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The Evolution of Office Design

It is no secret that the way people work has evolved over the past 50-70 years, especially within the last few decades. In today’s modern office, hoteling, hot-desking, and flex spaces are commonplace as people and the workplace becomes more mobile. People can work from anywhere and are no longer chained to their desks. One could say that the terms “hoteling” and “hot-desking” have stemmed from the evolution of office design and the introduction of open office space – a trend that has been on the rise in the workplace for a long time. Office design is always evolving, and some may be surprised to discover that the popular "open office plan" has in fact been around for decades. Before we can decipher the future of what office design will look like, we must first look at its history.

Early 20th Century – The Open Plan is Born

As cities began to sprawl and skyscrapers were developed, this spurred the growth of working in an office as a discipline, and the history of office design entered a new era. The workplace became a mix of open workstations and private offices. Think of a Mad Men layout – top executives with their own private office while secretaries and other administrative employees are placed in an open office layout, each with their own desks.

Larkin Company Admin Building

Leave it to Frank Lloyd Wright to design the first two modern instances of the open office – the Larkin Company Administration Building in 1906 and the SC Johnson Wax office building in 1936. Wright’s design of the Johnson Wax building introduced modern design elements like bright lighting, sound-absorbing ceilings, and color. During this time, the open office was seen to maximize productivity, which managers and executives found beneficial to their bottom line. It was this new trend that many companies sought to represent their corporate image.

SC Johnson Wax Office

The 1960s, Burolandschaft, and the “Action Office”

As the Great Depression and World War II ended, the open office started to gain popularity in the 1960s. Office spaces were being designed to encourage more human interaction and engagement; a German style known as Burolandschaft, which translates to “office landscape.” Burolandschaft promoted a more relaxed approach to office work and placed high importance on the teams' actual needs. This resulted in an open space with teams grouped together, with partitions and organic separations. The workplace became more collaborative, promoting teamwork between employees more regularly. This style of work is said to be one of the founding principles of modern office design.

Example of the Action Office

As the open office space evolved, a new trend began to emerge: the Action Office. The Action Office style introduced more flexible alternate work settings, like cubicles. It promoted the circulation of staff but increased privacy when working. The open office space's working requirements changed as more space was required to accommodate the modular furniture. While the workstations allow for a larger and more enclosed place for individuals to work, it also led to less collaboration and more individualized work.

A Sea of Cubicles

The Action Office transitioned easily into the next generation of office space – the cubicle. The increase in individual work, availability of cheap modular walls, and more focus on profitability over working conditions were behind this shift in office design throughout the 1980s. The 80s were responsible for the digression of office design, and this was slightly due to the early 1980s recession. Companies were now focused on cramming as many cubicles into a space as possible, to produce as much work as possible for the individual. This trend lasted through the 1990s, with office workers confined in cheap fabric cubicles. It was because of cubicles that companies were forced to look at office design in a more integrated, human-centered way.

A "Cubicle Farm"

Enter Technology

In the early 2000s, advancements in technology allowed workers to become more mobile in the office, with the help of devices like laptops and floppy disks. As mobility increased, it became clear that staff could work from anywhere they wanted – cafés, coffee shops, and home. Office design began to embrace “hot desking” and “hoteling” to accommodate a more mobile office. The rise of technology also gave way to hipper, cooler companies, like startups, that desired a more modern and colorful space that also included a variety of workspaces to choose from. The office became more casual and more technologically advanced. It became important that technology be used in every part of the office from furniture to screens and digital whiteboards. It was also important to these “hip” companies to instill an element of fun in their office with the use of beanbag chairs, leisure areas, and even ping pong tables.

Today’s Modern Office... And The Future

For the last 10-15 years, the creation of a “fun” work culture with the aforementioned ping pong tables was sufficient at distracting folks from the toxic grind or hustle culture that came with their high-stress positions. However, today’s modern office comes off the back of a global pandemic, as well as the “enlightening” of the young worker.

No longer are the Millennial or Gen Z workforce willing to settle for a work environment that does not cater to their needs and desires. Companies have had to push beyond placing a “fun Band-Aid" (like ping pong, beer taps, casual dress codes, etc.) over the cultural issues that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

New hires are looking for flexible in-office days or completely remote positions. This poses some challenges for organizations looking to bring their employees back into the office full-time. This has pushed the physical space for workers even more into hoteling workstations and large lounge areas or café spaces where employees can have a change of scenery from their workstations. This mindset change shines a brighter light on many of the principles existing in the WELL certification, which include considerations for the health and well-being of employees within the physical environment. If people want to work from home, organizations must provide an office environment that can cater to the many reasons people enjoy working remotely:

  • The flexibility of space – Work from a couch, work outside, work from home for two days, wherever you want.

  • The flexibility of time – Come into the office when you want, achieve the tasks set forth for you, and go home when you want. Some people are early birds, some are night owls.

  • Empathetic leadership – If COVID taught us anything, it is that we all have personal emergencies, illnesses that prevent us from working, or even just a doctor’s appointment that cannot be scheduled outside of working hours. Displaying empathy and understanding of employees’ personal appointments builds trust in individual team members, increasing productivity.

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