How has office design changed over time?

Office design and culture has drastically changed since its ancient Rome origins. From rows and rows of uniform desks, to using psychology to design human-centric spaces, the office landscape is unrecognisable to what we have now and will continue to adapt accordingly to our needs. Read on for a breakdown of the origins of the office and predictions on what comes next.

Roman office design and the origin of the word 'office'

The word ‘office’ originates from the Roman Latin ‘officium’; a term loosely meaning ‘bureau’, or a human staff or formal position. In ancient Rome, it was not so much a specific place or building, but the people within it; hence the phrase, ‘The Office of the Prime Minister’, for example. The Romans had a unique knack for using building techniques that inspired organisation and order for dealing with central bureaucratic processes, as exemplified in the Pantheon in Rome’s modern business district.

Pantheon office

Pantheon office

The first modern offices

It’s difficult to fathom the idea that gigantic, multi-functional organisations did not exist in quite the same size and relative complexity as Roman bureaucratic government until the 18th century. Organisations such as the Royal Navy and East India Company were established to further Britain’s interests overseas. A central base of operations needed to be built to manage their incredibly varied tasks and organisation. East India House was built in 1729 on Leadenhall Street in the City of London as the HQ from which the East India Company administered its Indian interests. Thousands of employees were based in the building to process the necessary paperwork.

The East India House
The Old Admiralty Office
The Four Percent Office Bank of England

East India House

The Old Admiralty (Ripley Building), built in 1726, was the first purpose-built office building; many of the Royal Navy’s smaller offices were consolidated into Somerset House as the first purpose-built office block, throughout the 1770s.

Like the Roman politicians, The East India Company understood the necessity for centralised administration, and the efficiency this brought to what was essentially a process of making and distributing vast amounts of money. In this way, many non-political organisations followed suit – such as Sir John Soane’s Four Percent Office in the Bank of England, erected in 1793.

The first skyscraper in the UK

The first ‘skyscraper’ in the UK is the Oriel Chambers in Liverpool. Completed in 1864 by architect Peter Ellis, the ‘skyscraper’ only measures five storeys high, and is the first building in history to feature a metal-framed glass curtain wall. While not a skyscraper by today’s standards, Ellis’s famous architectural achievement employed an iron inner structure, removing the need for walls to support it.

This allowed for the iconic glass curtain wall to flood all floors of the building with natural light during the day, and for more people to use a wider surface area of the office space with minimal need for artificial light. As the name suggests, Oriel Chambers has been almost exclusively used by legal professionals since 1965.

Oriel Chambers, the UK's first skyscraper

Oriel Chambers, the UK's first skyscraper

A brief history of the adoption of office skyscrapers

While Oriel Chambers was initially highly controversial, garnering negative reviews from contemporary media, it was also seen to influence many contemporaries – in particular, John Welborn Root, who went from a teenager living in Liverpool to becoming a significant architect at the Chicago School of Architecture. Importantly, this demonstrates that there was a considerable transplantation of Peter Ellis’s ideas across the Atlantic to America – therefore influencing many of Burnham and Root’s pioneering skyscraper builds in the 1880s.

Oriel Chambers has been described by notable history of architecture scholars as “remarkable” even “unbelievable” in its time. It may be argued that it’s the transplanting of Ellis’s architectural prowess across to America that gave rise to the iconic 20th century skyscrapers of Chicago and New York – beginning with the USA’s first ever glass curtain-walled example:

Kansas City, Missouri’s Boley Building, finished in 1909. Ellis’s iconic architectural masterpiece led to the establishment of skyscraper office buildings worldwide, allowing not only for more vast, naturally-lit office floors, but also more of them on finite land.

In the present day, Oriel Chambers has been brought up to date. It continues to function as a lively workspace, but the modernised touches complement the historic character of the office perfectly. You’ll find no zany fluorescent materials here. Hardwoods and neutral whites adorn the open, airy spaces that are still set off by the abundance of natural light afforded by the grandiose glass curtain wall to this day.

Think your office needs an update? Reach out to our team for a chat.

Oriel Chambers has been updated with modern interiors that complement the building’s classic architectural character. Many companies occupy the building today.

Oriel Chambers' Interior

Modern offices in the 20th century

Many factors gave rise to the modern offices of the early 20th century. The links between finance and work efficiency. The invention of electric lighting, allowing employees to work without expensive gas lighting or many windows. Typewriters and calculation machines, enabling the processing of vast amounts of information. Communications devices like the telegraph and telephone, allowing office buildings to be situated away from factories, homes, and even countries of operation, yet control still be maintained over them.

Wainwright Building floor plan

Wainwright Building floor plan

Expensive land prices, coupled with the inventions of the lift and of steel frame construction, allowing for buildings higher than 10 storeys. This gave rise, quite literally, to the skyscrapers of 20th century Chicago and New York – including The Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri.

All of this led ultimately to the rapid evolution of office design in the early 20th century. Larger workforces could be moved into spacious, open plan offices, working in natural light or under electric lighting.

Soundproofing and partitioning isolated employees from excessive noise, heat, or pollution. The advent of skyscrapers allowed workforces more than ten times’ the size to work on the same square feet of increasingly expensive land. The Industrial Revolution had completely modernised manual labour and production. Office design would now begin to modernise white collar, professional labour in a similar fashion.

1900: Taylorist office design

The Taylorist office sought to vastly improve efficiency in businesses that didn’t necessarily rely on manufacturing or manual labour. Developed by the father of scientific management Frederick Winslow Taylor, a proponent of the Efficiency Movement, the Taylorist office aimed to imitate the factory assembly line of the time by delegating simple, repetitive manual tasks to clerks, executives and associates of law and accounting firms, insurance companies, and government agencies in order to create a constant workflow.

The other elements in the Taylorist office plan included fitting more desks, and therefore more workers, into a room as well as allowing for managers and supervisors to scrutinise workers easier. Naturally, senior management still had their own offices.

Frank Lloyd Wright is credited with developing the first commercially-viable Taylorist office – for a mail order soap company in 1904. The Larkin Administrative Building contained 1,800 workers processing 5,000 orders per day working in a central open space at the centre of the building. To limit the build-up of passing train pollution, an innovative, yet primitive, air conditioning system was fitted and the building was hermetically sealed. The Larkin Administrative Building sported salutary inscriptions dotted around, suggesting that the company resembled a family, or a well-oiled machine, dedicated to the “sacrament of work”.

The assembly-line nature of mail order processing, coupled with the few glimpses of sky the employees received throughout the day, reinforced this vision. Wright’s attention to detail extended to the design of the first ever ‘system’ furniture – desks sporting built-in cabinets and dividers to keep employees focused and worktops tidy.

This office plan was very much like the production line – a product of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 20th century.

The Larkin Administrative Building contained 1,800 workers processing 5,000 orders per day working in a central open space at the centre of the building

The Larkin Administrative Building

1910-1930: The pre-war social democratic office

European offices in the 1910-1930 period saw a rise in miniature skyscrapers, echoing the skyscrapers of Chicago and New York, as well as miniature Taylorist offices, throughout the first 30 years of the 20th century.

Architects like Mies van der Rohe designed concrete office buildings with continuous ribbon windows, above head height, to let in light but not allow employees to see out from their desks. These designs lacked financial backing at the time, due to the 1929 Wall Street Crash-induced depression and prevalent wartime economies, but there are many examples of unbuilt ideas.

Le Corbusier’s Glass Curtain Wall Project for government offices in Brazil in 1936 provided an example of “the literal and organisational transparency of a modern democratic state”. These designs used the now-entrenched Taylorist principles, but due to wider emphasis placed on natural light sources, the Taylorist open plan had to be incorporated on a smaller scale. A built example of this is van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse.

Pre-war social democratic office

Pre-war social democratic office

Le Corbusier’s Glass Curtain Wall Project, Brazil 1936. The office design is Taylorist, but on a smaller scale. It is still spacious and open plan but the vast glass windows allow for ample natural light to flood the workspace.

Le Corbusier's Glass Curtain Wall office design

1930s: The streamlined office

Offices in the 1930s were more aesthetically-pleasing and designed for efficiency and speed, rather than simply organisation and manufacture. The Roaring 20s had come to an abrupt halt with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and major corporations had become interested in two main things: offices that expressed their corporate image; and getting work done more efficiently.

This was not a major departure from Taylorist principles – a clear, rigid hierarchy dictating work orders across a separated workers’ floor. However, the streamlined office was developed in tandem with architecturally Modernist buildings: structures in the European style based on the coming together of a society. A more modern, rich, warm space for workers was achieved, using radiant, streamlined materials to compensate for the lack of interaction with the outside world.

One of the prime examples of this kind of office was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building, built in Racine, Wisconsin, finished in 1939. The 250 rank and file sales workers were contained in a single great room, isolated from both outside industrial smoke and noise, as well as the managers and company executives located in separate rooms.

The main differences between the new Johnson Wax Building and its Taylorist predecessors were the presence of bright lights, clinical, white, warm spaces, and cork ceilings to “absorb the sound rising from the heated rubber floor, and blend it into a placid hum”.

If anything, it could be argued that the streamlined office was a work of Taylorist design, but improved and updated by the extravagance of the Roaring 20s and the invention of new, premium materials. In these areas, the Johnson Wax Building is historically seen as a success – as workers spent more of their time, both recreational and working, inside the building as a direct result of its layout and function.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building, built in Racine, Wisconsin, was finished in 1939.

Johnson Wax Building streamlined office

1950s: Open plan offices

The dawn of the 1950s brought with it further advances in construction, with modern materials such as steel and glass. The smart, clinical architecture of the international modern movement was adopted as the new image of corporate business. With the widespread use of more advanced air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting, these new high-rise buildings had very little need for natural light or ventilation through opening windows. With these technological developments, the 1950s saw the corporate office become completely autonomous from the outside world – as well as allowing for wider, more open plan floors where workers could be placed virtually anywhere. This formula enjoyed worldwide influence.

Open plan office in the 50s

Open plan office in the 50s

These architectural developments led to such iconic examples as The Lever House. Finished in 1952 in New York City, the headquarters of British soap company, Lever Brothers, was the first skyscraper in New York to borrow the glass curtain wall from Peter Ellis’s Oriel Chambers. The Lever House’s modernist image of efficiency and standardisation started a trend in the 1950s and 60s that saw a number of glass boxes spring up across the New York skyline, expressing the city’s commercial and cultural dominance. These skyscrapers allowed for even more natural light to flood the wide office floors, much like Le Corbusier’s Glass Curtain Wall had intended to do 20 years beforehand.

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the firm behind The Lever House, went on to design The Chase Manhattan Bank, finished in 1961. The architects Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois followed the tried-and-tested hierarchical nature of corporate business, placing administrative and clerical staff in open pools, managers in partitioned offices, and executives in the luxury of the sixtieth floor. Up until the mid-20th century, offices of this open style had arguably been inventions, revisions, and reinventions of an economic nature – however, this was about to change.

Lever house offices New York

The Lever House offices, New York

Floorplan of the Chase Manhattan Bank, finished in 1961.

Chase Manhattan Bank floorplan

1950s: Bürolandschaft office design

Bürolandschaft translates literally to ‘office landscape’ and may be seen as the first major mould-breaking office space reinvention since Taylorism nearly 50 years before. By pioneering a new form of open office, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle of the Quickborner Team in Hamburg, sought to “break the rigid and ineffective structures of large bureaucratic organizations open, and design the spatial organization of the office in line with the needs of workers.”

Unlike the strict, regimented banality of the Taylorist, Open Plan, or Streamlined office spaces that had gone before, Office Landscape consisted of free and open plans of furniture scattered in large, loosely and unstructurally-divided spaces with different environments. These varied environments were divided less rigidly, with creative use of partitions and plants, the natures of them often dictated by the type, and function of workers inhabiting them. For example, workers in creative fields (like advertising, or media) could be grouped loosely where they could easily interact more frequently, whereas more bureaucratic, corporate management staff were situated in more regimented, subdivided areas.

It was no surprise that Bürolandschaft emanated from Northern Europe in the near-immediate wake of World War II. Parallel to the Cold War – a great, “silent” war more of ideologies than armies – the “office landscape” engendered an egalitarian management approach. Based on progressive, Socio-Democratic principles, the system recognised and allowed for the wide diversity of different office work – and in doing so, encouraged staff of multiple levels to sit and work together, in an effort to improve collaboration and communication in the office environment.

Though Bürolandschaft enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Europe, as well as being established within some British offices by the end of the 1960s, the sheer nature of its open, scattered, and charmingly random layout did not lend itself well to worldwide adoption. “Action Furniture” was developed to adapt the desk to this new office environment, mitigate noise, and address concerns of privacy – but this ultimately ended up undermining the idea behind Bürolandschaft.

Office Landscape, Buch und Ton, Bertelsmann, Gütersloh, 1961.

Buch und Ton office design

1960s: Herman Miller’s action office I

Out of the socio-democratic principles of Bürolandschaft rose Herman Miller’s Action Office, a series of desks, workspaces, and other modular furniture designed to allow freedom of movement, and flexibility to work in a position suitable for the work being done. Action Office was developed and marketed under the supervision of George Nelson and Robert Propst, who were among the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to a suitable working environment.

Women in the 60s' action office

Women in the action office

Action Office may be seen as the first prominent example of an office space system built on the post-war European Modernist principles responsible for such marvels as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, or Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art. It is also an early example of what we now call activity-based working.

The influx of women in the workplace after World War II also led to changing office dynamics. In 1968, The Observer ran a feature entitled, “Would you let your daughter work in an open-plan office?” Good secretarial skills were at a premium in the 1960s, which allowed the best secretaries to demand a modesty board – a plywood section that covered the entire front of a desk, and the secretary’s legs. Allowing women to wear trousers in the office as a simpler solution was relatively unheard of in British offices until the mid-1970s.

Action Office I was initially designed with small offices in mind, where staff worked in the same room, on the same furniture. This brought about its own issues. Because the furniture was bespoke and made of high quality materials, it was prohibitively expensive for cost-conscious office managers, as well as difficult to assemble. This, combined with the need to replace the furniture with changing office needs, made it financially and practically unsuitable for larger, corporate offices.

Herman Miller's action office II

Following a slow uptake and meagre sales of Action Office I, Propst and Nelson went back to the drawing board and began work on Action Office II. What resulted was a concept of an office as flexible as Action Office I, in that it was capable of frequent modification to suit the changing needs of the employee, but without the need to purchase expensive new furnishings.

Flexible action office II

Flexible action office II

The new system was designed to allow staff a degree of privacy, as well as the option to personalise their work environment without affecting their colleagues’ environments. Propst’s recognition of the link between employee productivity and their own, personalised workspace, led to a concept called the Back-up. This was a three-sided vertical division, defining territory and affording privacy without completely cutting employees off from the outside world.

Does it sound familiar? It should. Action Office II, with its flexible, space-defining walls and multiple, interchangeable workstation furnishings would begin the process for establishing the horrendously regimented cubicle farms of the 1980s.

A taste of what was to come – the infamous Cubicle Farm of the 1980s.

The cubicle farm

The Structuralist Office

The structuralist office was popularised in the late 1950s by Dutch architect Herman Herzberger, giving rise to ground-breaking new office structures. This was after the supremacy of the modernist, functional city had come under criticism, and certain designers looked to more traditional patterns. Herzberger’s 1974 project, the Centraal Beheer insurance building in Apeldoorn, Holland, was designed to allow staff to “feel part of a working community without being lost in the crowd”. It was almost a building housing several smaller, individual buildings – a structural form designed to “differentiate between a structure with a long lifecycle and infill with shorter lifecycles”.

In this way, the Centraal Beheer was a deep, spatial conglomerate of concrete and bricks patterned on a tartan grid – almost labyrinthian in its design. Platforms separated by light wells enabled light to filter down into the centre of the plan. In similar strides to its Action Office and Bürolandschaft predecessors, the uniformity of these smaller, repetitive spaces allowed for small groups of 10 to occupy them at a time, collaborating in mechanically-structured work environments.

Taking a leaf from Robert Propst’s book, occupying staff were encouraged to personalise and decorate their collective space. The company actively encouraged a more relaxed, accepting sense of the family to exist within the office. As a result, many workers brought creature comforts, familiar furniture, and members of their family from home into work. However, though the structure was effective for smaller-scale collaboration, its labyrinthine architecture did not lend itself to providing larger public spaces for communication between larger groups. In addition to this, the Centraal Beheer building’s vast, intricate layout easily allowed staff to become lost inside.

Much like the Johnson Wax Building of the 1930s, the Structuralist Office layout demonstrates an increasing status for office workers in Europe. The company’s decision to place the wellbeing and contentment of their workforce above both efficiency and economy set Herzberger’s office space architecture apart from both the archaic, industrial Taylorist principles; and the elements of the Action Office that would inevitably become the regimented cubicle farms of the 1980s. It is hardly surprising that the underlying fundamental elements of the Structuralist Office that promoted staff wellbeing, communication and collaboration have survived – and even been developed further – in modern offices. The monolithic glass boxes of Glaxo-Smith-Kline in Brentford and British Airways in Waterside are more up-to-date examples of this innovative office model.

Herzbergers Centraal Beheer
Centraal Beheer office drawing
SAS office with central street

Herzberger’s Centraal Beheer clearly demonstrates the changing attitudes towards skilled office workers.

Herzberger’s 1974 project, the Centraal Beheer insurance building.

The SAS HQ in Stockholm features a series of streets separating different working communities within the office environment.

1980s: The cubicle farm

The cubicle farm is the manifestation of the Action Office of the 1960s taken to its absolute dystopian limits. It was born out of the reality that human resource departments, supervisors, senior managers, and directors were less interested in the wellbeing of their workers than they were in their profitability. Robert Propst may have envisioned the Action Office as a means of freeing workers from the dull, mechanical nature of the open plan Taylorist office floor, but even he soon realised that “not all organisations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places”.

Still from the office film

Still from 'The Office' film

The Cubicle Farm became so iconic throughout the 1980s that the concept itself began to form the basis for many satirical art forms – such as the 1999 cult film “Office Space”.

This overtly super-economical mindset, combined with the fast-paced nature of the decade, resulted in a rapid increase of middle management staff – too important for a desk in a Taylorist work floor, but too junior for a corner office. These workers needed to be accommodated with their own space – but as flexibly and cheaply as possible. The sea of cubicles was born. It was a somewhat binary workspace, giving people the opportunity to work only at their desk or in a meeting room.

Douglas Ball, a designer for Haworth, one of Herman Miller’s rival furniture companies, developed one of Action Office II’s many knock-off designs. Initially excited, he emerged from the completed space utterly depressed. “I went to see the first installation of the system, a huge government project. The panels were all 70 inches tall, so unless you were six-foot-three you couldn’t look over the top. It was awful – one of the worst installations I’d ever seen,” he said. “We thought it was extremely flexible in the plan view, but we had never considered the vertical elevation.”

By then, it was too late to remedy the problem. To let in any light and air “you’d have to go in with a chainsaw and cut off the tops of the panels,” he added. Ball, like so many of his contemporaries, had trapped people in giant fabric-wrapped walls, when he had meant, like Robert Propst some 20 years before, to free them.

The cubicle farm is a lesson in history that further proves that any good idea can be corrupted by anyone with more interest in economy, or efficiency, than in people. It showed that vast, corporates had little interest in creating autonomous environments for staff. Instead, Action Office II and its many copies were used to cram as many people into as small a space for as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible.

Cubicle Farm office design

Cubicle Farm office design

1990s: The virtual office

One of the biggest developments of the 1990s was the increasing ease of internet access. This brought not only a wealth of funny pictures, Geocities websites and the beginnings of social networking, but it also had ground-breaking effects on office working – ones that could not be ignored.

The world wide web brought with it the development of an office phenomenon first seen at the turn of the 20th century: widespread new technology – the internet, laptops and mobile phones – could move offices, workers and work away from the office and desk, and onto public transport, into homes and cafés.

The recession of the early 1990s, combined with growing competition in increasingly globalised markets, put a squeeze on many businesses. Senior leaders could not ignore the cost savings of teleworking and outsourcing facilitated by advanced telecommunications. Growing land prices and ground rents in urban areas saw more and more growing, multinational companies relocating out of city centres, to industrial parks and underused land accessible only by small train stations and motorways. This saw the rapid development of these industrial parks – or non-places – such as those around the M25, and outside smaller towns like Slough or Reading.

Why don't offices have cubicles anymore?

The 1990s office saw the demise of the dreaded cubicles, opting instead for an open plan design. The aim was to strengthen a sense of community and collaboration, with many employees having felt isolated and trapped within the dull, grey walls.

British Telecom Office Stockley Park
Open plan 90s office

The British Telecom Office in Stockley Park

1990s virtual office with new tech

A highly radical example of these new telecommuter offices came in the form of the British Telecom office in Stockley Park. Located on the M25 near Heathrow Airport, the interior of the business park building resembled a layout more progressive than even the Citibank Headquarters of the same decade. Designed by DEGW in 1996, the wholly open plan layout proved even more open plan than the Taylorist office, as all workspaces were open with no separate offices.

This new, non-territorial plan divided 3,000 employees among 1,300 workspaces, reflecting British Telecom’s strong promotion of telecommuting. With the move to Stockley Park, employees were encouraged to work from home, or with clients, for up to three days a week – only seeing two days in the office.

Combined with the relatively new phenomenon of hot desking – where employees were encouraged to set up and use different desks each day – this allowed British Telecom to save space, sell off properties in inner city areas, use new communication technology to save money, and promote a more flexible working environment. All in all, these advances in office design sought to change the working culture of the organisation completely.

Though this new form of completely open plan office layout had positive intentions – saving costs, enabling better flexibility, and encouraging more collaboration, the early Virtual Office still had its drawbacks. In the actual office environment, the regularised, even tedious open plan had made it difficult for employees to identify or feel at home: even the dreaded cubicle was territorial, allowing for workers to customise their own space. Hot desking meant employees were less grounded.

The advent of technology has led to less need for workers to be bound to their desks, resulting in the innovative agile working setups of some of the Dot Com companies that survived post-Y2K: leviathans such as Google. The search giant has always inspired a working culture of collaboration, level contribution, and sharing of opinions and ideas regardless of an employee’s role in the company. Google’s Menlo Park, California office reflected a working style that was completely revolutionary at the turn of the 21st century.

Google's Dublin office
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their garage office

Google's Dublin Office

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their garage office in Menlo Park, California, in 1999.

2000s: The casual office

The casual office has been a trend since the mid-1980s, pioneered by creative industry firms born out of the advent of the information age. From the now monolithic Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Intel, Microsoft and Tesla, through to the Dot Com giants like Yahoo!, Google and eBay, down to the smallest Digital Marketing start-ups – all of these companies have embraced more casual office styles, designed to encourage highly-personalised workspaces suited to long hours spent programming, analysing data, building links or designing graphics. The dress code, if there was one, of such an office became much more relaxed than the conventional suits and ties of the previous century – and the layouts had to reflect this.

One such example of an inspirational, yet casual office is that of innovative IT firm ThoughtWorks. The bold and bright back-of-house space features lots of alternative work settings, focused spaces and quiet rooms. Since all work and no play makes for unnecessary fatigue and reduced productivity, there are also social spaces, like the lunch café and games room; as well as dedicated art walls to inspire staff creativity. Long gone are the days of drab offices full of rows of desks and cubicles. The beginning of the 21st century sparked a significant change in office design. The current trend of office space layouts reflects the often complex evolving structure of modern companies and the emerging work styles of specific company roles. Rising property prices and resultant rising office rents, particularly in capital cities, have led to a need for more efficient usage of space – and more informal, flexible, multi-purpose meeting spaces.

ThoughtWorks' casual office

ThoughtWorks' casual office

The emergence of the Bürolandschaft-inspired casual office space, inspiring communication and collaboration among employees, is beginning to show significant flaws for many of its overly-sociable occupants. Miscellaneous noises, abrasive music and other distractions are among the worst complaints, as well as a lack of privacy.

The lack of a quiet, territorial space such as a personal office or dreaded cubicle also means a lack of the need to knock on a door or schedule a specific meeting time. This has seen many employees finding themselves interrupted by their colleagues, which in turn negatively impacts on their work. However, because locking employees away in private offices, never to communicate or collaborate with their colleagues, leads to other issues, innovative

compromises between the Open Plan Taylorist Office and the completely cut off private office have become more and more common. Previous attempts at this compromise resulted in the disorganised Virtual Office, exemplified within British Telecom’s Stockley Park in the mid-1990s as well as the infamous 1980s cubicle farm.

Coffee bar in activity based working environment
ThoughtWorks Meeting Rooms

Open, collaborative office space

2010s: Activity-based working

One of the main criticisms of the dated open plan office designs – be they Taylorist or casual – is the one-size-fits-all mentality that all members of staff can work in significantly different ways, on completely different projects, in the same space. While this encourages collaboration and openness, by doing so it also creates unnecessary distractions and stress for those that need privacy, purpose-built specialist equipment, or just a quiet space to think.

As the new century wore on, it was recognised that the solution isn’t completely territorial offices or dreary grey cubicles. First proposed by Herman Miller’s Action Office in the 1960s, the concept of activity-based work has long been used in educational environments where students and academics use different spaces depending on the task in hand. Dynamic, activity-based working spaces to suit different working styles support people to move away from open plan tedium.

Contemporary, responsive spaces that remain open, but separate, allow for collaboration, inspiration, mobility, and the completion of specialist projects – without the worry of crowding or disruptions from one working style to another. In the activity-based working model, workers are presented with a range of logistically different workspaces to choose from to best suit their individual needs at the time – including their own desk, wide open meeting rooms with whiteboards, IT suites, or informal spaces with coffee and snacks.

Covid: the great work from home experiment

In 2020 millions of organisations were forced to close their workplaces and switch to a full-time remote working model – many for more than a year. Despite initial fears about how they would cope, the general consensus is that most organisations and individuals adapted well initially. A survey of almost 200,000 home workers from Leesman showed that while their home environment enabled people to work productively, they missed social interaction and connection to their colleagues and the organisation.

This seems only to have increased as the pandemic wore on. Initially workers freed from the supervision of their managers enjoyed the autonomy of home-working but as the months went by, they came to miss the social and collaborative opportunities the office environment offered. Covid started to eat away at the very social capital that organisations have spent years cultivating in their buildings, and which was always cited as a competitive differentiator.

It also led corporates to question the very purpose of the office. If people could perform focused work effectively anywhere and it had been the ability to easily collaborate which home working lacked, then the office could be repurposed into a collaborative and social hub to recreate the social capital drained be the pandemic. That’s if senior management could bring themselves to trust people working out of their line of sight. Other corporates argued that the amount of space required could be reduced, making organisations more profitable.

Covid effectively pressed the reset button on the office, providing businesses large and small with a once-in-a-century opportunity to rethink how they used the office.

Working during the pandemic
Office social distancing during the pandemic

The Covid office

Workplace 3.0

Out of the great home-working experiment emerges Workplace 3.0. The workplace of the future recognises that if people can work productively at home, then the office needs fewer desks and more agile work settings. This is activity-based working in its prime with the workplace seen as a destination – a collaborative, interactive and social hub which takes inspiration from the hotel lobby and other hospitality environments but with dedicated space for quiet, concentrated work. People choose where they work, whether at home or which part of the workplace depending on their specific tasks.

Workplace 3.0 is a balanced workplace which reflects organisations’ environmental, social and corporate governance approach. It has three key themes: wellbeing, sustainability and technology.

Pods at Kao's office for independent working

Pods at Kao for independent working

Wellbeing: Workplace wellbeing initiatives not only save money through boosting productivity and reducing absence from work, but they also make staff feel valued, and produce a far more effective, cohesive and motivated workforce than would exist otherwise. Wellbeing in Workplace 3.0 starts with giving each person the autonomy to choose where they want to work and personal control over that environment. Once in the workplace, it’s evident through healthy meals and snacks in hospitality environments, free fruit, Cycle to Work initiatives, gym memberships and exercise/ mindfulness facilities, and cultures which encourage movement through sit-stand desks, walking meetings and outdoor spaces. Natural light and biophilia are also used cleverly.

Sustainability: Once a box-ticking exercise, since the UK Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050, this is now high on the corporate agenda. With a large percentage of UK carbon coming from our buildings, there is no route to net zero without substantial changes to the built environment. An estimated 80% of the 2050 building stock already exists, so corporates are recognising that their real estate portfolio plays a major role not just in meeting their environmental commitments but in attracting the next generation of talent which are often heavily focused on environmental issues. The focus is both on reducing operational carbon in Workplace 3.0, but also on ensuring that any building improvements are as low as possible in embodied carbon.

Technology: Covid demonstrated that it’s possible to work anywhere and that has vastly increased people’s expectations of their workplace technology. Workplace 3.0 is stacked with technology designed to deliver a seamless, touch-free experience both in the office and to enable working from home. From entry to exit, a variety of apps and solutions help to guide employees and visitors through a building safely and quickly. Technology, such as workplace-focused apps, security passes, tablets, AI, booking software, and video conferencing, create a frictionless and personalised journey through the workplace that can be shaped around each individual’s unique needs and preferences.

Office dining area with biophilia
Surrey university breakout space
Office dining area with biophilia

Incorporating wellbeing, sustainability and technology into office design

The flexibility of enabling people to choose where to work also extends to their choice of technology. The phenomenon of bring your own device (BYOD) is now well-established and is complemented by Choose Your Own Device (CYOD) where a business presents several pre-approved solutions for employees to choose their most suitable laptop, smartphone or tablet. On one hand, it allows employees at any level some say in what technology they use, a degree of personalisation, a better work-life balance, and the increased workplace wellbeing and productivity that results from this.

Workplace 3.0 is a place where people want to come, where they fear missing out if they’re not there. It’s an environment where people are highly engaged and productive and where absenteeism rates are low because people feel supported. It’s a place which considers its impact on the environment allowing an organisation to contribute to their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) responsibilities. Overall Workplace 3.0 is the ultimate enabler of productivity, a recruitment and retention tool and the key for post-Covid organisational success.

Office space... or employee space?

Throughout the evolution of office design over the past 200 years, we have seen many design elements come, go, resurface and be repurposed. From the white-collar assembly line across the great factory floors of the Taylorist office, to the territorial-yet-trapping cubicle farm to the activity-based working environment of the pre-Covid era, the majority of office design has been an extension of the capitalist business ethos: productivity, cost-efficiency and growth.

However, the current focus on workplace wellbeing epitomised in Workplace 3.0 reflects just how much the employee has become the centre of the office design blueprint. Companies are realising that productivity begins with the producers – from the trainees upwards.

The key to increasing their productivity isn’t about quick-fixes, shoving as many people into rows of cubicles as possible, or incorporating a virtually unworkable hot desking setup in an out-of-town business retail warehouse. The way forward for businesses is to look after their employees; nurture their growth; encourage their skill development and then retain them.

The evolution of office design began with the industrialist factory line Taylorist model, and has slowly but surely become something completely different. Decisions in relation to the layout and design of workplaces are no longer property-driven; but are more and more influenced by human resources and facilities; with the key objective being to retain and attract the best talent in the marketplace and provide the optimum environment to support their best work.

With this in mind, incorporating EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) principles into office design ensures that companies do their best to support their team. Contemporary office design has seen a huge shift in becoming a neuro-diverse friendly workspace. This means providing a variety of workspaces for both collaborative and independent working, increased biophilia and thoughtful furnishings.

Employees working in a meeting room
Biophilia in the Morgan Lovell office

EDI in the workplace

The future of the office: AI in the workplace

With the rise of AI in the office, it makes sense that businesses are now looking to support employees by incorporating AI-driven systems into the office. It’s unclear to what extent this could impact workers but could range from virtual assistants, to analysing employee behaviours to optimise environmental conditions like lighting, temperature and acoustics. The possibilities are endless.

A futuristic office environment with AI driven systems integrated into everyday working

AI in the office

As detailed throughout this journey, the most important, basic elements of company success lie in employee cultivation – and that starts with the blueprints and evolution of the humble office space.

Would you like to find out more? Visit our office design page or get in touch with our team today and take the next step to achieve your modern office.