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How has office design evolved throughout history?

Offices in the 21st century prioritise efficiency and productivity, but it hasn’t always been that way. Office design throughout history has evolved from open-plan to isolation, industrial to sustainable. Workplaces transformed depending on the culture, technology, economy and fashion that was prominent at the time.

The nature of your work and the way you communicate determines the style of office that you need. If you’re self-employed, you may work from home or within a coworking space. For larger businesses, you might own a building with hundreds of employees. Regardless of your business’ operations, one thing remains constant. Workplaces must prioritise the wellbeing of employees through design, furniture, layout and technology.

Office design throughout the years

1700s: The First Office

The interior of the building was filled with offices and board rooms for employees to review paperwork and make trade decisions. The office boasted lavish interior design and furniture. Ornate tables, velvet-upholstered chairs and heavy moulding adorned the room. Bespoke oil paintings and sculptures of prominent company figures decorated the walls. Offices showed a sign of wealth in the 18th century, often belonging to large companies housing hundreds or thousands of workers. However, most office work at this time was conducted at home on a small desk or table.

1800s: The Industrial Office

Interior design of these offices was minimal. The priority was fitting workers into a room supervised by a manager at the front of the space. Most workers had roll-top desks to house documents and paperwork, giving the illusion of separation from other workers.

1900s: The Open-plan Office

While lower-ranking employees worked in one room, high-status employees often had their own offices. Managers, directors and CEOs boasted rooms with telephones, bigger desks and privacy. This established a sense of importance and ranking within the business hierarchy. As businesses of all natures and sizes had their own offices, they were no longer a symbol of wealth and elitism.

From the 1960s, workplaces grew in size and had both private and open-plan rooms. Office buildings had kitchens and canteens so workers could get away from their desks. Soft furnishings and lighting replaced solid wood and darkness to encourage productivity. With the boom of marketing and branding, reflecting the corporate image in the workplace started to grow in popularity.

The 1970s and 80s saw the rise of the cubicle farm. Workers were isolated by large walls alongside their desks which reduced distractions. Cubicle walls enabled employees to personalise their workstations and focus on their everyday tasks. This design went against the workplace created in the 1950s that encouraged communication. Companies wanted to put as many people as possible into one room rather than moving to a larger space. Businesses often prioritised saving and making money rather than spending on employee wellbeing.

2000s: The Technological Office

The 2000s saw the rise of technology and software in the workplace. Computers and mobile phones meant workers were no longer stuck at their desks and could work anywhere at any time. Hot desking was also an option that enabled workers to collaborate with other businesses regularly.

Like the 1950s, workplaces were individual and unique to the needs of the company. Design, furniture and amenities were introduced to inspire and motivate employees. As we entered the digital era, businesses tailored their technology to job roles and requirements. Technology merged with furnishings to create a seamless interior design; moving away from bulky monitors and desktops.

The Present: The Wellbeing Office

Businesses including Facebook and Google have introduced sleeping pods into their offices. The pods help staff lacking energy from a poor night’s sleep to recharge during work. They take the concept of the quiet room one step further; being in full isolation for 10 or 15 minutes to learn, relax or have meetings. Modern offices also bring the outside in to improve mood and mental health in the workplace. Warm colours, soft furnishings and natural light help workers feel comfortable while working. This can reduce stress levels and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The Future: The Sustainable Office

In the future, we predict there’ll be a huge mainstream shift towards sustainable work environments. Combining wellbeing and sustainability, some businesses are introducing urban farms and vertical gardens to their workplaces. Vertical gardens allow businesses in urban areas to maintain flowers and plants indoors. This improves the quality of air and light emitted in the workplace. On top of roofs, walls or balconies, urban farms help businesses grow and consume their own produce. Employees learn the importance of growing plants and sourcing fresh food to reduce their environmental impact and maintain a sustainable lifestyle.

Office design has come a long way since the 1700s. Shifts in culture and economy have lead to workplaces being a necessity for every small, medium or large business. The way we work has transformed into a productive, collaborative and inspiring movement that prioritises wellbeing and productivity.

Progress My Office will make your workplace the most efficient it can be. We bring your business and brand to life with unique interior designs exclusive to you. Prioritising your employee’s wellbeing and requirements, we transform your workplace into a home from home. Contact us now to discuss your workplace transformation project.

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