Everything’s got a history. Why not the building-sick, coffee-stinking cubicle that accommodates your workday? It’s taken a minute to get there.
Here’s some of it.
- The first “offices” were the cramped but dedicated workspaces Medieval monks occupied to contain their pious toils. Flooring called for tough sandals.
- Next, offices were rooms in private homes. Professionals like the Rothschilds and Barings hosted clients in luxurious parlours in spitting distance of their water closets as recently as the early nineteenth century.
- The first bona-fide office building was built in 1726 in London. The Old Admiralty Office housed the affairs of the Royal Navy. Architects had yet to consider the apt cleverness of a sail-shaped tower.
- After the Second World War, telecommunication advances split offices from factories and warehouses for the first time. Offices built after this were all about maximizing physical space and cramming as much productive humanity as possible into them. Sales of deodorant and mouthwash soared.
- The trend continued with the open-plan office, the earliest example of which followed the principles of “Taylorism,” a philosophy of maximizing industrial efficiency with scientific attention to the workspace layout. The human and social elements of an office space had yet to be considered.
- The flurry of skyscraper office projects during the Gilded Age meant new efficiencies for working environments. The modern worker was blessed with the advent of electric lighting, air conditioning, steel-frame construction and elevators.
- The German concept of “Burolandschaft” and its focus on the natural flow of information, open space and organic boundaries came into play in the early 1960s. With it, the value of human interaction and collaboration at last got a nod.
- The Action Office—distinctive for facilitating freedom of movement—was next to emerge. Women’s widespread entry into the workforce in the 1960s influenced the push for privacy that was part of this movement. “Modesty boards,” which concealed a view under a desk, became de rigueur.
- The Cubicle Farm—a low point in office-design history—was a product of the 1980s. Here, modular walls transformed work spaces into sad beaver warrens. Of this period, office designer Robert Prost said, “They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places.”
- Workers emerged from behind their fabric-wrapped, cigarette-smoke-infused walls in the 1990s and launched the era of “agile and activity-based working.” In addition to mobile workers, the phenomenon of “hot-desking” came to the fore. Co-working and shared stations were next.
Today’s workplace is an extension of the home, with comfy furniture, warm colours and intimate lighting. But it’s tiny. In the 2000s, private-sector American companies allocated between 200 and 400 square feet per person; today, the industry standard is about 190 feet. In five years, say the prognosticators, we could each just get sixty square feet. Soon, only children will be able to fit in offices.