Evolution of the Office Landscape

Evolution of the office landscape let’s us explore how we’ve done work historically, and perhaps also what the future may look like!


Evolution of the office landscape is an interesting way of looking at how we’ve done work up until now. It may also give us some hints of what the future holds in store for us!

I’m a big fan of the TV-show The Office and the portrayal of what really could be a genuine workplace. It’s one of those series I can watch over and over, like Seinfeld! The Office is a prime example of the 1990s to 2000s type of average workspace: Activity-Based Working. Before that, it was the dreaded cubicle that was the norm. Even before that there where open plans all over town! We will, however start even earlier! Namely in the beginning of the 20th century, just when the offices began taking shape.

Back to Basics (Early 20th Century)

Upon entering the office in the beginning of the last century, you’d be met by a bustling activity. Some people look back on movies and images of people in this era and admire the clothing styles. The men where generally more formally dressed. Suits, hats and accessories like ties, pocket watches, etc. where the norm. The working women dressed in elegant dresses or skirts with blouses. There was definately a more conservative air to the dress codes!

The first stumbling steps of office planning. Must’ve been an interesting time!

The tasks performed by the office employees where things that we, today, has almost entirely automated away into programs like Excel, answering machines and similar. A lot of the employees had to do calculation by head for the most part. The larger and more difficult ones was saved for the machines and calculators.

Roles like the secretary and typewriting assistant where very common at the time, but has since almost completely vanished. The structure fit well into the formal air of the time. It was very hierarchical with managers and supervisors on every level.

The general aestethics of the early 20th century office is a hard one to beat! Formally dressed people doing tasks by head and communicating almost entirely in person. At the entrance of every office: an elegantly dressed lady with a smile on her face to receive visitors!

Overwhelming Openness (1960s-1970s)

While the earlier offices where indeed very open, it was still nothing like what we’re about to see going forward! In the sixties, walls where literally being brought down to foster communication amongst the employees. Some reorganisation from the former, more chaotic layout where made. Rows of desks where were productivity lied. This also created the impression of a very large office. That could be a way of saying that the company where a successful one. One has to remember it was around here that the mega-companies started to emerge more frequently.

While the thought of an open office landscape might have been a good idea, there are downsides as well

When it came to designing an open office simplicity and functionality was key. Elaborate paintings, posters, plants, and ornate furniture had to give way to clean lines, neutral colours, and more simple office furnitures. A dreadful time, if you, like me, prefer more of a personal touch on the spaces I find myself in.

As with the society at large, eliminating barriers was a very important topic when designing the office. This was also where we started to get more designated spaces like meeting rooms and collaborative zones. They were designed to encourage more informal interactions, idea sharing and teamwork.

As with any larger open space, one of the main challenges with this type of office layout was the sound levels. As anyone who’ve had to sit through a normal noisy school class know, it’s incredibly difficult to work and focus. Especially when there’s a constant chattering, typing on keyboards and typewriters, coughing, etc..

This might have been the main reason that the next type of office layout evolved!

Corporate Confinement Cubicle (1980s-1990s)

To reduce the noise levels you had to build sound barriers! The walls that earlier were torn down to promote conversation was brought back up. Everyone should have their own little mini office inside the big mega office!

Ahh, the massproduction of work-tasks!

Keywords of the time was: privacy, modular design, and personalization.

The thinking of the time was to be able to give the workers some privacy. They would also have the ability to make the office into a more personalized workspace. That would foster productivity and general happiness, letting them work in peace without constant interruptions. The common rooms were kept as a way to promote cooperation and collaboration. That was something not as easily done between cubicles.

This is all in a time where big changes to workflow and tasks are entering the offices. Computers are becoming the norm to work on, and while some of the tasks from the first part of the century still remain, a lot of them are simply gone.

Activity-Based Asylum (1990s-2000s)

Now we’re entering into the territory of the tv-show “The Office”!

As we approach the new millenia, the worspaces once again morph into a new shape. From the chattering “all-hands-on-deck offices” of the first part of the century to the overwhelming openness of the open office to the depressing privacy/loneliness of the cubicle, we’ve now reached the activity-based office!

Almost like a scene from the tv-show The Office

One of the main thoughts behind this type is that it should promote cooperation and a sort of familiar feeling in the office. We’re also moving in a more employee-centric direction where a lot of thought went into creating an optimal environment for each person to do their best work in.

There were efforts to let the employees pick the equipment they’re working on and on occasion even the times they’d be working. The amount of technology entering the offices are increasing by the day and as such, more old positions were simply not needed anymore.

The layout of such offices were often made flexible and easily adjustable with moveable desks, modular seating and adjustable workstations. Collaboration zones are kept and new spaces were created, such as silent rooms to let employees delve into deep work without being interrupted.

Small teams and group work are becomming a lot more common!

Redefining Routines Remotely (21st Century)

Dreaded by some, dreamed of by some, the era of WFH (Work From Home) is inevitably here!

With added technology, such as video conference tools and the ability to pop in- and out of conversations without being physically present, there were simply no need to be in an office at all, right?

Evolution of the office landscape has arrived at no office at all
Working from home allows the employee to work from practically any place on earth that has a stable internet connection.

Offices are expensive to maintain and are often only used for a small percentage of the day, the rest of the time it just sits there with expensive machinery. As laptops and cellphones are becoming increasingly powerful and are now capable of streaming live video between almost any two points of the world instantaneously, there’s really no reason to be in the same room, physically.

A lot of companies the world over are letting their employees WFH more and more. It’s an interesting phenomena since a lot of power has shifted from the employer to the employee with increasing specialisation and with more work being done on computers. There are simply fewer people who are qualified for certain positions then it used to be and they have more leverage when it comes to negotiating the terms of their contract. In addition to this, a lot more focus is on tasks being completed, rather then time spent on tasks. If a worker is very efficient, why shouldn’t he be able to take half the off and go to the beach instead of working the last 4 hours?

Difficulties of WFH

WFH does require a certain amount of self control and the ability to focus and actually get the work done without being sloppy. This can be difficult to control by the manager. Another downside is that it often is easier to collaborate and communicate in person without being misunderstood. It doesn’t require more than 5 minutes on a social media platform to come to the conclusion that people are misunderstanding each other to a greater extent online than in person. The same goes, of course, for the office and work. It’s just we’re normally more polite to our coworkers than random people on Twitter!

Peak Productivity (Present)

So, that didn’t really go as planned, eh? Back to the office it is!

People are different and function differently under certain circumstances. There are a lot of views about the subject, some people just want to be able to their work from a place of their own choosing, some people enjoy the community and social life that an office bring, and some people want a little of both. There is also those, like Elon Musk, who are saying that some people doesn’t have the choice to WFH so why should the rest be able to choose? Where you stand on the issue has a lot to do with you as a person.

Evolution of the office landscape has brought us a more worker-centric environment for increased production and well-being.
A relaxing office with a lot of focus on the employee’s wellbeing and the ability to easily cooperate and collaborate, both digitally and physically in designated separate spaces.

What about the social aspect?

There is, however, a few things about an office that is hard to create in the virtual world; a sense of community, or even family, the possibility to give physical feedback that is quite often forgotten. A hand on the shoulder saying “keep going, you’re doing good” or “stick in there, we’re in it together”, or perhaps a high five after completing an important sale. We’re social animals wether we want to admit it or not and we tend to thrive when surrounded by the right people: 2 + 2 = 5. These things are hard to recreate in a video call.

There’s a reason breaking bread with someone is the ultimate symbol of mutual respect and has been practices in cultures all over the world from the day we stood up on our feet as a species. To have lunch with someone might seem like a trivial thing, but it is everything but that.

With that said, there are, of course, tremendous positive aspects of being able to WFH, or any other place in the world for that matter. A lot of people do this very successfully, and it is my dream that I too, someday will be able to drive a motorcycle through Europe with my wife, working from a laptop and a cellphone wherever we might find ourselves that day!

Summary

The transition from the formal, hierarchical structures of the early 20th century to the open office layouts of the 1960s and 1970s aimed to foster collaboration and idea sharing. However, the increased noise levels and distractions posed challenges to individual focus and productivity.

This led to the rise of the cubicle in the 1980s and 1990s, offering employees privacy and personalization. While it addressed the issue of noise, the cubicle’s isolation hindered spontaneous interactions and hindered teamwork. Fast forward to the activity-based offices of the 1990s and 2000s, which sought to strike a balance between collaboration and individual work. These spaces provided flexibility and adaptability, empowering employees to choose their environments based on the tasks at hand.

Now, as remote work becomes more prevalent in the 21st century, the debate around the benefits and drawbacks of virtual collaboration intensifies. While remote work offers flexibility and eliminates commuting, it challenges the sense of community and physical interactions that are crucial for fostering trust, creativity, and camaraderie among team members.

What comes next?

So, what’s in store for us in the future?

Since no one really knows and the pace of technological advancements are increasing in an accelerating scale and the possibility of having AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) within a decade, and SI (Super Intelligence) shortly thereafter makes it even harder to predict.

Where will the evolution of the office landscape take us next?

Looking ahead, the future of work holds exciting possibilities. With the increasing adoption of remote work and advancements in technology, the traditional office space may continue to transform. Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies could shape the way we collaborate, communicate, and experience work in ways we can’t fully imagine yet.


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