Office Design Has Come a Long Way

In the last 100 years office design has come a very long way. The way we work has evolved and developed beyond anything our office counterparts would have been able to conceive of in years gone by.

Today we have desktops, laptops, tablets and mobiles. We can work anywhere using Wi-Fi so we are no longer tied to the office. Office design and refurbishment has become more “user centric” with an increasing focus on making sure workspaces not only promote productivity and efficiency but also work towards well-being and encouraging creativity.In this article we look back at how office design has evolved over the years.

1900s – Earliest Office Design

In the 1900s office design was influenced by American engineer Frederick Taylor who worked to improve industrial efficiency and was one of the first people to design an office workspace.

Taylor’s design adopted a rigid, regimented office layout with desks evenly spaced in rows, in an open plan office space, similar to the layout on the factory floor. Managers were able to observe their staff in private offices. These early open plan offices grew in popularity through the 20th century but were criticised as being too focussed on gaining maximum productivity from workers at the expense of their health and well-being.

1930s – Open Plan Working

The 1930s saw more open plan office space. During this time the workplace changed to become more spacious and aesthetically pleasing with a mix of private offices and open plan workstations, encouraging more interaction between employees.

An example of this change was embodied through the opening of the Johnson Wax company’s open-plan office which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939. The design incorporated new design elements like “mushroom-shaped columns, pyrex skylights and earthy coloured furnishings” making the office space brighter and lighter and giving staff more space and individual work areas. Cork ceilings were also introduced which helped reduce ambient noise.

1960s – Bürolandschaft

In the early 1960s workspace layout stared to change towards the type of office layout we are more familiar with today. This office design style concept was created by the Schnelle brothers from Germany called the Bürolandschaft, which translates to “office landscape”.

The Bürolandschaft layout was less rigid and styled more towards social interaction, grouping desks together and using foliage e.g. ferns to create “partitions” to give a little privacy. As a result the workplace became a far more collaborative environment with teams working together towards project goals. Given that this layout and style is far closer to the way our workspaces and office layout are today Bürolandschaft is often referenced in relation to the principles of modern office design.

1964 – The Action Office

As Bürolandschaft became more prevalent a new approach to office design called Action Office began to emerge. Action Office was invented by Robert Propst and introduced by furniture design company Herman Miller.

Action Office was different from Bürolandschaft in that it increased the space between workstations, workstations became larger and more enclosed and there was an emphasis on having meeting rooms where staff could meet away from the office space. Bürolandschaft provided more space to work however it did lead to less interaction as staff became more “isolated” from each other.

As more female workers became part of the workforce subtle changes were introduced into the Action Office design including higher levels of privacy. Over time, the Action Office concept eventually changed so that each employee had their own high, three-sided vertical partition that defined each individual workspace. This is believed to be the precursor to the rise of the “cubicle farm” in the 1980s.

1980s – The Cubicle Farm

With the advent of cheap modular partitioning/walls along with an increased focus on productivity the 1980s saw a shift in office design towards what is known as cubicle farms. These cubicle farms “boxed” workers into small areas surrounded on three sides, providing privacy but cutting them off from their adjacent neighbours and reducing collaboration and social interaction.

For the next two decades cubicles were the norm and it was only with the emergence of technology that office design was revisited and companies started to look at more human centric office design again.

Office Design Today

Today office design has changed to reflect the changes in technology now available to companies and workers. This had led to more “activity based working (ABW) which provides far greater flexibility in where and how an employee chooses to work – and in so doing, increases staff collaboration, productivity, pride and effectiveness.”

Break out areas are now a part of the modern workplace giving employees areas where they can take a break or eat their lunch, meet with clients, hold meetings or brainstorm. Very often just having a different perspective or being in a less formal atmosphere can help drive the creative process and enable the exchange of ideas.

The addition of leisure areas and creative spaces where employees can relax and take a break are becoming more prevalent especially in larger companies and creatives where beanbags, table tennis tables and dart boards in areas with natural lighting and soft colours provide staff with areas to “get away” and unwind, allowing them to go back to work refreshed and ready to tackle their next big project.

Many businesses are also coming to recognise the importance of “Biophilic” design (love of nature) and are actively incorporating nature in the designs of their office space. It’s believed that as human beings are biologically drawn to nature so bringing elements of nature indoors helps improve mood and productivity.

The focus of office design is now on the on the comfort and wellbeing of staff which in turn promotes a more healthy environment and leads to happier staff who are more productive.

If you have any additional office design, office refurbishment and fit-out questions, please get in touch. JBH Refurbishments has more than 25 years’ experience in office refurbishment and have completed hundreds of successful projects. Contact our team to help guide you through your refurbishment project.

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