History of the Office
Prior to the pandemic for most of us the office was where we spent the majority of our time. Yet, to many the history of the office space is a mystery.
The office has a very long and varied history and it can tell us how the workforce and businesses evolved to stay competitive. Below is a brief history of the office space – from ancient Rome to the post-pandemic world.
The ancient Romans have left us an impressive legacy; inventing aqueducts, roads and building foundations for sanitation systems. However, they’ve also left a legacy of the office – at the heart of the Roman city was a forum, a large square with markets and government offices. The word “officium” – although it doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific place, but rather an organization of staff, or a formal position – is the origin of the modern word “office”.
First purpose-built office buildings
The first dedicated office space was built in the 18th century in England.
Known as the Old Admiralty House or the Ripley Building – named after its architect Thomas Ripley – was built for the Royal Navy. Built in 1726, it is the first purpose-built office building in Britain. The building is still in use by the Admiralty and houses the UK’s Department for International Development.
The East India Company was significant for the history of offices as it created a large and complex bureaucracy. Managing an empire at such a great distance as India is from Britain created a lot of paperwork – which took a number of months to arrive via boat from India. When the paperwork arrived, a significant workforce was employed to manage it and they needed a place to do it. Hence another significant building, the East India House was built in 1729.
Technological advances of the 19th century
The 19th century saw a number of technological breakthroughs which have changed the way we communicate, from the telegraph to the telephone. In this period, the working day also became longer, due to the commercialization of the light bulb in 1929.
The 20th Century and the birth of the open plan space
Inspired by principles of Taylorism – a management science of dividing specific tasks to allow employees to complete assignments as efficiently as possible – early open plan offices were set-up subject to strict discipline. Workers sat at endless rows of desks and managers surrounded them in offices looking in on their work. This was allowed by technological developments that brought fluorescent lighting and air-conditioning, which meant high rise buildings had little need for natural light and ventilation.
One of the first such buildings was the Larkin Administration Building, opened in New York in 1906.
With the dawn of the second half of the 20th century and rise of social democratic ideas there was a move to create spaces that would ‘set workers free’.
The Action Office introduced the component of ‘flexible combination’ of tables, desks and walls. It was a mixture of semi-enclosed workspaces, allowing some privacy and flexibility. It allowed office spaces to be personalized and modified to suit the needs of the company and its staff.
The1980’s saw an increase in demand for office space and the creation of cheap modular walls led to a rise in cubicle farms as we know them. Economic growth of the decade created a bigger workforce of middle managers, who needed more space than just a desk, but were not important enough to be given their own office with a window.
The advances in technology, including portable computers, cell phones and fast internet meant that we were no longer tied to one desk. This led to a rise in more flexible office space where workers can move around the office with their portable equipment, and even work from home.
In 2010 WeWork opened its first co-working space in New York, which brought in a new era of offices being more centered around community and collaboration.
The Covid-19 pandemic and flexible working
2020 was a great test for the office as we know it. Businesses across the world shut their offices and workers moved to work from home for months. Debates arose whether we’ll see the ‘death of the office’, while others were struggling from WFH burnout.
We are now in a readjustment period where some workers are fully remote, some work from the office on certain days, while yet another group is in-office full-time.
What will the future bring? If the past holds any clue, the office will evolve again and emerge with a new purpose that suits the needs of modern businesses and their workforce.