Over the last century, the evolution of office design has been driven and progressed by the dramatic transformations in the way we work and what we expect from our office environment. The introduction of new tech and tools, changing staff needs and work models, and the shift from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy have altered the paradigm of how and where we work.
When we talk about the evolution of the modern office, it is far more gradual and subtle than you may realise. The workplace is a complex environment and one that is different for all of us, dependent on the work we do. Office design has to cater for requirements inspired by technology, culture, leadership, personality types, gender and performance which has provided an ever-growing demand for change.
The spaces we work in have formed behaviours and shaped the way we interact with each other at work. If we look at the history of the office, we can see how the current landscape builds on the ideas and concepts of the 20th Century to the leading edge of workplace design and today.
From the Romans to the East India Trading Company, offices were used long before the 1800s for administrative tasks, but the 19th Century saw them popularised as a place for conducting business. This was mainly due to the comprehensive roll-out of the railway across the UK, which brought an array of freight, logistics, importing and exporting tasks and required much larger workforces to support it.
In this century, workplaces were shaped like their businesses – branching hierarchies with merchants and clerks housed on the building’s lower floors, while the owners often lived above the office. Workdays and weeks in the Victorian era were long. With little legislature, employees were expected to work ten-hour days and often into the weekends. Seating was static and made from cheaply produced wood, with desks being not too dissimilar. However, furniture quality improved higher up the chain of command, often becoming more ornate with a higher degree of comfort with features such as upholstered fabric backs and seats.
Typical layout: Employees concentrated into large work areas, senior staff in separate rooms.
Work models: Heavy supervision with a stratified structure based on seniority and status.
Furniture: Hinged bureau desks, fixed wooden chairs, typewriter cabinets, bookbinders, inkstands.
Technology: Gaslamps, manual typewriters, mimeograph machines
In the early 20th Century, technology revolutionised the form and function of the workplace. The invention of electric lighting opened up spaces – providing an entire floor plate where staff could work without gas lights (read more on the importance of office lighting here). Masonry-bearing walls often constrained building heights and new materials and techniques had to be developed before multistory buildings could be safely built. The typewriter, telegraph and telephone accelerated communication and allowed organisations to manage their company offices from afar.
American engineer Frederick Taylor is recognised as one of the first people to design an “office space”. He was one of the leaders of the ‘Efficiency Movement’ that was highly influential in developing the mass production processes we know today. These spaces were similar to factories. Linear rows of desks were set for typists and admin personnel – resembling paperwork assembly lines with managers with separate rooms.
Typical layout: Primitive office layouts were straight, linear and heavily influenced by the manufacturing industry.
Work models: Standardised, repetitive work activities with heavy monitoring from management (such as counting the number of letters opened per hour or counting the typists’ strokes).
Furniture: Steel swivel chairs and carpentered wooden desks, ornate and comfortable furniture (such as armchairs) and roll-top desks reserved for senior staff.
Technology: Electric lamps, telegraph, static phones, dictation machines.
After the war, business theorists began to steer away from the Taylorist concept of “employees as units” and look towards flatter hierarchical structures that encouraged communication and interaction. This was popularised in Germany by the ‘Bürolandschaft’ (or “office landscape”) movement, which produced the first of what we now commonly call open-plan offices.
These workplace designers used organic geometries and fluid circulation plans to facilitate movement throughout the office. Informal spaces such as break rooms and lounges were first introduced to provide employees with an “escape” from the desk. Designers used cabinets and curved partitions to counter the noise and distractions of loud typewriters and telephone conversations. This decade also saw a great improvement to indoor air quality with innovative air conditioning systems and gas-fired boilers replacing coal. This encouraged the development of increased floor sizes and lower ceilings, but spaces tended to still be designed at lower occupancies – due in no small part to noise issues (still seeing these issues today? See our article on Office Design Problems and How to Solve Them).
With office environments becoming a primary setting for city inhabitants, workplace furniture also became a focal point, with bespoke workstations, seating and textiles developed by prominent architects and designers.
Typical layout: Prominent open-plan spaces with partitioned breakrooms.
Work models: Single function tasks completed in isolated departmental groups.
Furniture: Steel-tube swivel chairs, ergonomic executive chairs, office plants, G-Plan and mid-century modern desks, Rolodexes.
Technology: Typewriters, filing cabinets, rotary telephones, air conditioning, fluorescent lighting.
The late 50s saw the dawn of a humanised modernism with a blending of modern architectural principles with warm colours and soft textures. In this search, the cubicle was invented, the “Action Office” by George Nelson and Robert Propst. The ‘cube’ system was a three-sided moveable partition developed to allow personal privacy, convenience and less distraction, which was thought to be lost in many of the larger open-plan office environments.
The take up of this new system was slow due to its expense, but this all changed with Action Office II in 1968. The office industry particularly loved this template for the cubicle system, which was cheaper and easier to install. So people began to replicate it, and other companies devised with their own action offices.
Seating took a central role as people looked for more ergonomic and comfortable design solutions. This decade saw the rise of design-led office furniture, featuring a progressive use of colour and shape, primarily due to the proliferation of plastic. Items like the Eames Lounge Chair (launched in 1957) became a popular choice for executives.
Typical layout: Central bullpen workspace with formal boardrooms and break rooms lining the perimeter of the office.
Work models: Labour and time-based approaches, fixed desk policies.
Furniture: Modular furniture, wooden desks, sofas, plastic and steel chairs, moveable partitioning and walls.
Technology: Handheld calculators, pocket dictation machines, fax machines, laser printers, photocopiers.
By the mid-1970s, industrial and office parks began to dot the landscape along the outer belts of UK cities. Many office tenants were attracted by the closeness to the residences of employees and by the lower rents. Clusters of office buildings were developed along the interconnected growth corridors of UK cities, ring roads and motorways. During this period, floor plates and building sizes continued to increase.
Cubicle offices continued to be the dominant layout during this period, but the decade also saw the rise of the individual and a new focus on wellbeing and ergonomics. This shift led to office spaces designed to give individual workers the freedom to be creative, collaborate, and work autonomously. In addition, computers started to enter offices. These vast, noisy machines filled entire rooms and were mainly used for data storage and complex calculations.
Typical layout: Open-plan spaces blended with adjacent cubicles of lounge areas, boardrooms and collaborative workrooms.
Work models: Ergonomics and employee health, collaborative working.
Furniture: Modular furniture, MDF desks, sofas, height-adjustable seating, personal pedestals.
Technology: Air conditioning, handheld calculators, floppy disks, fax machines, laser printers, photocopiers.
The 1980s saw substantial technological developments take hold with new communication and information processing devices requiring space in the office – namely, the personal computer. At the same time, with business-orientated political policies taking hold across the globe, this decade represented a time when the corporation was king. Accordingly, commercial office design took on a futuristic aesthetic, dominated by clean lines and materials that emphasised a hard-edged, industrial look, such as metal and glass. During this time, London’s skyscrapers boom began, most noticeable with the Canary Wharf development.
Inside these spaces, many companies began to capitalise on space densities by constructing linear rows of cubicles, designed to increase worker productivity. Unfortunately, these modular walls led to claustrophobic, enclosed spaces, while desks took the form of heavy and complicated units to account for the rise in word processors and fax machines.
Office layout: Cubicle farms and interior design dictated by technology and space densities.
Work models: Decentralised workspaces with flatter organisational structures.
Furniture: Ergonomic chairs with lumbar supports, whiteboards, steel workstations.
Technology: Car phones, CDs, Email, bulky desktop computers, pagers.
At its outset, 90s offices looked and felt quite similar to those from the previous decade. Private, enclosed workstations were still standard, and personal computers were bulky with heavy-duty power and data cabling. However, as laptops began to become more affordable, open office plans and hot-desking became an increasingly popular design plan as companies sought to promote flexibility and collaboration in the flourishing Information Age and knowledge-based economy.
Office layout: Expanded cubicles to house departments and teams moving towards non-assigned workstations in the latter half of the decade.
Work models: Hot-desking, telecommuting, heightened focus on collaboration and cooperation and the rise of “company culture”.
Furniture: Personal lockers, U-shaped workstations, integrated personal storage, built-in filing cabinets, monitor arms, keyboard trays, cradle-to-cradle furniture lifecycles.
Technology: Email, laptops, personal digital assistants, dial-up internet, mobile phone, document scanners.
The rise of dot-coms and start-ups from young, entrepreneurial minds reformed many of the practices and behavioural notions of the workplace. Work-life balances started to blend with the designs of the workplace, with more ‘playful’ aspects entering the office. With the boom, the “office as playground” became a familiar concept, characterised by innovative systems, an open plan office and a University campus or neighbourhood “spirit.” The rapid growth of mobile tech also enabled employees to work away from the desk and popularised coworking spaces. The first such centre in the UK, “Impact Hub“, opened at London’s Angel Station in 2005.
Office layout: Communal areas, quiet zones and interactive environments, touchdown spaces with extraneous coworking spaces.
Work models: Neighbourhood work environments, flexible working.
Furniture: Meeting pods, shared sofas, modular seating, pool and ping pong tables, environmentally friendly furniture.
Technology: 3G, WiFi, laptops, smartphones, Google, social media, teleconferencing software, acoustic planning.
The 2010s workplace combined a mix of influences from the latter half of the 20th century – taking aspects from many different work styles to create “agile work” environments that make people, how they work, and the outcomes they produce the prominent focus, rather than the work itself. One of these concepts, ‘Activity Based Working’, became a prominent workstyle to address this new methodology and remains popular today. Furthermore, biophilia and the introduction of nature into the corporate space became increasingly popular, as did an objective examination into wellbeing.
Office layout: Variety of workspace environments, focused around formal/informal, collaborative/concentration, virtual/physical spaces.
Work models: Coworking, virtual collaboration, delegated management, activity-based working.
Furniture: Standing desks, private booths, bookable meeting rooms.
Technology: 4G, artificial intelligence, cloud storage, software as service, occupancy sensors, digital signage.
Our post-COVID world has accelerated changes that were already happening within the office landscape, remote working, virtual collaboration and self-organising team structures being three major examples. Where to next? A 2021 study by Gartner suggests that by 2023, less than one-third of digital workers will select the corporate office as their preferred place to work. And by 2030, 48% of employees will work remotely (compared to 30% before the COVID-19 pandemic).
Furthermore, Cone Communications’ Millennial Employee Study found that 64% of Millennials won’t take a job if their employee doesn’t have a robust corporate social responsibility policy, and 83% would be more loyal to a company that contributes to social and environmental issues. As a result, we see companies incorporating sustainable design into their offices – from furniture procurement to subscribing to BREEAM and SKA based ecological, social, and economic assessments.
Office layout: Highly adaptable and modular spaces.
Work models: Self-managing teams, agile and hybrid working.
Furniture: Sit/Stand desks, responsive seating, adjustable lighting.
Technology: Internet of Things, 5G, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, wearable tech.
For more information on agility in the workplace, this guide will help you to decide how your business can benefit from agile working.download now