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Dave Carter
Dave Carter
  • 4 Minute Read
  • 28th February 2011

The Evolution of Office Space

What does the typical ‘office space’ look like to you? Adjustable chairs; the clicking of keys and office gossip; the scent of coffee; art on the walls..? We started to look into the evolution of office space, wondering how these places have changed over time and what they might become in the future.

Eberhard Architects LLC wrote, Since the dawn of the white-collar age, office designs have cycled through competing demands: openness versus privacy and interaction versus autonomy.”

The Origins of the Office

Before 1900

Pre-industrialised illustrations show sectioned off private offices with men handling record keeping books and writing on scrolls of parchment. Before the invention of the printing press, writing was a shared practice and the boundaries between ‘private office’ and ‘private library’ were blurred. It was common for libraries and offices to be part of the same space.

Industrial Revolution

Between the 18th and 19th centuries there was demand for more specialised office space. The world saw the rise of banking, railroads, insurance, retailing, oil and the telegraph industries. To keep up with business, increasing amounts of office clerks were needed to handle order processing, accounts and other file documents.

A typical office space during the Industrial Revolution may have appeared cluttered with paper documents piled high in storage bins and desks arranged cubically, offering some level of privacy. Multi storey buildings were invented as a result of increasing land prices and once the elevator was invented in 1850, these sorts of office spaces started to crop up everywhere.

The office as we know it really began to take shape early in the Twentieth Century. Here’s a few of the key milestones in the evolution of office space and a speculative vision of what’s to come.

Office Space Comes of Age

Taylorism (1904)

American engineer, Fredrick Taylor was one of the first people to actually design an office space. Obsessed with efficiency, he crowded workers together in an open plan space, whilst bosses were placed in private offices. The layout was similar to a factory floor.

Burolandschaft - Office Landscape (1960)

Bürolandschaft, which translates as “office landscape”, was an important step in the evolution of office space and was introduced in 1958 by brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle. Their idea was to remove the uniform rows of desks and introduce a plan that was more organic and natural.

The layout of the office space remained undivided, but management were no longer hidden away in their private suites. The office layout was augmented by plants and temporary screens to suit the communication needs of the teams.

Serviced Offices – A New Concept in Office Space

Serviced Offices (1962)

The concept of serviced offices was first seen in the United States with the creation of OmniOffices in 1962. Serviced offices gained in popularity as they provided a fully furnished environment with amenities on tap which was ready to occupy at short notice.

Action Office (1968)

The use of ‘low dividers’ and flexible work systems enter the office space in the form of a range of furniture called Action Office. This sort of layout is still widely used today and more commonly known as the ‘cubicle’.

Cube Farm (1980)

We see the cubicle concept taken to the extreme. With the rise of more ‘middle management’ staff and modular walls. ‘Middle management’ were seen as too important for just a desk, but too junior for a window seat, so this is when we saw the birth of the sea of cubicles usually arranged in pods of 4 or 8.

Virtual Office (1994)

The next step in the evolution of the office leveraged the technological advances of an increasing mobile age. In a virtual office, businesses are still equipped with telecommunication links and office furniture; however there is no fixed space. The virtual office still functions as a fully operational and functional workspace, but there are no start-up costs of having a physical office space.

Collaboration and Flexibility - Office Trends for the New Millennium

Networking (2000 -)

Over the past decade, designers have tried to part with the cube farm and encourage sociability. Systems with movable, semi-enclosed pods and connected desks become popular. Larger tables may have low dividers that cordon off personal space but won’t guard personal calls.

Coworking (2005)

The story of coworking began in 2005, and it has evolved dramatically ever since. Software engineer Brad Neuberg is credited with starting the coworking phenomenon from a San Francisco collective space. He wanted to find a way to combine the feeling of independence and freedom of working by himself with the community feel and structure of working with others. This is the essence of coworking as we know it today.

COVID-19 Secure Offices (2020)

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which gripped the world from early 2020 has led to a rapid re-evaluation of office design and usage, at least until effective vaccines are rolled out. Government guidelines on how to make workspace COVID-19 secure has put enhanced health and safety features at the top of the priority list. Office spaces now support lower density, socially distanced layouts, safety features and guided foot flows. Shared facilities are carefully monitored, and scrupulously cleaned. Remote working practices have been widely embraced.

The Future of Office Space

So, what is next for the evolution of office space? Many academics have looked at current trends in the workplace and extrapolated those themes to shape a vision of the future office. Advances in technology present tremendous opportunity for work and cultural development.

A vision of the future office in the digital age will be a greener more sustainable space where the emphasis is on community. The advances in technology will make certain roles obsolete, whilst creating new jobs, services and efficiencies.

The underlying rational for coworking and flexible workspace will remain, although technological advances will support greater remote working opportunities. However, people need time and a space to meet in real life and as a result the community aspect of offices will grow in importance.

Many employers and employees recognise the benefits of the physical office citing the human need for social interaction and the value of an environment which is optimised for productivity, as core reasons for its existence.

Consequently, we believe that the office will continue to play a central role in our working lives for many years to come – Office evolution? Yes, office extinction? No.