The Future (and History) of the Office

Where did offices come from? Perhaps if we understand the history of the office we will be in a better position to speculate about its future and debate how to adapt the modern office to modern needs.

It is generally accepted that the communal office was invented around 1900. Before this, people tended to work outdoors or at home. This included doctors and accountants who worked from rooms at home and shopkeepers who lived above their shop. Customers were local and companies, where they existed at all, were small.

So what gave rise to the rapid growth of office building? The main reason was the development of the factory. Mass production is not a new idea, going back to China and Greece thousands of years ago, but it is generally acknowledged that the factory production system as we know it today came into being around 1790 when Eli Whitney created mass-production techniques to satisfy the musket (i.e. rifle) needs of the US government. Henry Ford usually gets the credit for developing factory production after this although individuals such as Marc Isambard Brunel, Henry Maudslay, Samuel Colt and Elisha King Root made vital contributions. Regardless of who started things it was WW1 and WW2, when governments needed large quantities of armaments, that factory owners realised that they needed somewhere to house the growing number of clerical and administrative workers. Bingo, work as we know it today was born.

Another reason for the creation of the office was the invention of the typewriter. Before 1868 typewriters did not exist and so there was obviously no need to build rooms to house typists. Even after 1874 when Remington (the gun company) perfected the manual typewriter, demand for office assistants or typists was small. Later in 1920 when Olivetti invented the electric typewriter demand was still relatively modest. There was simply nothing much to type back then. This all changed in the 1950s when consumerism, global markets and information processing power really took off but it is worth remembering that the communal office is a very recent invention and therefore we should not be afraid to turn it upside down and re-invent it if necessary.

In the early years, discipline and control were everything and formal organisational hierarchies were translated into large rooms full of identical desks, watched over by a large clock and someone in charge. But things have now changed and I believe that it is time to re-think how employees interact with each other in physical and virtual spaces and also time to reflect on how environments (and the tools found in these environments) can be used to improve the quality of thinking.

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One Response to The Future (and History) of the Office

  1. Max Kaehn says:

    Some knowledge-work jobs also used to work out of coffeehouses until they were driven into offices by cheap gin. Lloyd’s of London got their start that way.

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