Way back in the 1700’s the word Office was a made up word, a fanciful dream held by clerks that there might someday be a place of work they could leave in the evenings. Any office work in the period was conducted within people’s homes, with clerks acting as live in babysitters, chefs and butlers. But as corporations grew, technology advanced and there became more employees working for every company it was a necessity to have a separate place for office workers to do their jobs. One of the first purpose built offices belonged to the East India Trading Company and was built in London in 1729. The office was originally meant to be a way for workers to have some sort of freedom, but employees soon found that spending six days a week at a desk in the same room was not something to be desired. The workers of the East India Trading Company started the ball rolling on the view we have today, that the office is a stale stagnant place that you can’t wait to get out of.
The 19th Century
100 years after the implementation of the East India Trading Company offices, the USA caught on, and commercial offices for conducting business began rolling out across the country. This development was pushed forward due to the technological advances of the period. During the 1800’s the railroad, the telegraph and the telephone were invented, this allowed business to separate their manufacturing and administration processes, creating places of work specific to the occupation, the office! The most iconic symbol of the office, the humble desk started to become a business in itself during the 19th century. In 1876 office equipment and furniture were popular exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
One of the biggest advancements in the 19th century office was the inclusion of women for the first time. As the workload grew so did the need for workers and so business began an experiment, hiring women! The experiment worked and women became a huge hit in the workplace, beginning the transformation of kitchen to boardroom.
The 20th century
The 20th century saw in an explosion of offices and office workers. In the United States alone nearly 100,00 people were employed in an office as typists, stenographers and secretaries. There was a concentration of wealth in the new corporations of the 1900’s, pushing the education system to advance as there was a greater demand for literate workers. Office skills became a specialism and training was made available in the early 1900’s. The 20th century was a century of rapid advancement in all fields and many of these led to the perception of the office we have today.
Skyscrapers – The tall tower trend began life in Chicago. Technologies such as the elevator and the steel frame allowed buildings to be raised higher than ever before, allowing business owners to generate maximum income from the site.
Open Plan – In 1904 Frederick Taylor took it upon himself to design a maximum efficiency office space. He believed that the perfect office was a completely open environment for employees with bosses seated in close proximity private offices where they could retain their middle classness but still keep an eye on the masses.
The Cubicle – The dreaded office cubicle was invented by a talented yet in hindsight slightly misguided Henry Miller in 1968. Referred to at the time as the action office, it was based on the new European workplace philosophy. It aimed to increase privacy and productivity and reduce
distraction. However in the 1980’s this trend went nuclear, and offices became cube farms filled with isolated and underwhelmed middle managers.
Virtual Communication – In the 1980’s computers became commonplace in most office facilities. Bringing with it the convenience of Email and the fax machine. This gave businesses all over the world the scope for international development, allowing them to communicate with people millions of miles away in the blink of an eye.
Smart Casual – The geek squad that brought Apple Macintosh to the masses in 1984 surprised the world by dressing themselves in hoodies rather than suits, putting to bed the notion that to be successful you have to dress smart.
The Virtual Office – In 1994 the proximity of the millennium brought with it a desire to be seen as possessing a space age level of cool. In order to do this, many corporations implemented the idea of the virtual office, removing the desks and cubicles, and instead having a large lounge area. Employees fought for laptops and seats when they came into work every morning. As can be expected, the plan wasn’t great and productivity nose-dived. However the emphasis put on flexibility is an idea that has been brought forward into the 21st century.
The 21st century
So what’s changed from the cube farm of the 1980’s to right now in 2015? The digital age is fully upon us and as a result we are experiencing a third industrial revolution. There is no longer a need for workers to be shackled to their desks, with the development of notebooks, tablets, wireless internet, skype and all other manner of digital necessities, anything you can do in the office you can do at home. Work has transformed from a place we go to a thing we do, and new start-ups are taking full advantage of this, minimizing outgoing costs and maximizing profits. Now, you can build a business from your local Starbucks for the cost of cappuccino. This is not to say that offices are obsolete though, far from it. You can walk down any street in any city in the world and loose count of the offices lining it, but it does mean that change in ideals is needed. The cube is dead, and the cumbersome oak desk is not far behind. Businesses are following the ideals of freedom and creativity by building flexible office spaces that enable conversation and collaboration.
The next 15 years is only likely to bring more advances and more changes to the ever expanding landscape of the humble office.