The history of the modern office

The open-plan office in one form or another has dominated workspaces since architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building in New York at the beginning of the 20th Century.

In 1856, A UK government report on office space layouts said: “for intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it”.

Since that report was written, views on the working environment have clearly moved on! Most offices are now completely open-plan providing few or no private spaces, even for ‘intellectual’ workers and while many improvements have been made over the years, the changing nature of work and worker interactions has forced modifications to our working environment.

Open-plan offices in the first half of the 20th century were mostly used by typists and technicians: row upon row of clerical staff completing repetitive tasks. By the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright overhauled the monotonous style with his Johnson Wax Headquarters in Wisconsin. Clusters of wooden desks were separated by terracotta furnishings and lit from above with skylights held up by mushroom-shaped columns. It was airy, spacious, and beautifully designed.

Later, in the 1960s, the Burolandschaft office landscaping movement emerged and created a small revolution in the workspace. Staff sat in organic-like patterns based on the flows of communication and were divided by filing cabinets, screens and potted plants.

By the 1980s this was replaced by the hot-desk. The system, whose term is borrowed from ‘hot-bunking’, where submariners shared their bunks between duties, was seen as an efficient use of space and resource for workers with different timetables. The disruption of hierarchy and the lack of permanence however often gave hot-desking a bad name.

There are many advantages to the open-plan office. It saves space and can create a more equal community of workers. Unfortunately, the potential disadvantages can have a big impact on the company’s efficiency through noise and distraction, the inability to adjust light and temperature, and the lack of privacy.

Some companies have already begun to address these issues by creating meeting pods, telephone booths or recreation rooms to encourage creative conversation, thinking time as well as quiet down time.

With the emergence of cloud-based software and demands for a better work-life balance, employers and employees adopted a completely new approach. Large organisations, with a lack of space and rising costs have been the first to encourage some employees to work from home a few days a week. The use of laptops has facilitated this flexibility not just in companies practising ‘musical chairs’ but also in the number of self-employed people now working from cafés and libraries.

Yet, for people working remotely, whether it is from the comfort of their home or a beach in Bali, it can be an isolating experience. The rise of the co-working space, where people could share resources and network, was in many ways an answer to this problem. This method of collaborative working first started to appear on the west coast of the US in 2005 and year on year has spread globally. It is thought that in the UK at least 1 million people will be using a co-working space by 2018.

Whatever the future of the office, we will almost certainly still be looking for some kind of support to work from and sit on, space division – and people to work with. Our ‘tribal’ culture after all will be particularly hard to change.