Creative Offices Throughout the Years

It’s the age-old question: How do you get more productivity out of your workers? Some employers may swear by a stern company-wide meeting. However, we disagree.

by Philip Monroe

It’s the age-old question: How do you get more productivity out of your workers? Some employers may swear by a stern company-wide meeting. However, we disagree. The first step towards getting more productivity out of your employees is to design an office space that accommodates the needs of your business.

But before we get to cubicles, ping pong tables, and nap rooms, we have to look back at how employers viewed office spaces about 100+ years ago. Taking a cue from the Industrial Revolution, employers typically opened up a warehouse space, lined it with rows of desks, then plopped a worker down and told them not to get up until the gas lamps came on.

Seemed reasonable at the time, I suppose: in the eyes of early industrialists, workers were basically eating, breathing machines, so why not chain them to a desk for ten hours? They can take a bathroom break on their own time.

Early 1900s: The Birth of the “Creative” Office Space

Fortunately, that didn’t last long. Fast forward to the early 20th century and someone realized that workers were actual human beings who if treated reasonably well, might actually be more productive (eureka!).

Frank Lloyd Wright is generally credited with designing the first office building that attempted to bring workers together in a “we’re all in this together” environment. There were encouraging slogans etched on the walls, and a bit of sky could be seen through high windows. Workers could move freely from one area to another as needed, and the beginning of a modern desk with drawers was invented (and thus the first box of paperclips was stolen).

1950s: The Open Floor Plan

Let’s jump up to the 1950s (oh yeah, there was WWI, The Great Depression, and WWII before that, but moving on… ). The “Open Floor Plan” was all the rage. Advancements in architectural technology allowed for glass and steel skyscrapers, fluorescent lights, air conditioning, and efficient plumbing, the birth of the modern office building exploded onto the scene (exciting, I know!).

No longer were poor workers burdened by natural sunlight or inspiring Frank Lloyd Wright-style architecture, they could now be all jammed behind an awkward desk across a sprawling empty floor space (and even stack them several floors high! Dreams do come true!).

But there was a problem. With the noise of all those typewriters and phones ringing across a glass and steel hall, it became clear that some people might need to concentrate in a less distracting office space. What to do?

1960s: Burolandschaft

In rolls the 1960s along with fresh new ideas on how to maximize productivity, while also keeping workers happy. It was around this time that the idea of Bürolandschaft (German for: Office Landscape) was first introduced.

Bürolandschaft was actually a promising idea, and one that might be more recognizable in today’s modern office spaces design. Imagine a variety of desks and tables loosely organized in no particular manner, with a few potted plants and even artwork hanging around. Not too shabby, I would think. But this didn’t last long. Office culture became a little too relaxed with lower productivity as a result. Back to the drawing board!

1970s: The Action Office

Herman Miller burst onto the scene with the “Action Office”. An Action Office was designed with modular desks, tables, and other furniture that could be organized in a way best suited for the company needs. A great idea, but it had its flaws. This specialized furniture was expensive and not designed for larger businesses. Back to the drawing board… again.

This time, Action Office II (the sequel!) was born. These modules had at least one wall, some partitions, and were made of more affordable materials. Heck, you could even assemble them into something resembling a… cube.

1980s: The Birth of the Cubicle

This takes us to the 1980s, where business is booming. A floor manager or two just won’t cut it anymore. There are too many employees who need space. You can’t afford an office for every one of them, and you don’t want to scatter them across a noisy open floor… what if you made little offices for them?!

This is exactly what happened. Employees wanted their own coveted office territory, but building real walls was just too expensive. Instead, take Herman Miller’s Action Office, fold it into a cube, and voila! The cubicle was born!

1990s: Hot Desks & Agile Environments

However, the popularity of the cubicle didn’t last long. The cubicle died a slow death with the rise of the Dot-com Revolution. Collaboration was key, so a variety of office spaces were experimenting with creative workspace through the 90’s.

There were Hot Desks: first-come, first-serve tables. “Agile” and “Flat” environments where there were no divisions between managers and employees. A “playful” atmosphere with “zany” colors and themes began to emerge in the startup culture.

Modern Day: The “Creative” Office Space

And finally, there are the ever-evolving assortment of nap rooms, ping pong tables, and on-site cafes we are familiar with today. As you can see the evolution of the creative office space has not been without obstacles. However, without the hard work of early pioneers in the office space, we would not be comfortably sitting on our bean bag chair, sipping a white chocolate mocha, while working on this month’s reporting.


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