks of desks segmented by screens dividers.

The present day and beyond

A number of exciting office design trends are emerging in 2019. One of this year’s hot topics is activity-based working, which gives employees the power to decide how and where they will work. It involves creating different spaces in your office that are designed for different types of work.

Green offices are also near the top of the agenda for office designers in 2019 with organisations incorporating nature into their workplaces in a bid to improve worker health and wellbeing, boost productivity and reduce the carbon footprints of businesses. Access to nature, including views of the outdoors, green walls and green roofs, has been shown to improve concentration and problem solving and create feelings of calm and hope. Natural daylight has also been proven to improve employee wellbeing.

Present day office designers are also focused on materials and ventilation in an effort to improve worker health and aid focus and problem solving abilities.

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