The History of Office Design

While the way we work has evolved beyond any conceivable recognition over the past 50 years, so too has where we work, and here we take a look at the history of office design.

Where today, we have laptops, tablets and mobiles that enable us to work effectively from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, older workplaces were designed to facilitate rows of manual white collar workers and typists, packed in tightly in an effort to maximise efficiency.

Office design has become a much more cultured process with an increasing focus on creating workplaces that centre around the individual, and that promote not only productivity and efficiency but also creativity and wellbeing. But where does the history of office design begin?

The fist office (design)

There is evidence to suggest that the first offices originated in ancient Rome as spaces where official work was conducted, and that similar spaces existed in some form throughout the ages. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that dedicated office buildings began to be created.

With the British Empire expanding and engaging in an increasing level of trade with other parts of the empire (and world), the first office building was built in 1726 in London and became known as The Old Admiralty Office. It served to handle the masses of the paperwork generated by the Royal Navy and included meeting spaces and the Admiralty Board Room, which is still used today.

The History of Office Design
Admiralty House, London

This was followed swiftly in 1729 by the construction of East India House on Leadenhall Street in London, which acted as the HQ for East India Trading Company and its legions of workers. By now, the advent of a centralised, concentrated space to administer increasing amounts of paperwork had gained traction, with new offices popping up throughout London.

Indeed, the design of these ‘new’ office buildings warranted a mention in a UK government report on office space layouts which said:

 “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”

Taylorism and the rise of the open plan office

The earliest modern offices were remarkable for their scientific approach and emphasised efficiency and the adoption of a rigid, regimented office layout that resulted in workers sat at endless rows of desks with managers located in encircling offices where they could observe.

These early, open plan offices which grew in popularity throughout the early 20th century, followed the principles of ‘Taylorism’, a methodology created by mechanical engineer, Frank Taylor, who sought to maximise industrial efficiency. There has been much criticism of Taylor’s approach, as it failed to take into consideration human and social elements and focused exclusively on ensuring employers gained maximum productivity from their staff.

The History of Office Design
A Taylorist Inspired Office

At the same time, large skyscrapers designed to accommodate numerous companies and their staff had begun to appear in cities across the USA, and in some parts of the UK. This new architectural phenomenon was made possible by the invention of electric lighting, air conditioning systems and also the telegraph system which meant that offices no longer had to be situated beside factories.

However, it was the birth of the lift and of steel frame construction, that ushered in a radically new way of working, and consequently heralded the growth of office design as a discipline, and so the history of office design entered a new period.

The history of office design
One of the first Skyscrapers in New York City

The evolution of open plan working

As skyscrapers and other large commercial buildings were developed, the workplace altered to become a spacious space where there was a mix of private offices and open plan workstations, complete with typewriters, and in some cases a dedicated staff kitchen or canteen.

The history of office design
The open plan office in Mad Men

This evolution was embodied by the opening of The Johnson Wax company’s open-plan office, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939. This office was primarily designed to increase productivity, and as such placed over 200 sales staff on one floor, but also included completely new elements such as bright lights, warm spaces and cork ceilings, which played a major role in absorbing office acoustics.

The history of office design
Johnson Wax Open Plan Office

Just as office design has begun to emerge as a real tangible concern with many larger companies now aspiring towards offices that reflected their perceived corporate image, mostly centred around strength and masculinity, the great depression and then World War II applied the brakes.

After this enforced hiatus, a new approach known as Burolandschaft became to be adopted.

Burolandschaft

In the early 1960’s, the workplace really started to change with the adoption of a more socially democratic layout which consequently encouraged a great degree of human interaction and engagement.

This office design style became known as Burolandschaft, an originally German concept, which translates to ‘office landscape’, and after becoming popular in northern Europe, began to spread around the world.

The history of office design
An example of a Burolandschraft workplace

Burolanschaft advocated a less rigid approach to office layouts and placed far more importance on meeting the needs of the workforce. As a result, the workplace became a more open space with desks and teams grouped together, in a less scientific manner than Taylorism, with plants rather than partitions creating organic boundaries.

Subsequently, the workplace became a far more social affair with collaboration between teams, now placed beside each other, taking place on a much more regular basis. Based on this progressive model, staff of different managerial levels began to sit and work together, and as such, Burolandschaft is often referenced in relation to the principles of modern office design.

The Action Office

As Burolandschaft evolved, a new approach that became known as the Action Office began to emerge. This model differed from Burolandschaft in that it included a variety of alternate work settings for staff, increased freedom of movement and a greater degree of privacy when working.

The influence on office design was twofold with increased space required for rows of modular furniture that provided staff with privacy and flexibility to work in a position suitable for the task at hand. While there was an increased emphasis placed on meeting rooms, an individual’s workstation became larger and more enclosed, and though it did provide plenty of space to work, it did lead to less interaction as staff became less visible to each other.

The history of office design
The Action Office

The influx of female workers into what was traditionally a male dominated workplace in the 1960’s also led to subtle changes in how the workplace was designed. The office now required a greater level of privacy, and many female workers now demanded a ‘modesty board’, which was simply a plywood section that covered the front of a desk, and critically their legs. In fact, the Observer ran an article entitled ‘Would you let your daughter work in an open plan office?’ as lately as 1968.

The history of office design
Observer article from 1968

Over time, the Action Office concept evolved to a point where employees each had their own high, three-sided vertical division that defined their individual space, and which they had autonomy to personalise. This should sound somewhat familiar as it is frequently credited with the rise of the often-ridiculed cubicle farm workplaces in the 1980’s.

The history of office design
The evolution of the Action Office

The Cubicle Farm

The availability of cheap, but effective modular walls alongside an increased focus on profitability at the expense of working conditions are seen as the key factors behind the complete shift in office design, suffered throughout the 1980’s.

The history of office design
The emergence of the cubicle farm

The history of office design at this point digressed and became a ‘stack them highly; sell them cheap’ model, and entered what is now widely acknowledged as one of the more depressive (if not, the most) periods since it had emerged as a discipline.

Robert Prost, who is widely associated with the development of the Action Office model is quoted as stating that:

“not all organisations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places”

In fact, Douglas Ball, a designer for leading furniture company Haworth, who developed one of Action Office’s more popular designs had initially been excited but emerged from a completed space utterly depressed.

“I went to see the first installation of the system, a huge government project. The panels were all seventy inches tall, so unless you were six-foot-three you couldn’t look over the top. It was awful – one of the worst installations I’d ever seen”

The history of office design
The maligned cubicle farm

By then, the damage had been done and so followed almost two decades of staff ‘trapped’ in giant fabric-wrapped walls. It took the advent of technology in the workplace to force companies to look at office design in a more holistic, human centred manner. So, where next for the history of office design?

Office Design and Technology

As technology developed, workers became more mobile and ushered in a golden period for office design where new, more flexible ways of working such as Agile and Activity Based Working (ABW) became increasingly popular.

As staff became more mobile, it became evident that they could work anywhere and were no longer wed to their desk. It became normal to see people working in cafes, coffee shops and from home, as companies began to adopt these new ways of working. As mobility became the norm, office design began to embrace ‘hot desking’ where staff weren’t allocated space, but rather picked an available space to work from.

The history of office design
The modern workplace

The rise of technology enterprises also led to the creation of new office design norms, with cooler, hipper companies desiring funky, colourful offices that included a variety of spaces that staff could choose to work from, and so signaled the birth of the break out space in the modern workplace.

It also became critical that technology could be used from any part of the workplace and where possible that it integrated seamlessly with furniture and other devices such as screens and digital whiteboards. A sense of fun was also instilled with the addition of leisure areas and creative spaces with pinball machines, beanbags, table tennis tables and dart boards.

The history of office design
Modern break out space

The History of Office Design Today

As the history of office design continues to unfold, today it has reached a point where the modern workplace takes inspiration from the home, through the use of warm colours, intimate lighting and soft seating. It also continues to focus on the comfort and wellbeing of staff as companies have become aware that the office is an important tool that can be used to attract and retain the very best talent in a competitive marketplace.

Point 72 office refurbishment london
The use of warm, homely colours is now commonplace in the workplace

While trends tend to come and go, there has been a significant rise in biophilic office design and companies bringing a little of the outdoors into the work environment. This is achieved through the addition of fresh shrubbery, increased access to natural light and air, and in some cases the installation of living walls as a feature.

Office Design Trends
Bringing the outdoors indoors

As the history of office design continues to be written, we are also witnessing a rise in co-working, with companies working in shared spaces, facilitated by companies like WeWork and Regus. This flexible arrangement has proved attractive to many with co-working spaces now dotted throughout all major cities in not only the UK, but in Europe and the US too.

Office furniture has also had to keep pace with office design and the popularity of workplace wellbeing, and as a result we have seen sit stand desks become an integral part of many offices. Many of the larger manufacturers have also created and marketed their products as ergonomically friendly which is again, a major concern for many companies.

The Future of Office Design

Without a crystal ball, it is difficult to predict which direction the history of office design will take but we have tried in our ‘The Future Workplace’ Guide, which you can read by clicking here.


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