The History and Evolution of the Office

14 Oct 2022

From monasteries to high-rise buildings, the evolution of the office is a history that reflects society as a whole. Economic and social progress heavily affected how people worked, and the progress that came after. Before functioning civilizations, we have always needed places to productively contemplate. It is a presence in our lives that shifts according to the state of our society. 

If you need help in knowing how to improve workspaces for your team, it pays to know how the office in general has changed over the years. What improvements did companies make? How did they make these changes? Who did they change for? Hopefully, the answers to these questions can pinpoint just how we can improve our own workspace.

Offices Began with Monks

It might surprise you, but monks were the first people to have offices. The earliest instance of what we can consider as an office existed in the medieval period in Italy. Most monks needed quiet desk spaces to copy and study scripture. You would see corners or rows of desks in monasteries, but it was more of a library than an office. You can see this office-like depiction in Botticelli’s artwork of St. Augustine.

The Office Needed Evolution in the 18th Century

In a letter to William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb succinctly places the status of the office in the 18th century. He states, “My theory is to enjoy life, but my practice is against it…You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls, without relief…”. Lamb worked as a clerk in the East India House, one of the first buildings to house staff in Britain. Trading and exports saw rapid expansion of offices close to how we know them today, but conditions were not as good. Offices were not geared for the comfort of the employee, but to simply house them for their work hours. On top of this, employers monitored their employees every quarter of an hour, even during their break. 

A coffee shop in the 18th century (credits: BBC)

The early stages of the office had an overall poor condition. Charles Lamb described it as suffocating, like he was a “prisoner of Bastille”. What made this worse was that he loved his co-workers. Lamb notes that they would talk between work a lot, even play practical jokes when tensions were not high. 

Industrial Revolution, Bad Office Evolution

Around the start of the industrial revolution (and the end of the 18th century), most offices created a more efficient system of productivity. As industries developed, offices catered to not only paperwork but also product assembly.

Fredrick Taylor created an efficient office, rigidly optimized for great productivity. His offices were rows and rows of desks huddled  together in an open space. The supervisor would be situated in an office above this floor, with a window to oversee the staff. The problem, however, is that it turned employees into machines with bad working conditions. And so, work became unfulfilling, leading to negative effects in the long run.

Things Get Better: The Office Landscape

Around the mid-late twentieth century, German companies sought to reject this monotony to embrace a collaborative and organic office. 

First, a collaboration meant that boundaries needed to be broken. Instead of the structure where the supervisor observed employee work from above, all employees would work together. Regardless of company level, all staff would work on the same floor to encourage open and honest professional friendship. Second, they added plants and decorations to simulate a natural environment for a calming workspace. As all staff would stay on the same floor, teams would be separated by plants or wood-based furniture for a better landscape. 

The Digital Revolution Changed the Evolution

Around the late 1990’s, we saw the inflation of the “dot-com” bubble. Companies saw the potential of the online market and technology in the commercial space, and invested. They were more connected than ever as we transitioned to the digital. Communication left faxes and moved towards emails. Instead of flying overseas for meetings, they were held online through the computer. 

The digital age saw the rise of technology and innovation.

This was also around the time when companies sought quality employees as the online space needed a specific set of skills. So, companies sought to be a friendly and “cool space” to work. Sleek styles, hip decor, high-tech computers, and ergonomic spaces. It was the start of businesses recognizing employee talent and valuing staff as people.

Break rooms, Better Health, and Comfortable Evolution

The market crashed in 2005, but it accelerated the adoption of the internet. Eventually, social media and ecommerce stabilized the market to what we know now. The office of today is innovative and supports collaboration. It is colorful and social while being equipped with the best technology. Even those who work from home or offshore are given good assets to show that their employers care. 

Contemporary offices provide good breakrooms for their staff.

On top of this, most companies plan monthly huddles and outings to strengthen that team bond. Companies also began providing regular wellness and counseling sessions for their team with better mental health awareness. Seeing how offices began with cramped spaces and monotony, we’re glad to see it progress to a space of collaboration and care. 

Onwards to the Next Evolution of the Office

In the history of offices, we learn one thing: the value of caring for your team. With every evolution we saw a more spacious office, better decor, good assets, and attention to staff mental health. The innovative changes in the office always pursued staff comfort. 

Overall, offices moved toward placing value on their team. Because they should. A good work environment leads to happier staff which leads to a better company. The best way to keep staff retention is to both hire good talent and create a positive work experience. So, plan those huddles and splurge on that breakroom. After all, a team who loves their workspace is more engaged and productive in the long run.