The History of Office Design is interesting to both scholars and contemporary office managers alike – understanding how our workplace has evolved helps us to see where we need to take the future of the workplace.
The way we ‘go to work; today is unrecognisable from years gone by. Fuelled by dramatic shifts in working habits as well as innovation and evolution in buildings and technology, the expectation of working no longer centres around a single place of work or even a traditional working week. With the onset of hybrid and more agile working practices, the office now needs to play a very different role in supporting the way people work.
Looking back, the concept of a dedicated space in which to work is thought to have originated from Ancient Rome, however, the first documented office in the UK was built in London in 1726. It became known as the Old Admiralty Office and served to handle the masses of paperwork generated by the Royal Navy. These early offices often employed a very scientific approach to their layout, with endless rows of desks thought to encourage more productivity, whilst managers would have separate offices
It wasn’t until the 19th Century that office space became a place to conduct business rather than just complete administrative tasks but even with this shift, it remained basic, functional and purposeful with little in the way of comfort.
By the early 1900s, technology arrived and revolutionised the workplace. The invention of electric lighting meant that the entire floor of space could be used without the need for gas lights. Advances in building techniques meant that multi-story buildings could be built and innovations in the way people communicated, such as the telephone and typewriter, made it easier to manage multiple locations.
As skyscrapers and other large commercial buildings were developed, the workplace altered to become a spacious space where there was a mix of private offices and open-plan workstations, complete with typewriters, and in some cases a dedicated staff kitchen or canteen.
Following the war, the workplace really started to change with the adoption of a more socially democratic layout which consequently encouraged a great degree of human interaction and engagement. This office design style became known as Burolandschaft, an originally German concept, which translates to ‘office landscape’, and after becoming popular in northern Europe, began to spread around the world.
Over the following 50 years, the concept of the office was completely redefined. The working environment and how it was designed became a primary focus, with thought given to everything from the furniture used to the décor and staff space. Cubicles were a popular choice for decades, however as more attention went to employee wellbeing, the focus shifted back to more open, collaborative space in the 1970s to give more freedom in how people worked.
With the rise of .com businesses and entrepreneurialism, the office of the early 2000s was a more playful environment designed purposely to foster a culture of creativity and performance. It was around this time that the first co-working space emerged in London, allowing professionals to benefit from a dedicated working environment without the associated costs of owning or leasing commercial property.
In 2024 the technology exists to allow employees to work effectively from almost anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection and laptop. The office, home and even the local coffee shop have merged into a workplace amalgam that is unrecognisable from just a few years ago. Buildings and offices are smarter and more connected, creating a culture of more flexible and agile working.
As the history of office design continues to be written, it’s difficult to predict what the future will look like. However, with the pace of innovation in everything from technology to furniture and a willingness to continue to push the boundaries of design in the pursuit of more collaboration, more creativity and more productivity, it’s bound to be exciting!
If you’d like to talk to us about the next phase of your office design or chat through how you can make your space work even harder for you then reach out to our experts today.