by Kalen Buchanio
Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of OfficePro magazine
It’s true that some things in the office just don’t change—chatting coworkers, nonstop meetings, ringing phones and even the need for a strong cup of coffee (or two)—but other things do change. Over the last century, the office has seen dramatic shifts in design, technology, and function, shaking up the classic 9-to-5 and forever changing the way we work. So how did we get from the cigarette haze of “Mad Men” days to the sleeping pods and ping-pong tables that command the modern workplace? Grab a hold of your time cards and get ready to take a journey through the evolution of the office.
Industrial Origins (Early 1900s)
Far from fun, early offices were heavily influenced by the manufacturing industry. Frederick Taylor, the man credited with designing the first office space, believed management’s enforcement of standardized methods, the best working conditions, and cooperation would ensure faster work.
What this meant for office design was that it was focused on three things: efficiency, hierarchy, and enforcement. What this meant for the office worker was being packed into open floors in a straight, linear layout while management observed from private offices above.
After World War II, with cheaper electricity and seemingly endless resources, artificial lighting and ventilation began to rule, meaning access to open windows was no longer seen as a necessity.
Office Landscaping (1960s)
When the office of the ‘60s comes to mind, it’s hard not to picture Don Draper and the glamorous advertising agencies of New York City. But how did we get from the dark, crowded bullpens of the early 20th century to color-coordinated designs and coveted corner offices? One word—Bürolandschaft.
Meaning “office landscaping”, this German design movement wanted to break down hierarchies and mimic the ebbs and flows of social interaction. By arranging desks in organic groupings and using plants to create natural partitions, this design promoted communication and collaboration. But the open floor plans of the 1960s gave way to a common consequence that we struggle with, even today—distraction.
The Cube Farm (1970s and 1980s)
Believe it or not, the dreaded cubicle we all know was originally designed to set us free. The cube’s (later remorseful) creator, Robert Propst, sought to build an affordable system that gave each worker privacy, personalization and a view—a blissful retreat from the loud, open offices of the last decade. Unfortunately, his divine vision would never become the workplace oasis of his dreams.
Because the system was cheap and flexible, it provided the perfect opportunity for profit-hungry corporations to pack their workers in like battery hens. Soon enough, the cubicle’s once open walls wilted into small, enclosed boxes arranged in rows. Thus, the iconic cubicle farm was born. (But it did inspire the 1999 cult film, “Office Space,” so at least there’s that to be thankful for.)
The Dot Com Boom (1990s)
The ‘90s: a decade that gave birth to grunge, our beloved “Melrose Place,” the Taco Bell Chihuahua and of course, the internet. This budding information system brought more than just a dancing baby meme and GeoCities websites: It added a new level of technological complexity to the office. The work space was no longer just an immovable desk or a stale cubicle, it was wherever we needed it to be: public transportation, at home or in coffee shops. As a result, this helped telecommuting and flexible working gain traction and popularity in the workplace.
A radical example of this on-the-go craze was the idea of “hot desking,” which eliminated the personal workspace completely. You’d come into the office each morning, laptop in hand, and scramble for a place to sit among shared, open tables. Although it was meant to promote collaboration, this concept quickly nose-dived in popularity as it left employees feeling less grounded.
The Casual Office (2000s)
Following the nail-biting countdown to the year 2000 and impending doom of the Y2K bug, the beginning of the 21st century sparked a massive shift in office culture. From Dot Com conglomerates like Google and Yahoo! to small, digital marketing startups, companies everywhere were shedding their stuffy suits and ties and replacing them with T-shirts, jeans and Converses—and layouts had to echo this.
Areas that once housed a sea of colorless cubes were filled with bright and modern workspaces. Dreary conference rooms were transformed into airy, multi-purpose spaces for collaboration, quiet concentration and informal meetings. It was an era of ultimate flexibility: dominated by game rooms, snack machines and endless social spaces. This new wave of workplace design truly blurred the lines between work and play.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that today’s workplace layout still stubbornly clings to some aspects from previous decades (unfortunately, cube farms being one). But perhaps one of the biggest impacts still felt is the ever-changing technological advances of the tech boom, which have revolutionized the way we work, along with the amount demanded from us.
Sure, computers have made it easier for us to do more, but expectations for us have increased, too, meaning the same 9-to-5 work day, but way more to get done. That’s why it’s more important than ever to find efficiencies anywhere we can manage. From subscription services that make reordering supplies a breeze to powerful PaperPro staplers that only need one finger to use, one thing is certain: If it makes your job faster and easier, it’s likely your new favorite thing.
Here’s to hoping the next phase of office evolution will mean lots of wine, puppies, and Zen centers around every corner.