A Brief History of Office Design

Office design is constantly evolving and shapes how we work, interact, and function in the workplace. For many, the workplace is a home away from home and how it operates can affect your staffs' wellness, productivity, and overall happiness. This is why great office design is so essential.

Over time, focus has shifted from productivity-oriented office design to designs that prioritise employee well-being. This shift has led to some drastic changes in the style, layout, and day-to-day running of workplaces over the years.

Let’s take a look at some of the most iconic designs throughout history and make some predictions for the future.

Early Office Design

Office spaces originated in ancient Rome, with separate areas inside government buildings being assigned for workers dealing with the steadily increasing amounts of administration and paperwork. It wasn’t until the 18th century that buildings were purposefully constructed for office work. The Old Admirality Building in London is cited as the earliest example of such a place and dealt with the mountains of paperwork produced by the British Royal Navy. And with that, the first office was born.

Did You Know?

In 1729, East India House opened its doors, providing office space for the infamous East India Trading Company.

Taylorism

Taylorism is a methodology pioneered by mechanical engineer Frank Taylor, who sought to maximise industrial efficiency by optimising and simplifying jobs to increase productivity.

The earliest modern offices were built with Taylor’s approach in mind and were famous for their strictly scientific approach to working – emphasising efficiency with a rigid, systematic layout. This resulted in workers sat at long, crowded rows of desks with managers observing from above, reminiscent of a factory setting.

This approach garnered significant criticism at the time as it failed to take human and social elements into account, prioritising labour output over employee welfare.

Did You Know?

Taylor published a book titled The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 and parts of his business philosophy and work practices are still widely used to this day.

Bürolandschaft

Surprisingly, open plan office design came to fruition long before you might expect. The design concept known as Bürolandschaft (which translates to “office-landscape”) was formulated in Germany in the 1950s and was quickly picked up by the rest of Europe.

Bürolanschaft design promoted a less rigid, more collaborative way of working that strived to meet the needs of the workforce. This resulted in a more open office which used screens, plants, and more conventional furniture, to create individual work groups on big open-plan floors.

Did You Know?

This design was strictly structured around a ranking system of seniority, with many senior staff having the privilege of private offices and natural light.

Cubicle

Adapted from Robert Propst’s ‘Action Office’ design and synonymous with the bleak and oppressive office cliché, the cubicle was designed to give employees privacy to completely focus on their work. Due to their cheap fitting costs and relatively easy installation, cubicles quickly became the preferred office layout for business owners. Although claustrophobic cubicles have received a lot of criticism in recent years, they remained an incredibly popular design for nearly two decades – culminating in the dystopian cubicle farms of the 1980s.

Did You Know?

A lot of people actually liked the concept of the cubicles and thought having their own personal workspace was liberating.

The Modern Office

Advancements in technology have changed how, where, and when we choose to work. There’s a lot more freedom in the modern office, with co-working, flexible workspaces, and the concept of working from home becoming popular. Businesses now prioritise the needs of their workforce. And with this, we’ve seen the emergence of breakout spaces, on-site services, and an emphasis on work-life balance. Offices are generally more relaxed environments, with colour, décor, and style choices reflecting this shift in attitude

Did You Know?

A growing number of companies are offering modern breakout spaces that include luxuries such as hammocks, beanbags, relaxation pods, and even massage rooms.

The Future of Office Design

In future workspaces, we’ll likely see greater attention given to wellness-focused office design, with employees having complete control and freedom over how they work. The office will become a social hub, with more amenities offered to staff as the office becomes a ‘living space’. Technological advancements in wearable tech, adaptable and customisable furniture, and mobile workstations will make work an increasingly streamlined process while facilitating collaboration and private work.

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