A History of the Evolution of the Office Workplace: a 2023 Retrospective | Phase Two

Phase Two Team
March 20, 2023

As the world of work continues to evolve, it is easy to forget just how different today’s workplace looks compared to a few short decades ago. From ticker-tape machines and typewriters all the way up to modern networked computers in an interconnected global workspace, the office environment has come a long way – but how did we get here? In this blog post, we will look back at the history of the evolution of office spaces and discover how changes in technology and culture contributed to their development over time. Whether you are an employee looking for some fun facts about your job or an entrepreneur wanting insights into one of humanity's oldest institutions: join us as we explore a varied past that started with quills and parchment paper - leading up to the modern offices we have today!

The not-so-brief History of Workspace / Office Design:

87 BC - Ancient Roman's made the office idea up

Did you know that the roots of our modern, coffee-fueled office spaces can actually be traced back to a concept dating back to ancient Rome? That's right! The term "office" actually has its roots in the Latin word "officium" which not only signified official Roman roles, like the Office of the Prime Minister, but also referred to formal spaces for official work similar to the idea of a "bureau". As time marched on so did the office concept, albeit with significant gaps in history. And it wasn't until the 18th-century when the era of more modern concepts relating to office buildings began to take form. So, next time you're waiting for the printer to un-jam, just remember - it could've been a quill and parchment!

1700s - Shipping toward a more productive workspace

In the bustling days of the British Empire's expansion, a rising tide of global trade swept through London, leading to the construction of the city's very first office building in 1726. The Ripley Building, an architectural marvel envisioned by renowned architect Thomas Ripley was unveiled in 1726 in the heart of Whitehall, London. Ripley secured his place in history as one of Britain's finest architects and a distinguished surveyor in the Royal Office of Works.

The second major office of this era in the UK was built by the East India Company on Leadenhall Street in London in 1729. Mirroring the wisdom of ancient Romans, the company established its headquarters as a centralized administrative hub that significantly boosted efficiency, streamlined operations, and improved their productivity enabling them to stomp out piracy and expand English trade globally.The Old Admiralty Office was later built in 1788 on the same grounds as the Ripley Building and played a crucial role in taming the waves of paperwork that flooded the Royal Navy. The venerable building not only housed meeting spaces, but also the Admiralty Board Room – which, standing the test of time, is still in active use today by UK Ministry members!

1800s - Raising work upward towards the sky

Oriel Chambers, the proud predecessor of modern skyscrapers. This historical marvel, constructed in 1864 by visionary architect Peter Ellis, introduced the world to iron-framed glass-curtain walls, bathing each level in natural light. Today, this iconic Liverpool gem houses legal professionals, celebrating its innovative legacy.

Skyscrapers, now unmistakably lining cityscapes worldwide, owe their prolific rise in the 20th century to pioneers in New York, Chicago, and beyond. Towering above all, Dubai's majestic Burj Khalifa, standing at 2,716 ft, epitomizes the phenomenal growth and success of these vertical powerhouses, enabling businesses to optimally utilize precious land and accommodate over ten times the workforce.

Late 1800s - Let there be Light!

The late witnessed the electric lighting revolution, eliminating the need for costly gas lighting and allowing employees to work efficiently. The impact of subsequent groundbreaking office technologies, such as typewriters and electronic calculators vastly improved information processing and amplified productivity. Communication technology brought about by the telegraph and telephone gestated the birth of dedicated office blocks, enabling seamless long-distance administration where teams first began to expand and decentralize their footprint.

1939 - What's the Wax on Open Floor Plans

Get ready to time travel to 1939, where Frank Lloyd Wright's innovative Johnson Wax Building showcases the epitome of modern office design. Lit up like a Vegas casino sans slot machines, this architectural gem boasts sound-absorbing materials that make you feel like the world's given you a mute button. Wright masterfully weaves together beauty, practicality, and impossibly inviting spaces - it's basically workplace nirvana that looks like it could be an inspiration for contemporary eco-futurism or the show, Mad Men. The Wax Building also serves as one of the first to popularize the open floor plan office space model which is becoming popular again today.

1950s - Tailoring new office layouts

Step right up and behold the wonder of the office layout, born from the hustle and bustle of the factory floor! Welcome to the Taylorist office, designed to squeeze every drop of efficiency from its hardy workers! Feast your eyes on the masterful rows of tightly packed desks, each meticulously arranged by the genius Taylorist design to maximize every ounce of efficiency. Ready for a trip down memory lane? Picture this: an office space inspired by bustling factories, where desks are lined up like Tetris pieces.  And, of course, those lovely corner offices with windows were reserved for the eagle-eyed managers, keeping a watchful gaze over their industrious underlings. Efficiency and supervision, all under one roof—what a time to be alive! This would be the beginning of the era of cubicle culture.

Late 1950s - Bringing the Burolandschaft

Picture it: Europe, the 1940s and 1950s. Offices were as dull as your grandma's pea-green curtains, and hesitation and caution hung in the air like the stench of last night’s fish and chips. Then BOOM! Post-World War remnants gave way to economic growth as Europe rebuilt itself from the ground up. Germany, rising like a tech-savvy phoenix, embraced innovation in office design like it was a newfound love at a summer fling. Out with the old (closed-door offices) and in with the new (avidly demolishing their brutal past), Germany's openness paved the way for a revolution in office design that soon spread like wildfire all over Europe and the USA.

Meanwhile, located just beyond the outskirts of Hamburg, these two office rebels dedicated their consultation business, Quickborner, to the art of office transformation, turning dull gray cubicles into what they called a Bürolandschaft, the promised land of flowing “office landscapes.” No longer would the oppressed office dwellers be subjected to the authoritarian chains of corridors and desks, at least in Germany and the EU. For the Brothers Schnelle deemed it their mission to put the magic back into the lives of individuals, one organic and natural workspace at a time. And so began, the Bürolandschaft revolution. In the US, things were still slow to bring the 'human' back into humane work environments.

1960s - Getting in on the Action...Office Plan of Cubicle Culture

As one of the four horsemen of the "infinite plains of corporate despair" (a.k.a cubicles within his "action plan") Robert Propst, President of Herman Miller Research Corp, boldly declared in response to open floor-plans, “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” Propst's "Action Office" plan, subsequently embraced the notion that office work is mentally demanding and deserving of an appropriate working environment - i.e. it should be where work is done. The action plan revolutionized "contract furniture" (which is just a fancy schmancy term for office furniture) and served the cubicle culture plan that plagued the 70s-90s in the US as a vehicle for selling it. After the smashing debut of Action Office I, the sequel, Action Office II, took flexible, semi-enclosed workspaces to a whole new level. That's right, folks - every cubicle that now houses office workers, gossipers, and indoor-plant enthusiasts can trace its roots back to the iconic Action Office product lines. Thank you, Herman Miller, for cubicles... we guess. At least your modern ergo chairs are awesome.

1970s-1990s - Baby boomers in the Office - "Is that my stapler?"

As many people moved from working blue-collar to white-collar positions during era of nuclear families, ambitious Baby Boomers scurried from the gritty factory floors to pristine cubicle farms.  The cubicle cult blossomed as they packed themselves like sardines, embracing the daily grind and the tantalizing aroma of stale coffee. This led to years of people crammed, unhappy with workplace environments, and thoroughly convinced that this was, "How things had always been." This is life!" they cried, suffocating in beige partitions, utterly unaware of the revolutionary ripples forming in the realm of internet technology.

Late 1900s to 2000s - New Ideas, New Workspaces.

A ray of hope emerged as coworking, agile workspace, and flex space leaped off the drawing board of the tech era into the present. Like knights in shining armor, armed with modern marvels and an unquenchable thirst for freedom, folks began to toil remotely, unraveling the mysteries of work-life balance. At least we like to think so... The era of remote-controlled daily lives was triumphantly born. Behold the glorious evolution of workspace design! Embracing new technologies and liberating ourselves from the traditional 9-to-5, society began to craft new alternatives to the way we work - one that melds productivity and personal freedom. Also, mobile phones were invented and the internet started to be present in households across the world.

2010s - Touching the Screens of Things to Come.

Behold the power of smartphones, bringing the vast universe of the internet, right to your fingertips via touch screens! They've caused a ginormous tidal wave of info-mania, fueled by the first internet gold rush and the magnificent rise of communication, chit-chat, and social networking. This had a major impact on the way people work because they could be further away than ever before. With travel, communication, and information being more available than ever before and office cubicles cramping people's lifestyle - coworking and other new forms of workspaces were born from the ashes of empty office buildings.

2020s - Covid-19 and the Pandemic Lockdowns

Some might say that the pandemic's silver lining turned out to be a digital revolution. It forcibly dragged the last remaining cavepeople into the cyber world and proved that a huge number of jobs could thrive online – often even better than before. We definitely missed out on spicy water cooler gossip, sure. And there were some, um, "unique" mask-on-mask fashion statements. Also, who can forget the omnipresent fragrance of hand sanitizers that smelled like a fine blend of cheap liquor and cheese? On the bright side, the world of work has been transformed forever with newfound freedoms and businesses getting onto with hybrid work strategy train. So grab your laptop and try out a coworking space today, you're a remote worker now!

Present - Into 2023 and beyond!

Scratches chin... hmmm...we have some ideas...

It’s been an incredible journey examining the history of office spaces and how they changed over time according to technology and culture. We’ve gone from quills and parchment paper all the way to coworking offices! It is fascinating to think back on this evolution, contrasting it with the future potential of workspaces – technologies like augmented reality or artificial intelligence influencing workplaces for years to come. Let's not forget that in this ever-changing work environment, one thing remains constant: the commitment of Phase Two to providing top-of-the-line flex workspace memberships. Our passion lies in a well-designed space that encourages creativity & collaboration, providing everything you need for your business.

If you haven't yet experienced what Phase Two has to offer, take a tour today and get access to an awesome coworking community!

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