The History of the Office Space

office space
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Office Space: A historical perspective

The modern office space. Today nearly 60% of Americans find themselves working inen one form of office or another, absent mindly accepting this fact as norm. Interestingly though, people rarely ever wonder where this trend came from. It should come as no surprise, people working in condensed spaces that we now call “offices” is a rather modern trend. In the past we saw means of production largely split up between sources: having all your individuals work in one spot, sharing an office was unheard of. Much like all other aspects of work and business, there was a very clear evolution of the modern office space.

There are arguably two historical developments that one can credit as the laying the foundation of the modern office: the European development of the guild system, and the bureaucratic system within the Ottoman Empire. Neither of these examples by any means can be considered a “traditional office”, however both set the groundwork for centralizing labor. The Guild system in Europe was the first modern step on the continent toward centralizing labor and distribution. Traditionally before this point production points were scattered, post Guild movement industries were moved toward central locations – paving the way for the development of office space. Likewise, the Ottomans were one of the first nations to have a highly developed, efficient bureaucratic system. At their peak they had a massive empire, one which required a high degree of accountability and oversight. To make up for this they made regional headquarters in which they operated and oversaw their districts. While many of their ideas were not picked up again for several hundred years, it did help lay the framework for the office we know today.

Fast forward roughly 400 years, and we have the first development of what can be considered an office space. The first well recorded offices were likely located in Britain, as the expansion of the metropolitan system required increased efficiency in how they worked and operated. Originally, the office was an area in which employees lived and worked. Normally you’d have your work area – or office space – located on the ground floor, with a number of your employees living on the upper levels. Space and management were by no means operated in a structure that we’re familiar with today, in fact the office space of the 1700’s looked much more like a library than anything else. Regardless, it was a location in which numerous individuals shared their space and worked together, setting the trend for modern office spaces.

From this point onward, historically through Europe one could track the development of the modern office. The first formalized office space came unsurprisingly from the East India Trading Company. As the largest company in the world – and one of the first to span across continents, they developed systems of centralizing their workforce in order to increase efficiency and handle local tastes. Over time they found systems of having teams work in close proximity to be incredibly effective for production, inadvertently inventing the first true office. While it was a modern office, many of the trends and norms today would be seen as crazy. In 1817 the company instituted a policy of having their employees sign tabs hourly! to ensure that everyone was still within the office. Today rules such as this would likely be seen as insane in many circles, however back then it was widely accepted – and with anything else, trial and error played a massive role in forward development.

While offices started forming at the beginning of the industrial era, they didn’t really explode until the invention of the automobile. The reason the automobile is relevant is because its release was coupled with the expansion of the assembly line. The implementation and expansion of the assembly line showed the importance of efficiency within the workplace, and instilled the idea in producers that it is vital to have a distinct advantage over your competitors. Individuals were able to produce goods for less at a faster rate – as such maximizing your efficiency became key. Likewise, with the expansion of these factories, it became convenient to have your management, accounting, and R&D in house. To facilitate this companies began creating work stations that their employees could operate in, adjacent to the work floor. As more and more of these facilities opened, the modern office was born with it.

Fast forward to 1960 and the most significant step toward the modern office space was invented: the cubicle. Originally penned by Robert Propst, his original invention was meant to liberate workers from their space by giving an area they could call their own. He ended up ultimately incredibly dissatisfied with the results, as his ideas were twisted and conformed to create the box-environment so many of us know today. Regardless, this era was full of office engineers, with individuals working on ergonomics, design, efficiency, and of course ways of maximizing the potential of employees in a shared workspace.

While cubicles are alive and well today, they are almost universally despised. When polled, nearly 90% of Americans are quoted on saying they dislike work environments in which cubicles are a key feature. This isn’t surprising – we already spend so many hours working on electronic devices, when you couple that with an enclosed space it’s guaranteed to make people feel secluded and small. Lucky for us, innovation within the modern work space is constant, and many new means of working have developed.

In 1995 innovation sparked new design, and a European coffee shop had the brilliant idea of incorporating a workspace into their coffee shop. Realizing that so many individuals, sick of renting offices, or traditional office space would opt instead to work all day in a coffee shop, took the initiative and merged the two facilities. Many argue that this was the start of the coworking movement – a new type of office.

Several of these spaces picked up and were loved, though always as independent locations formed out of convenience more than vision – that changed however in 1999 when for the first time the phrase “coworking” was used, with several of these new office facilities adopting the phrase almost instantly. Today there are thousands of these new coworking offices across the world, with dozens forming annually.

Interestingly enough though, even with new coworking spaces and offices, this isn’t the end of the evolution of the office. People are still creating and adapting other forms of work space to suit their needs and desires. Recently, many small teams and startups have taken it upon themselves to share their space with other companies, effectively splitting an office between them. There’s no term for this yet – the co-operative office perhaps? Whatever they decide on calling it, it is evident that the history of offices and office spaces has a lot ahead of it.