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History of the Office


Just like any other industry, culture or trend, the office has evolved hugely since its beginnings. Especially over the course of the last year where a global pandemic has forced us to change how we work to stay safe, with home-based working playing a major part in enabling people to keep at the grind and to ensure companies can still function. Once upon a time, actually not all that long ago, the office was a functional space where worker productivity was a fairly singular focus. These days, that has changed dramatically and companies have to consider many more ethical points: employee health, wellbeing, happiness and creativity to name but a few. In turn this has altered our office layouts, furnishings and even our working processes. The office design of today with its often airy, sustainable and open-plan spaces has come about only really during the last ten years. So how did offices look before that? And where is office design going? We explore this in today's article.


The Italian Job

Offices are thought to have started out in Ancient Rome, which had its own business district filled with shops, areas of commerce and offices. As it was such a big empire, organisation and order was necessary and the Roman Latin word 'officium' even gives us the word we use today.


The Original Home Office

As the Roman empire collapsed, so too did its structure for offices and office spaces. Of course, office work had to continue, but up until the 18th century administrative tasks were mostly carried out at home. For example, a clerk may have been employed to assist with the running of a shop or store and said clerk would live and work onsite, above the shop and oftentimes even with the business owners who would live in the same building as they worked in. Imagine not escaping your boss even at home!


The Return Of The Office Building

In 1726, the Ripley building was built and was the first dedicated office building in Britain. Still standing in Whitehall, the impressive, U-shaped building now houses the Department for International Development, but originally it was built for the Royal Navy and Admiralty.

Shortly after, during 1729, the second purpose-built office building was constructed. This was the East India House and it stood until 1861. During its time it was occupied by the thousands of staff employed by the East India Company, who handled the organisation of the long distance trading with India and Asia. Diaries from staff who worked at the company leave indication that working there had a heavy atmosphere – hard-labour, long hours, depression and even suicide amongst employees paved the way for change.


Open-Plan Design

The ‘few-walls’ design that we know best came in during the early 20th century, taking inspiration from industrial, factory style buildings and layouts. As technology changed, so did the office. The introduction of tools and equipment such as typewriters, telephones, telegraph and electric lighting came into play and steel structures were invented for the construction industry, which resulted in skyscrapers becoming a popular way of ensuring large workforces could be situated in one place without having to buy vast stretches of expensive land. These office spaces were depressing and demeaning – in the eyes of businesses, fluorescent light and air conditioning removed the need for natural light and ventilation, cutting off workers from the outside world and basic wellbeing requirements.

In recent office-design history, open-plan in one form or another has been the predominant layout of our offices, though during the 1960’s office landscaping came in. In order to improve staff’s health, happiness and productivity, more organically spaced out seating plans with furniture and plants in between the spaces were introduced. This eventually developed into the Cubicle style offices of the 1980’s – a way to keep desks more private but with a more open feeling than having full sized walls surrounding them.


Today

The offices we see today have largely evolved to what they are as technology use has increased and improved. With cable-less, mobile devices such as mobile phones, laptops and tablets, workers have no necessity to be stuck in one place and so collaborative spaces where hot-desking and co-working can take place are very much usable with workers having the freedom to go to a pod, cell or separate office space when privacy is required. Flexibility around home-working has also grown hugely – particularly due to COVID-19 and the requirement for people to remain safe and in many cases, stay at home altogether but remain working productively. Returning to the office will now breed a different culture again as new measures are implemented to ensure the workspace is as safe a place as possible – one-way systems, protective screens and better ventilation are all methods which we may see being brought into force.


The Future

Technology, staff health and happiness and general culture will dictate how the future of the office looks. Offices are eventually likely to become social, creative and professional workspaces where areas for play, exercise and socialising will be integral to the working office design, The Googleplex, Google’s headquarters, already have running and cycling tracks within them and the likelihood is that over time, offices will be designed to be places where staff are made to feel as happy and healthy - if not more so - than they are at home, thus increasing productivity, effectiveness and work ethic of employees.


Just as culture and technology evolve so too will our offices as we go forward, developing not just to the parameters of business needs but also to the requirement of staff where inspiration, creativity and happiness are concerned.