Over the last century, offices have changed drastically in terms of design, space and culture. While the early offices had rows of workers and typists cramped in a large space today in the modern office we rely on laptops and Wi-Fi to work from almost anywhere.
Office designs also reflect a culture shift where now the office is about individuality, freedom, creativity and well-being. The advent of new technology and tools, changing needs and work models and the shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy has led to a subtle and gradual change in office design.
Where did it all start?
As evidence goes, Rome was where the first office originated as spaces where official work was undertaken. But, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that dedicated office buildings were created. In 1726, the first office building was set up in London called the ‘Old Admiralty office’. This was when the British empire was expanding due to trades in multiple regions of the world. In 1729, the East India House was constructed. It was the headquarter of the East India Company.
The earliest modern offices focused on improving the efficiency of workers. The workers sat on endless rows of desks while their managers sat in offices encircling them so they could observe the workers. The setup was such to increase efficiency but human and social needs were not given much consideration in such a setup and the focus was on getting maximum
Workdays and weeks in this era were long and employees were supposed to work for 10 hours a day and sometimes also at the weekends. While the lower floors were for workers and merchants, the employers usually lived above the offices. While the seats for the workers were not so comfortable and made from cheap wood, the chairs for the managers and employers were more comfortable and of better quality.
Office design in the early 1900s
In the early 1900s technology revolutionized office designs. The invention of electric light opened up spaces. The invention of the typewriter, the telephone and the telegraph improved communication and helped people to work from other places as well.
Skyscrapers and tall office buildings became a norm in cities like New York and London. Open-plan offices with an assembly line of workers and private offices and sometimes a kitchen space or canteen were constructed. Bright lights, open spaces and warm spaces were the main elements of offices of those times.
The office designs of the early 90s reflected masculinity and restrictions but with the advent of world war, 2 and the great depression there began a shift.
Bürolandschaft – 1960s
In the 1960s the office design began to change. It became more democratic and socially interactive than it was earlier. There was significant emphasis on workforce satisfaction and employee interaction. The office design was called ‘Burolandschaft’ a German concept which translates to ‘office landscape’ The concept soon became popular in Northern Europe
and then throughout the world.
The offices now were less rigid and more flexible and were designed keeping in mind the needs of the workers. Employees of different hierarchy levels would often sit in the same room. Interactions between employees would be more open and frequent. The workplace now became a far more open space with different teams sitting together and working. Break rooms and lounges were introduced for people to relax and escape for a bit from their usual work routines.
Cabinets and curve partitions began to be used to reduce noise from typewriters and people working together. Workplace furniture was now the highlight with furniture and textile being designed by prominent architects and designers.
The Action Office
Burolandschaft evolved into the new office design called the Action office. The design was about greater freedom of movement and more privacy when working. Meeting rooms became usual and the individual workspace became larger, enclosed and private. All this eventually led to lesser staff interaction as they became less visible to each other.
In the late 1960s with the influx of female workers in what was primarily a male-dominated workplace setting led to more private spaces and something called a ‘modesty board’ – plywood meant to cover the front of the cubicle especially the legs of the female workers. Over time employees had a three-sided vertical cubicle giving them their private space which
they could personalise.
Designs of the 1980s
The 1980s witnessed a lot of technological developments especially with the advent of the personal computer. The commercial office spaces started to adopt futuristic aesthetics with the usage of metal and glass. London’s skyscraper boom began during this age.
Many companies capitalised on space densities by constructing linear rows of cabins to increase productivity. As modular walls were available cheap, cubicles became the norm thus making the space claustrophobic and designed to increase productivity. ‘Cubicle farms’ were a norm during this time.
The history of office design digressed at this point as the design was a step back.
The office of the 1990s
1990s was similar to the 80s in terms of enclosed workstations with bulky personal computers and heavy data cables. The cubicles of the 80s continued into the 90s. However, as laptops became somewhat popular open office plans also gained traction yet again.
Hot-desking- where multiple workers would use a single workstation became a popular design element. Along with it, lockers for storing items, keyboards, cabinets and integrated personal storage became popular. Emails, laptops, dial-up internet, document scanners were the latest technology of those times.
Office Design of today
With the advent of technology and the beginning of the knowledge economy, the modern office design is now cooler and hipper as companies tend to attract top talent through modern, relaxed office spaces. Today’s offices are colourful with ambient, warm lighting and comfortable furniture like you would expect at home.
Offices are comfortable spaces with enough private spaces and hot desks and breakout zones for collaboration. Green spaces with plants are a popular design element incorporated to bring more of the outside into the office environment. Offices are now equipped with gyms, locker rooms, showers, cafes to give the best of the amenities to employees.
Offices of the future
In our fast-changing world, the offices of the future will be built to incorporate the newest technology and the ever-changing work culture of the modern world. A mix of co-working, hybrid and virtual working models will most likely become the new norm. Employee needs and wellbeing drive the designs with research on ergonomics and hyper productivity as the
The image sources include myhq, morganlovell, weare.guru.