The History and (Near) Future of Office Design

Cover Photograph: Wholesale department administration office in Trondheim, Norway, 1900s. WikiMedia Commons. Public domain photograph.

Theories of office design have shifted dramatically from the dawn of white collar work. Whereas owners once designed offices to maximize surveillance of their employees, modern offices now seek to promote collaboration between team members through open concepts.

But that may be changing.

In our last post, we covered a few of the ways in which office spaces were poised to change in the coming months, with office layout being one of the more prominent adjustments. One could argue, though, the magnitude of the changes in office design were not properly conveyed.

In fact, the likely changes represent a paradigmatic shift in office design. Before discussing how companies are planning to cope with this new reality, it’s important to first understand how we got to where we are now.

A Series of Openings

The history of office design is characterized by the breaking down of barriers—particularly in the United States. According to a press release from the U.S. General Services Administration, office spaces of the early-1900’s in many ways resembled factory floors, where workers were crowded together in a common area while managers observed from their private offices.

As time passed, however, new theories of design began to emanate from Europe calling for a less rigid and hierarchical layout. Starting in the early-1960’s, upper management began moving out of executive suites, and workspaces were optimized for interaction between workers who shared the same function within the workplace, such as accountants and designers. Despite these changes, the workspaces remained largely undivided.

By the late 1960’s, however, this began to change, as the push for individualized workspaces resulted in an increase in popularity of early cubicles. This trend reached an apex in the 1980’s as the ranks of middle management swelled.

The past 20 years have been characterized by a re-opening of the office, with office managers finding innovative ways to encourage socializing between employees. Some of these measures include utilizing semi-enclosed pods and connected desks to promote collaboration while still offering a degree of privacy for those who seek it. This became particularly popular following the 2009 financial crisis, as companies sought to pack employees together to maximize space.

Is it possible, though, to maintain open office spaces with the growing desire for distance between people? Experts are skeptical.

A Paradigm Shift

Believe it or not, we might soon have to take a trip back to the 80’s, and unfortunately, Michael J. Fox and DeLoreans will not be involved.

For one, it’s fair to expect the return of cubicles to the office. Office managers need to be mindful of the ways in which germs can spread between employees and attempt to mitigate the spread as much as possible by constructing barriers between desks. While there are alternatives to the classic cubicle design, many companies will opt to use them based on familiarity.

In addition, many companies may choose to have workers positioned with their back faced toward their colleagues as opposed to having them sit face-to-face or next to one another. These changes will inevitably affect how co-workers interact with one another, and managers must account for the downstream effects this will have on company culture.

There are obviously no perfect solutions here, and the difficulties as exacerbated by how rapidly changes are taking place around the country. But, with that being said, ideas are quickly emerging.

A Time for Innovation

A few companies are proposing relatively radical office layout proposals in response to the looming changes in office life.

Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate company based in Chicago, recently unveiled the Six Feet Office Project. Although the plan contains six different elements, the two most notable changes are the “six feet routing” and “six feet workstation.” The six feet routing plan entails creating a movement plan unique to each office space with the goal of encouraging workers to move in a clockwise route around the facility and avoid human contact.

Similarly, the six feet workstation design feature calls for visually indicating where the six foot radius from a workstation begins. One option companies have is creating circles on carpeting spanning six feet from individual workstations, although there are, of course, many other options.

Measures such as these may not be feasible for every office space. Budgetary and personnel constraints can limit any office redesign. But by understanding the challenges they will soon face, office managers and business owners can begin crafting solutions tailored to the needs and capabilities of their office space and workforce.

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