From clerking halls to coworking spaces: the evolution of the office

As with so many things throughout history, it’s not easy figuring out when the first ever office was built. At the most basic level, an office is, after all, simply a place where administrative work gets done.

It’s fairly safe to say, however, that the idea of the office as a dedicated workspace that paid employees go to on a regular basis is relatively new. Even a city as old as London only saw its first dedicated office in the 1700s.

Even in that short time though, the office has seen incredible change. That said, the funky open-plan space you spend five days a week in might have a much more direct line to its historical antecedents than you might think.

The early days

One of the best examples of an early office comes in the shape of East India House, which opened its doors in 1729.

Like many offices of the period – and for a long time after – the space had a hierarchical division. Managers had private spaces and were less restricted in their movements, while clerks sat in long rows dealing with mountains of paperwork.

And that’s more or less how things would stay for an incredibly long time.

You only have to look at what a UK government report on office space layouts from 1856 says to see that: “for the 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”.

The dawn of the high-rise

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new materials and building methods meant that office buildings grew taller and taller, allowing more employees from the same company to work from a single location.

Perhaps the most iconic of these early high-rise offices was the Larkin Administration Building, designed in 1904 by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

As Deskmag points out, the building introduced a number of revolutionary design elements, including noise-absorbing walls and furniture and air-conditioning.

While these offices were certainly an improvement on their predecessors, one thing that didn’t change was the rigid organisational hierarchy.

Take the Johnson Wax Building for instance. Designed by Lloyd Wright in 1939, it was revolutionary in many respects, not least for the fact that it was meant to make employees proud of the company they worked for.

Despite that, managers still looked down on their employee, in this case from an upper-mezzanine level.

Breaking barriers

It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that things really started to change. Stirred by post-war optimism and an increased sense of social mobility, barriers between managers and employees began to fall.
One of the most extreme examples of this was the Bürolandschaft, a German concept which used organic groupings of desks to encourage communication and collaboration sounds a lot like the rationale behind today’s open plan offices right?)

Literally translated as “office landscaping”, Bürolandschaft carefully considered how to blend the need for collaboration, privacy, and space for dedicated functions.

Unfortunately, as people copied it, they increasingly neglected that attention to detail. As the below video from Vox explains, that neglect directly contributed to the hated cubicle farms that persisted until the 1990s and so many of the badly thought-out open plan offices we see today.

Fun and games

While offices have always been about work, they’ve increasingly become about so much more than that.

This “whole office” approach probably has its roots in the late 1990s tech boom, when a crop of young entrepreneurs – many of them college dropouts – decided that offices should also be “fun”.

If you’ve ever worked in an office with bean bag zones, ping pong tables, and foosball tables, they’re the ones you have to thank.

These tech giants also pioneered the idea that people didn’t have to be at their desks to be working. Knowing the possibilities of the technology they were working with, they were among the first to allow people to work the company lawns, coffee shops, and balconies.

Adaptability

Gradually, companies began to design for this. Contemporary offices, like the one occupied by petrochemical giant Sasol, offer employees a variety of spaces. That means they can work where they need to on any given day, rather than being confined to a single desk.

Offices are also increasingly being designed to easily adapt to future technologies and the changing needs of employees, making them generally less frustrating.

Our remote future?

But what about the future? Will we still need traditional offices when it’s increasingly possible for people to work remotely? Companies like Buffer have, after all, seen real expansion with an entirely remote workforce. And if teams do need somewhere to meet or physically collaborate, they can always use co-working spaces.

At this stage, it’s unclear how these trends will work for larger companies, but if they’re to continue being attractive places to work, it seems likely they’ll have to learn from them.

Whatever happens, you can rest assured that the pace of change will be faster than ever before.

From clerking halls to coworking spaces: the evolution of the office
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