Office history comes full circle | The evolution of work environment strategies: part II

In the previous part of this text, we talked about different models of organizing space for key people in a company and the messages we unintentionally send to employees. In the following part, we develop the topic and present how the future of offices is not so far from its past.

We’re witnessing an evolution from “traditional” hierarchical models (exclusive, inaccessible to “ordinary mortals” offices reflecting status), to solutions still too radical for many industries, where managers do not distinguish themselves from their subordinates and sit with them in a common space, emphasizing flat organizational structure.

It is worth realizing that the coming “new” (no clearly marked hierarchies in the space, common open-space, flexible forms of work, etc.) in fact is not so new at all.

Open space aged well

Phenomena such as home-office, i.e. working from home, were common in the times when no one dreamed of telecommunications or ubiquitous availability of Internet connections. Also common spaces (i.e. open space) without division into hierarchies were the norm rather than the exception until the mid-19th century. The first strictly “office” buildings, constructed in the era of colonial conquests – such as the Royal Admiralty Building or the East India House on Leadenhall Street in London – were based on common spaces, which means that the people supervising the work were staying in one room with their subordinates.

Also in the centuries before the second wave of the industrial revolution, people responsible for management, e.g. banks, were usually located in a common space – because of the ease of communication, information exchange and decision making.

Moreover, even co-working or working in coffee shops is not a 21st century invention. Already in the colonial era, coffee shops enjoyed great popularity as places from which daily business was conducted.

Emerging trends

Only since the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, the hierachical paradigm of clear separation of managers and subordinates began to dominate, in which managers locked in offices watched over row workers crowded into open space (one of the first and most famous examples of such organization of space is The Larkin Building, completed in 1904 on the basis of the project of Frank Lloyd Wright).

If we add to these phenomena the fact that in its original Latin meaning the term “officium” (from which comes today’s “office”) meant a group of people performing specific duties rather than a physical place, we can say that history, in a way, turns a full circle. Nowadays, work also “leaves the office”, flexible work models are becoming more common, more emphasis is put on team cohesion, cooperation and exchange of information than on hierarchical organization of space.

Interestingly, diaries from early offices that have survived to the present day (e.g., those of Charles Lamb, an official of the East India Company from the first half of the 19th century) testify to the fact that already in those days people struggled with the problems of office ergonomics that are still common today – adequate access to daylight, acoustics or the inconvenience of a sedentary lifestyle.

Equally common as today were problems with employee motivation and engagement, as evidenced by a poem about office everyday life written by Thomas Love Peacock (first half of the 19th century):

From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven;

From eleven to noon, think you’ve come too soon;

From twelve to one, think what’s to be done;

From one to two, find nothing to do;

From two to three, think it will be

A very great bore to stay till four.

Freedom of work

Does this mean that before long we will see the pendulum swing back in the opposite direction again, and so return to the hierarchical models that dominated in the 19th and 20th centuries? This is rather unlikely.

Predicting the future is usually a tricky business, but looking at the directions of technological development, social changes and those occurring in the nature of work, it is fairly safe to assume that in the coming decades, we will witness the further spread of participative rather than authoritarian models of management. Flexible work style will become a standard (growing mobility of employees, freedom of choosing the time and place of performing professional duties, accounting for the effects of work, rather than the hours “served”). Also, more and more companies will choose spatial models based on the principle of matching specific types and amounts of space to the nature of the company, the needs of its employees and employer branding policy. Companies that are able to properly utilize these trends in their daily operations will gain an undeniable competitive advantage.

Read the first part of the story about the evolution of the modern offices ⬅

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