Applied Workplace Ltd

The Evolution Of Office Design

Image by Seattle Municipal Archives

The office of recent decades has had a distinctive look – open plan, grey carpets and fluorescent lighting. However, in our last post we discussed how office design is heading for pastures new, with workplaces becoming increasingly flexible and catering for their employee’s needs and desires.

As with any type of design, trends are not fixed but ever changing, whether it to be to accommodate new research or to meet evolving needs. We consider the history of workplace design.

The Birth of the Office

The first commercial offices appeared in the late 19th century, particularly in the Northern industrial cities of the United States. The invention of the telephone and telegraph meant that for the first time the office could be situated away from factories or shops. This also allowed control over production and distribution to distant markets.

Other new technologies such as electric lighting, the typewriter and calculating machines allowed large amounts of information to be accumulated and processed much more efficiently. In cities such as Chicago, technologies such as the steel frame and the elevator meant that offices could be built higher than ever before, a method that allowed the greatest income possible to be generated from the site. The increasing number of offices created a new literate working class to staff them.

Evolution Of Office Layout

Taylorism (ca. 1904)

The American engineer Frederick Taylor is credited as being one of the first people to ever design an office space. Taylor was obsessed with efficiency and designed an office plan with striking similarities to a factory. Workers were crammed together in an open environment, whilst bosses observed them from private offices. This plan suited the production line nature of much American office work, with mail-order firms, government agencies and insurance companies following the Taylorist principles of splitting tasks into small repetitive acts.

European Modern Movement (ca. 1920s)

Modern countries in Europe began to emulate American innovations in office building. Taylorist offices were built, and miniature skyscrapers appeared in some cities. Many of these buildings had high windows to create more space for filing cabinets, meaning that workers couldn’t see outside. In 1936 Le Corbusier’s glass curtain wall project for government offices in Brazil, allowed for a more open design.

Corporate America (ca.1950s)

In the 1950s offices successfully became autonomous from their exterior environment. The steel and glass architecture of the modern movement was increasingly used, and a number of these ‘sealed glass boxes’ were built in New York. The increasing availability of fluorescent lighting and air conditioning meant that natural light and being near an open window were no longer seen as necessary. Instead suspended ceilings controlled temperature and light levels.

Bürolandschaft (ca. 1960)

In the 1950s in Germany, a radical new office layout known as Bürolandschaft or ‘office landscape’ was developed by Quickborner team of management consultants. The design consisted of furniture scattered in a large structurally undivided space. Although the layout was open plan, partitions and plants did create distinct areas and some level of privacy.

Bürolandschaft was derived from organisational theory, which was based on a more complex rationale of ‘human relations’ than Taylorism. The Quickborner team recognized for the first time that there were a diverse number of types of office work, and they designed different layouts for different types of business.

Structuralist Office (ca.1960-70s)

Some designers began to reject the modernist model, and looked to patterns of human associations and cultural forms such as the North African Kasbah. Architect Herman Herzberger developed a structuralist design that was influenced by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

Herzberger designed a Centraal Beheer insurance company project in Apeldoorn, Holland in 1974. The project was a kind of ‘workers village’ that was intended to make employees, ‘have the feeling of being part of a working community without being lost in the crowd’. The building was a concrete matrix arranged on a tartan grid. Small platforms were occupied by 8-10 people, who were encouraged to personalise them.

Continental European Offices (ca. 1970s)

 The European economic crisis of 1973 caused many businesses to reject the Bürolandschaft model. Large areas of air conditioned and artificially lit office spaces were expensive, and many employees disliked the open office environment.

Work-councils containing employees became increasingly influential in office design decision making. Some countries even adopted regulations that insisted upon a minimum space per employee, and access to views, daylight and open able windows. The result of this was a pattern of narrow buildings with cellular offices arranged along a corridor. Many employees expressed a desire to have their own office or work in small groups.

British And American Offices (ca.1970s)

In Britain and America there was a different response to the rejection of the Bürolandschaft model. The open plan layout was retained, as well as aspects of Taylorism such as a mixture of cellular offices for managers and open plan for other workers.

Due to the popularity of renting, offices were often designed to be a large flexible space, rather than with a specific business in mind. To beat high-rental prices in the big cities, out-of-town business parks became an increasingly popular location for businesses.

The Virtual Office (circa 2000s)

The development of digital technology has by far had the biggest impact on changes on office design in the 21st century. Widespread use of the internet and mobile phones meant that work became far more flexible, and could be carried out in more locations.

Many companies introduced the idea of ‘hot-desking’ which meant that employees had no designated desk – a method suited to businesses that had a lot of employees working out of the office at different times. However, this made it difficult for people to settle and feel at home, and made departmental groupings unclear.

Modern Offices

The idea of the ‘casual’ office and flexibility is becoming increasingly popular in modern times. Work places often provide a mixture of open plan areas and partitioned areas, and allow employees to move at their discretion. A growing trend is casual dress, the inclusion of ‘fun’ areas such as games rooms and snugs, and encouragement of personalisation of the workplace by employees.

Office design has never been fixed, but has been constantly evolving since the industrial revolution. Designers are continually striving to create plans that will improve productivity and are increasingly realising that flexibility is the key.

What are your opinions on the evolution of office design? Do you think modern offices are an improvement on designs from the past? Let us know in the comments.