A Brief History of Workplace Design

A majority of modern offices are bright, colourful, and inspiring places to be, but this wasn’t always the case. The look and feel of workplace interiors has changed drastically over the decades as the very concept of the  employee has also shifted. Let’s explore the history of workspace design to learn how we ended up where we are today.

It all started 293 years ago…

Long ago, far before the internet allowed us to work from anywhere and computers did away with paperwork, the British royal navy had a problem: how should they keep on top of all the administration involved in running their international trade routes?

They needed a central location where clerks could focus on updating accounts and totting up figures. So, in 1726, they opened The Old Admirability Building in London, which is often cited as the first-ever office building. Soon they began cropping up all over London.

Rno admirality building

Although these structures bore little resemblance to the workplaces of today, they were the first buildings constructed solely for the purpose of office work.

Technology Changes the Game

It wasn’t until the invention of telecommunication devices like Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876 that the office trend really got going. Thanks to these technologies, manual, ‘blue collar’ workers and their ‘white collar’ counterparts could work separately without having to rely on the often-slow postal service for communication.

Factories and offices could now, for the first time, be separate entities.

The Dawn of Open Office Design

The open plan office layout that’s commonplace today is often attributed to the workplace philosophy of Frank Taylor. A mechanical engineer by trade, Taylor popularised several work methodologies and workplace designs. ‘Taylorism’, as it came to be known, concerned itself with creating workspaces that maximised productivity and efficiency.

One of the most notable examples of Taylorism-inspired design is the Larkin Administration Building. Built in 1904 in New York City, it was the first workplace to introduce many of the design concepts we still see in offices today.

Larkin Building

There were large open areas lined with partition-free desks for the majority of workers, while senior members of staff were given boxy private offices. Every inch of space was uniform and used to maximise economic efficiency, somewhat to the detriment of the employee experience.

Taylorism has often come under fire for viewing workers as unemotional machinery – there to get the job done and not much else. It was these grievances that paved the way for the next big iteration of office design.

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Hallo Burolandschaft

Sprouting from the groundwork laid by Taylorism, the early 1960s saw office design better reflect the needs of employees. This shift started in Germany, hence the name burolandschaft (which translates to ‘office landscape’), but quickly grew popular around the world.

The originators of this design philosophy, brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, wanted to create offices that worked for workers, and would, therefore, work better for businesses. They scrapped the endless rows of desks for smaller team-based workstations, and management were moved out of private offices and into the main workspace. Hard partition borders were traded for temporary screens or plant life to give the office a more natural, organic vibe.

RNO burland

Burolandschaft was born very much of its time. Germany was going through a post-WW2 re-evaluation and there was a cultural desire to break down borders and encourage collaboration. Even so, the idea’s stuck around, with Gartner recently citing it as a top technology trend driving the digital workplace. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Putting People in Boxes

The 1980s saw office design, to some extent, retrograde. Instead of having open spaces that engendered cross-pollination between staff members, some businesses thought it’d be a great idea to start sticking employees in isolated cubicles.

Cubicles were cheap, space efficient, and practical – based on the attitude "to hell with employee well-being". Robert Prost, a main proponent of the "Action Office" design principle that informed the cubicle craze, once said:

“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.”

The prison-like office cubicle is so widely ridiculed nowadays that it’s become a joke – but spare a thought for the people who actually had to work in places like this:

rno cubicle farm

If there’s one workplace design lesson we can learn from history, it’s don’t trap your staff in boxes.

Technology Changes the Game All Over Again

Thanks to the invention of wireless internet and the increasing portability of computers, the workplaces of today are a far cry from the offices of yesteryear.

There’s been an acceptance that there’s no cookie cutter approach to office design. Different people require different things to work to their best ability. That’s why many modern workspaces offer various areas to facilitate the task at hand. Team meeting? Book out a secluded meeting room. General tasks? Use the hot desk area. Having a good mix of places to work in an office simply makes sense and it's been a long time coming. 

Thankfully, there’s also been a keener focus on employee well-being, with businesses realising that without satisfied and happy staff, they’d have no business at all. Giving employees autonomy over how and where they work, for example, has been proven to boost job satisfaction and productivity. Office interior design itself has also improved drastically, with much more thought and data now being used to create workplaces that are both inspiring and effective.

The question is: what does the future hold? If history is anything to go by, new technologies like 5G, virtual reality, and augmented reality will transform how workspaces work all over again in the coming decades. Some companies are already installing high-tech sensors around their offices to monitor how each space is utilised, maximising their workspace and constantly evolving based on how their employees work best.

If you're looking to futureproof your workspace, perhaps an office move is in order. Download our free office move guide and checklist today to learn how to get the best results for your employees.

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