By Vanessa De Groot 12 May 2017

In medieval times the administration of an entire kingdom was done out of one simple room. There have been some dramatic shifts in office design and culture over the years. Who knows what lies ahead?

Once upon a time there were no offices –not for the sole purpose of working anyway.

We often think about the office of the future, but what about the spaces where workers were housed a century ago, or even further back? How did the modern office get to where it is today?

Offices have been evolving over a very long period. But changes can happen fast.

Plenty of people would remember the dull offices of even 30 years ago, and marvel at the transformations taking place today. Particularly at the innovations to the workspace pioneered by technology firms such as Google and Airbnb.

1 Bligh Street Atrium
1 Bligh Street Sydney - the next generation in high performing sustainable office space

The origins of the office

In ancient times the office typically consisted of a room in a larger complex, such as a palace. During Europe’s High Middle Ages there was a medieval chancery where the administration of a kingdom took place.

It was only in the 18th century that construction of dedicated office buildings commenced. One of the first was the three-storey East India House in London, purpose-built in 1729. It was designed to house a very complex bureaucracy, employing thousands, to trade with and govern India.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 18th and 19th century, demand for office space grew, driving the construction of dedicated buildings.

By the end of the 19th century, advances in elevator technology and new-fangled steel-frame construction techniques allowed buildings to be much higher. It’s generally agreed that the first office building that could reasonably be called a skyscraper was the 10-storey Home Insurance Building in Chicago in the United States, built in 1885.

1900s - Office design segregates workers from management

The modern office has industrial origins, with one of the first designs – by American engineer Frederick Taylor – modelled on factory operations.

Workers were crowded together in an open plan but linear layout, separated from the upper echelons of management, with bosses watching on from private offices.

Although it made workers unhappy and unproductive, the design persisted until the middle of the 20th century.

1900s workplace evolution
1900s workers in a linear office layout. Source: Fairfax Media.
The modern office has industrial origins, with one of the first designs – by American engineer Frederick Taylor – modelled on factory operations

1950s – The dawn of office collaboration

In the 1950s socialist values of Europe inspired a fresh approach. Office designs veered away from top-down hierarchies towards layouts that encouraged collaboration, and the creation of a happier workforce.

This concept, dubbed Bürolandschaft (office landscape), grouped desks in an informal way that facilitated conversation. The movement is said to have produced what we now commonly call open plan offices.

In these designs filing cabinets and potted plants were used to separate desks.

1950 office space
Evolving workspace in the 1950s

1960s - The emergence of cubicles

In the 1960s furniture company Herman Miller created the first modular office furniture product, Action, to give workers more privacy in an open plan environment. This created what we now refer to as cubicles.

The following decades saw the “cube farm” layout take hold, with as many employees as possible squeezed into an area to maximise the utilisation of space.

Computers marked the next turning point in office design. As they became a more common sight on individual desks in the 1980s, workers were encouraged to work more independently.

Cubicles are still with us, but today’s designers have tried to return to a more social environment through furniture that suggests privacy, rather than being completely enclosed.
Cube farm
The 1960s cube farm

1990s to 2000s – Technological improvements lead to greater flexibility

The internet took hold in the 1990s and by the turn of the century wireless technology meant workers didn’t need to be in the office. This led to a broadening in the definition of the word. Rather than being enclosed in four walls, an office could be a coffee shop or even at home, with employees able to work remotely.

This was also when businesses started paying more attention to what their workers wanted. Keeping workers happy became a priority, as more management research made the connection between satisfaction, improved morale and higher productivity.

As a result, the office landscape started shifting towards brighter, inviting spaces that were more than just places to work. Creative companies began incorporating entertainment options, such as pool tables and other games, into their designs.

working remotely
Thanks to technology, an office can be just about anywhere.

2010s – More emphasis on community, workers and sustainability

So far this decade the lines have continued to blur between work and social life, with offices designed to encourage greater collaboration, sociability and flexibility through open plan layouts, as well as hot desking and conversational spaces, with a move away from designated, permanent workstations.

And companies are also providing more abstract benefits to employees. With many Millennials in particular valuing sustainability, modern offices have started to incorporate energy efficiency into their designs.

Technology continues to have a big impact. Only 30 years ago we were still using typewriters in offices, as well as rolodexes and filing cabinets, and we were receiving our mail via the mail clerk.

But today computers – with the help of the internet – perform all these functions, and what computers can’t do, our smartphones take care of. We can even use Skype to talk to people in other offices rather than travelling for face-to-face meetings.

This continues to have a big impact on how workers operate and hence, office design. And as technology continues to evolve, so too will our workspaces.

The modern office encourages greater collaboration.

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