Workplace Evolution: A Retrospective on Office Design from the Industrial Revolution to the Knowledge Economy

Syllable Inc.
10 min readAug 14, 2018
Umoro’s office, designed by Syllable, during an event

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “office?” Is it the rigid formation of cubicles upon cubicles or an open-plan space void of hierarchy and limited privacy? As different as they may seem, both office types actually emerged from similar origins. In fact, the design of offices has evolved through the lenses of social, economical, and technological forces that shapes us. Since the Industrial Revolution, these three dominant dynamics has directly influenced the design strategies behind our work-spaces. The following is a retroactive conversation that charts the evolution of where we work.

The Industrial Revolution — Post World War 2: Taylorism and it’s demise

Work-spaces where official work was conducted can be found throughout different time periods and civilization. However, the first building dedicated for centralized office work was founded in 1726 in London England at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Following the first successful colonization of the West Indies and increase in trade with the world and other regions of the expanding British Empire, The Old Admiralty Office was built to administer the mounting level of paperwork. These specialized spaces for official work gained traction and numerous office buildings were soon built throughout London. A report by the UK government stated that: “for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it.” This rigid sentiment is echoed by Scientific Management, a management theory that analyzes and systemizers workflow, also known as Taylorism, named after its founder Frederick Winslow Taylor.

The Taylorism Office

Taylorism was a highly influential theory that dominated the design of workspaces of the early 20th century. The notion of systematization the workplace into a hierarchical management of labour resulted into rigid office layouts with managers encircling rows upon rows of desks manned by clerical staff. Long and narrow floor plans to access natural daylight and accommodate limited structural spans lead to double-loaded corridors and repetition of desks in bleak open plan areas [1]. The desire to maximize efficiency and productivity left out the human and social elements and resulted in dehumanizing working environments.

After the second world war, emerging research into interpersonal relationship and employee motivation showed improved morale leads to increased productivity and motivation [2]. Furthermore, social-democratic environment in many Northern European countries engendered an egalitarian management approach where all employees share equal responsibility and power. The Taylorist offices with it’s rows of desks and strict office hierarchy was ripe for disruption.

Mid — late Twentieth Century: The Office Landscape and the Cubicle

Postwar Germany enjoyed a quick emergence in manufacturing thanks to their massive reconstruction and rapid rate of growth. This resurgence led to the willingness to embrace new ways of thinking. In 1958, a German space planning consultancy called the Quickborner Group, introduced Burolandschaft, which translates as “office landscape”. The office landscape concept rejects the rigid structures of large bureaucratic organizations and strived for something more organic and natural by aligning the spatial organization of the office with workflow and internal communications needs [3]. Teams are organically grouped together based on workflow and indoor plants are used to define loose boundaries. This concept encouraged staff of all levels to sit together in one open floor plan in an effort to increase collaboration and eliminate hierarchy. Another huge advantage of the Burolandschaft was it’s affordability and flexibility since the adaptable partition made it easy for companies to upsize or downsize. This seemingly revolutionary concept swept through Europe and across the Atlantic and offices worldwide began to adapt and experiment with their own office landscapes.

Quickborner Group’s Office Layout Bild Und Ton, showing the organic flows of the office landscape

Parallel to the disruption of the Taylorist office was the emerging advancements in building technology such as the invention of the Curtain Wall, uniform lighting and HVAC distribution, suspended ceiling systems, and deeper floor plates, which gave architects new possibilities to design. The cores of office buildings were evenly distributed to provide uniform service across the floor plate, or located at the periphery to minimize obstruction. Mies Van Der Rohe’s iconic Seagram Building in New York City, completed in 1958 is an exemplary example.

The Seagram Building, designed by Mies Van Der Rohe and completed in 1958.

An early advocate for the office landscape was Robert Propst, head of research at Herman Miller who was developing ideas of flexible office space design. After years of prototyping and studying how people work, he vowed to improve on the open-bullpen office that dominated much of the 20th century. In 1968, Propst and Herman Miller released the “Action Office 1” a system featuring ample work surfaces, display shelves, partition for privacy and pin-ups and even adjustable desk heights for employees to use as a standing desk to encourage more blood flow and prevent exhaustion. It was meant to be a customizable environment that offered the flexibility and openness of the Burolandschaft with more privacy and personalization for employees[4] . However, the Action Office was a flop due to it’s high price-tag.

Illustration of the Action Office 1, design by Robert Propst in 1964, then President of Herman Miller
The Action Office 1

In the 70’s, the rise of white-collar jobs increased. Real estate prices also rose, which impacted the cost of reconfiguring office buildings, making the physical office a drag on the corporate budget [5]. Also, to stimulate business spending, the Treasury created new rules for depreciating assets where a shorter life for furniture and equipment was assigned vs. longer ranges for buildings and leasehold improvements. Today, companies can depreciate office furniture in seven years, whereas permanent structures — that is, offices with walls — are assigned a 39.5-year rate. The upshot: a company could recover its costs quicker if it purchased these “systems furniture.” Around the same time, Herman Miller designed a cheaper follow-up, aptly called the Action Office 2. Gone are the adjustable table and here to stay are the inexpensive enclosed modular desk system ready to embrace corporate America. “The Action Office wasn’t conceived to cram a lot of people into little space,” says Joe Schwartz, Herman Miller’s former marketing chief, who helped launch the system in 1968. “It was driven that way by economics.” The Action Office 2 sold like hot-cakes and that’s where Propst’s original vision began to disintegrate.

A sea of Cubicles

As competitors of Herman Miller, such as Steelcase, Knoll, and Haworth brought their versions to market, they realized that corporate America wasn’t interested in offering their employees a holistic working environment; they just wanted a cheap method to pack workers in. Initially, the layouts of these system furniture imitated the organic forms of the office landscape with varying degrees of privacy, density, and storage capacity. However, “they kept shrinking the Action Office until it became a cubicle,” lamented Schwartz, now 80. Propst’s original vision for the Action Office degenerated into a regimented sea of standard issued cubicles reminiscent of Taylorist offices. What began as a beautiful vision would eventually transform into what Propst himself calls a “monlithic insanity”. By the mid-70’s to 90’s, the wave of cubicles effectively washed over the office landscape to be the dominant workplace typology, only to be disrupted again by the rise of innovation spaces.

The Knowledge Economy: Innovation Spaces & Beyond

In the early 90’s with advances in connectivity, use of the world wide web became widely prominent and computer ownership progressed from a luxury to a necessity.[6] This marked the beginning of the Information Age and the shift to an knowledge based economy began. By 1997, numerous internet start-ups enjoyed skyrocketing evaluations and began leasing office spaces far beyond their needs to anticipate new hires. Optimistic tech entrepreneurs also began outfitting their offices with the Herman Miller Aeron chairs: a $1,000 chair made of high-tech composites designed with ergonomics in mind and highly adjustable features. These “Dot-Com Thrones” became shorthand for companies with no idea how to monetize their online business, but knew how to set up a cool office [7]. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2002, failed startups liquidated their Aeron by the truckload. Warehouses became a graveyard of office furniture in the wake of the crash. In a way, the Aeron chair symbolized the optimism behind these hopeful young start-ups and their desire to create “cool” workspaces to reflect their culture. This era further ignited an ongoing conversation regarding how to humanize the workplace.

The Aeron Chair

As technological advancements continues to accelerate, our lives and the way we work has also changed. Thomas Friedman called out the year 2007 as a major inflection point where the release of the iPhone, advanced silicon chips, UX, software, and networking — lead to a new technology platform he calls “The Supernova”, for its extraordinary release of energy that has reshaped the way we live. Advancements in wireless internet connectivity and mobile computing power allowed anyone with a smartphone to literally access information at the tips of their fingertips anywhere in the world with an internet connection. A new wave of innovative companies empowered by new technology and readily access to information swept the world. Following the financial crisis, the rate of entrepreneurship growth steadily increased [8]. Organization began to realize that innovation is a collaborative process where different individuals come together to create and implement new ideas. The quality of the staff determines the quality of the organization. For companies to retain their competitive edge, being able to attract and retain the best talent is crucial. This is where demographics comes into play.

Facebook, Hong Kong Office

“The war for talent,” a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey & Company refers to the mounting competition for corporations to recruit and retain talented employees. For the first time, four generations share the same workspace: Traditionalists (pre 1945); Baby Boomers (pre 1965); Generation Xers (pre 1980); and Millennials or Generation Y (post 1980). This shift in demographics intensified the war for talent and influenced office design in profound ways. As the talent pool ages and shrinks, architects and designers speak about the power of Millennials in driving design changes where some offices are even designed to attract young talent. The ideal work environment for Millennials, the research found, are spaces that are social, flexible, comfortable, open, spacious, collaborative with technology and environmentally conscious [9]. Similar to how software engineering focuses on creating intuitive user experience, organizations have begun to prioritize the Employee Experience.

Music lounge at Google’s Zurich office

Corporations such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Square have all invested in offices designed for employee’s well being. Perks such as all-you-can-eat gourmet meals, fitness studios, and game rooms are even offered by the aforementioned companies. There is a strong correlation to employee productivity and performance. Employees who enjoy their work environments are more engaged, productive, and happier. In a pursuit of employee happiness, companies are giving staff multiple modes of working and perks. Gensler’s Workplace report identifies four key essential work modes: Focus, Collaborate, Learn, and Socialize. Recognizing that a fully open plan office could lead to a lack of privacy and constant distraction, modular pods, room dividers and wall panels are brought into offices to reduce noise and promote focus. To foster authentic collaboration, smaller private conference rooms, end tables for impromptu meetings, and breakout spaces are encouraged. Versatile spaces within the office for training and continuing education allow companies to offer professional development for their staff. Finally, to prevent workplace burnout and to help solidify company culture, organization are including lounges, bars, and even gaming rooms to bring an element of play into the office. An incredible progress from where we began with the Taylorist offices, the quintessential workplace of the knowledge economy values employee happiness and well-being, which in turn boost productivity and team solidarity.

Google’s office in Dublin, Ireland

Technology has also allowed new forms of working. The internet has allowed independent contractors, freelancers, and small business to work anywhere with a solid wifi connection. This is where the coworking space comes in. Coworking offers a solution many freelances experience when working in isolation whether at home or jumping from cafes. These spaces offers a shared workspace with areas designed for focus, collaboration, and socializing where independent workers can find a community of like-minded people who also use the space. Membership dues are typically charged depending on the type of space the user needs: from a basic hot-desk to an office for 10.

One of Wework’s many co-working spaces

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, the offices of the future will continue to reflect the change in society. With artificial intelligence, automation, shifts in global economic power, climate change, and continual societal change, the workspace of the future will without a doubt continue to evolve.

[by Danny SC Tseng]

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