The modern office focuses on technology, comfort and collaboration, but the road to get to a place with standing desks and flexible work stations was more than a century in the making. From the first open floor plans of the early 1900s to the introduction of the cubicle to the current creative office trends, office spaces are an ever-evolving concept that is reflective of a changing workforce and society.
Open floor plans are not a new concept; the origination of the open floor plan for offices dates back to 1903 when Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York. His intent was to design a space with few walls that resembled an open factory layout in order to free workers from the confines of the dimly lit spaces that were more common around the turn of the century. Wright’s design incorporated air conditioning, natural lighting via skylights and communal space, all to inspire a sense of community and improve office culture. Though demolished in 1950, it is considered the first building designed for a specific business, and that business was office work.
Wright’s mission to free lowly office workers was overtaken by employers, who organized workers into long rows of desks bordered by private offices. This became the norm throughout the first half of the 20th century before the political landscape of the late 1950s and 1960s became reflected in the designs of the changing times. The open floor plan of assembly-line desks moved to a more socially democratic layout referred to as Bürolandschaft, a German concept that in English means “office landscape.” In office landscape design, the rows of desks were broken up and organized into groupings, occasionally separated with privacy partitions. Loved by architects, designers and planners, office landscape was not universally embraced by workers since its special brand of organized chaos led to increased auditory and visual noise, making it difficult to focus. It also did very little to disrupt the office pecking order. According to The Wall Street Journal, “for all the supposed egalitarianism of the office landscape, managers usually allotted themselves more space than junior staff, and the creative use of screens and extra plants often let them carve out ad hoc private offices for themselves.”
It wasn’t until Robert Propst invented the cubicle prototype in the mid-1960s that the direction of office space layout truly changed in the United States. Propst, a designer working for the furniture firm Herman Miller, was frustrated with open office space designs. Ironically, like Wright, he wanted to free workers from the distractions and allow for individuality.
Propst’s design, Action Office II, debuted in 1968 and featured three fabric-wrapped walls that connected via a hinge. The design was meant to be flexible so that workers could customize their individual spaces. Many industries and businesses adopted the cubicle for the majority of their workforce. Initially, cubicles were seen as something that could simultaneously provide privacy and personal space for employees while allowing floors to stay open, but that view changed. As the Washington Post reports, "the corporate world of the 1980s and early 1990s — one of corporate raiders, massive layoffs and cost-cutting trends — radically changed the image of the cubicle. As companies merged and shrank and ‘de-layered’ their middle management ranks, the cubicle was no longer associated with anything liberating.”
In 1985, the World Design Congress named the Action Office system, which is still produced by Herman Miller, the world’s most significant industrial design for the previous 25 years. With the increase in popularity of the cubicle, the egalitarian nature of the office landscape era regressed with a growing separation between managers and employees. Cubicles got smaller and smaller and became the fodder for things like the Dilbert comic strip and the movie Office Space.
As cubicles became synonymous with office life during the same period, typewriters were replaced by computers and memos were replaced by emails. Technological advances had an effect on office space by making it more purposeful. As file sharing services, video meetings and smart phones became prevalent, the need to physically be at an office diminished as well. A computer that can be held in the palm of one’s hand enabled workers to be productive anywhere, which has led to the recent rise in remote work.
For businesses that required workers to be in an office, the trend shifted with the turn of the new century to comfort, health and, in some cases, fun. For example, standing desks and ergonomic seating became mainstream, and, with the rise of wireless technology, workers were freed from the confines of cubicles and met with the open seating that has morphed into the oft-used buzzword “creative office.” In some industries, namely creative and tech-oriented business, pool tables, coffee bars and video games became common fixtures throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Still, in a lot of industries, cubicles remained and are still popular, though the look and feel may be more open and flexible than previous incarnations.
The 21st Century has also brought with it the concept of biophilia, which is “an innovative way of designing the places where we live, work, and learn” where green office spaces can positively affect the physiological health of employees. The interior design of the work spaces are meant to inspire creativity and productivity, and this is backed up by research done at Harvard University. Companies like Facebook, Apple and Google have embraced biophilic design in conjunction with creative office space. Per Harvard research, "the findings suggest that the indoor environments in which many people work daily could be adversely affecting cognitive function – and that, conversely, improved air quality could greatly increase the cognitive function performance of workers.”
When Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building, he probably wasn’t thinking about buildings that breathe, wearable technology, augmented reality or artificial intelligence. At the speed at which technology is evolving, workplaces will have to adapt quickly. The concept of the office as a place for work will continue to transform, as the division between work life and home life will fade even more as technology provides more and more ways for workers to stay constantly connected to work. How this translates to office space design will continue to reflect the times.
By Kimberly Steele Digital Content/Public Relations Specialist