Why your office is the way it is
For most city-dwellers, nothing is as ubiquitous as the office. With each passing era, office designs have changed to resemble the spirit of the times. Culture, attitudes and prevailing beliefs of each generation have made profound marks on the workplace.
Up to the 1850s
According to Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, the office has been deeply intertwined with the accounting profession since its inception in the form of Renaissance-era Italian merchant buildings.
A descendent of their Renaissance counterparts, counting houses served as vital workplaces for entrepreneurs, up to the 19th century.
Famously described in Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol, these early offices were small, cramped cells where paperwork was churned out for stereotypically humourless businessmen like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Clerks had to endure the drudgery of filling up ledgers and journals. It is no wonder that the term “office” traces its origins from the Latin word for “duty”.
1850s – 1910s: Rise of the Clerks
By the late 19th century, businesses would grow to such astronomical complexity that it led to many social and economic changes. Growth meant that more labour had to be devoted to keeping track of things.
Thus, urban, administrative areas of industrialised nations saw a rapid growth in clerks, making up a third of the population in New York.
Among them were women, who had entered the workforce since the 1860s, when men donned the blue Union uniform to fight in the Civil War.
The sheer volume of clerks meant that space was a vital asset. With the invention of iron frames in 1860 and elevators in 1870, offices began expanding upwards.
Chicago’s Home Insurance Building is often considered the first ‘skyscraper’.
Multi-storeyed buildings quickly replaced the old-fashioned counting houses.
The multi-storeyed offices mirrored the layers of hierarchy which would now become evident as companies began merging into larger entities overseen by executives at the top.
Offices were modelled after open plan factory floors. Each office floor was lined with typists busy, click-clacking on the new Remington typewriters.
Messengers exchanged telegrams between offices and warehouses, while clerks stashed away voluminous accounting records in filing cabinets introduced in the 1880s.
In 1915, the Metal Office Furniture Company started mass-producing the Modern Efficiency Desk — a metal desk with rows of drawers on each side. Walnut or mahogany desks, however, were reserved for managers.
1920s: Taylor’s “Scientific” Management
As corporations were coping with the chaos brought about by rapid change, a new saviour would rise in the form of Frederick Taylor.
A firm believer of his “scientific management”, Taylor sought to maximise worker efficiency with zealous fervour, through the application of engineering principles.
While serving as an apprentice machinist, he observed that workers were not performing to their fullest capacity — they took time off for breaks and idle chit-chat.
Workers were also left to their own devices to pick up job-related skills at their own pace.
Taylor would have none of that.
He systematically broke down complex tasks and trained workers to perform them in a standardised way, under strict supervision from skilled superiors.
Workers were essentially cogs in a machine, and managers were engineers making sure that it ran without hiccups.
Taylor advocated the open office plan where workers sat facing the supervisor, like a school classroom, so that they can be easily monitored.
Offices became more bureaucratic and hierarchical, as Taylorist managers watchfully helicoptered over their subordinates.
The period also saw the rise of a new young star in Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Larkin Administration Building in New York.
The Larkin Building was a wonder of Modernist architecture, equipped with amenities including a clinic, a bathhouse, and a gym.
Its cavernous central court, illuminated by skylight and naturally ventilated, was the office space.
Among managers, especially those at Larkin, a silent revolution against Taylorism was brewing.
Instead of the heavily monitored environment of the Taylorists, the routine at Larkin, although regimented, provided some variation, with lectures to attend and team-building games to participate in.
1930s – 1950s: The Gilded Age
Architects and engineers pushed the limits to accommodate the growing workforce. Completed in 1931, the Empire State Building towered over every structure at 373.5m.
Meanwhile, the Chicago school of architecture inspired a wave of skyscraper constructions. This striving towards greater heights somewhat reflected the aspirations of the working class, who glamorised the white collar office job as a way up the social ladder.
In 1930s France, however, renowned architect Le Corbusier was dissatisfied with contemporary office designs, which he considered to be bleary and monotonous.
His redesigns, which humanised the office space, would have a profound global impact — one of his innovations being the use of glass for the exterior of skyscrapers.
This development had downsides — offices heated up to unbearable temperatures during summer. Carrier Corporation tackled the problem by introducing the first air-conditioning.
Soon, fluorescent light bulbs entered the office, allowing spaces far away from windows to be properly lighted.
At this time, Taylor’s scientific management was giving way to the human relations movement, based on the works of Professor Elton Mayo, who emphasised the importance of cooperation and collaboration among workers.
1960s – 1970s: Knowledge Workers in Cubicles
The idea that employees were paid to think, rather than mindlessly take orders, took hold of the era.
Peter Drucker, whose management philosophy would become legendary, called the new wave of employees the knowledge workers.
Embodying this philosophy, the German Bürolandschaft, or office landscaping culture emerged as a reaction against rigid office hierarchy.
The concept pushed forward an egalitarian system where bosses sat with the rest of the staff and desks were not arranged in factory-like rows.
The 1960s also saw the introduction of an innovation that would become the staple of many offices around the world for the next three decades — Robert Propst’s Action Office, better known as the cubicle.
Propst surveyed workers and found that they were constantly distracted by their surroundings, whether it was noise from the neighbouring desks, or a manager looking over their shoulder.
The Action Office added dividers, providing the much needed private space for individual productivity.
In addition, the new knowledge workers would be aided by computers, thinking machines that can enhance productivity.
Although computers had made an appearance in the previous decade, manufacturers in the 70s were experimenting with keyboards and personalised screens for word processing.
The Apple II was released in 1977 followed by IBM’s PC in 1981, revolutionising the office landscape as typewriters went obsolete.
1980s – 21st Century: Dot Com Boom
Office design went through another great revolution in the 80s with the rise of Silicon Valley. Intel Corporation was founded in 1968, ushering in the age of silicon chips.
Intel had an open-office plan decked with metal desks, a throwback to earlier times.
This was not to be the case in most early Silicon Valley offices. These workspaces embraced the cubicle, which fitted with many tech engineers’ need for privacy.
Technological mavericks began sprouting their wings. Revolutionising inventions could emerge at the back of a garage, as in the case of William Hewlett and Dave Packard of Hewlett-Packard, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple.
The new generation of workers stood against the traditional notions of what an office should be.
Recreation, for instance, was less frowned upon compared to the past. One notable example that has inspired many throughout the world is the Googleplex.
The two-million-square-foot campus features an open office plan, swimming pools, massage parlours, and even a cafeteria serving free gourmet meals.
As handheld devices and social media dominated the turn of the century, tech companies and startups began to mushroom.
Offices are, today, reflections of the lean startup concept — functional yet stylish, without being ostentatious. The open office plan costs less and can cope flexibly with organisational changes.
Echoing the Bürolandschaft of earlier decades, it fosters a more open, collaborative corporate culture, where hierarchies are flattened and people are not walled off from one another by dividers.
Nobody can say with certainty what the future of the office will look like. Some have predicted the return to cubicles, citing the same problems Propst unveiled decades ago.
The more optimistic may say that, with our sophisticated telecommunications, working from home will become the norm, and centralised offices may one day vanish.
We can go even further. Perhaps, automation might reach a point where even work would become obsolete.
Whichever is true, a new era of office spaces is right around the corner.
Jack writes about the psychology of leadership. His interests span across various fields – from psychometrics (the science of measuring the human psyche), to developing software that improves people’s lives. Share your thoughts about this article by e-mailing email@example.com