Corners, Cubicles, and Collaboration: The Evolution of Office

The way we work has evolved over the past century, and so has the office. Its resiliency has been tested time and time again, yet it has prevailed because it has been able to adapt — responding to cultural shifts, global crises, and market changes.

The 1950s: On the Origin of Offices

The open-plan office that we know and love (or loathe) first came around in the 1950s. Reminiscent of factory floors, all workers were visible under the watchful eye of management. Higher-ranking employees typically had their own offices, with the most senior leaders occupying the coveted corner spread, which served as a status symbol.

These offices were not designed to encourage communication and collaboration, but to ensure maximum productivity. That was all that mattered in business.

The “modern” office, also known as the Action Office, emerged in the 1960s. This type of office, introduced by Herman Miller, included flexible cubicle spaces and gained popularity for its Pop art aesthetics and “allegiance to the new spirit of the age: rich, advanced, potentially liberating.

Robert Probst, the brains behind the innovation, believed his designs freed offices from hierarchy and status. There was an additional financial advantage in getting rid of walls. The three-partition cubicle gave some level of privacy, while also enabling an open office floor. For better or worse, it stuck.

The Early 2000s: Turmoil, Technology, and Transformation

There was a notable shift in approaches to office following the 2008 financial crisis. With an unstable economy, long-term lease commitments seemed risky. Instead, companies wanted shorter-team leases and to maximize the efficiency of space. And, because the recession left commercial real estate underutilized, landlords were more amenable to deals. This need for a different approach to managing office space resulted in the rise of coworking and flexible office providers.

In the post-Great Recession period, the office continued to transform, for tech companies in particular. These companies championed things like flexibility, unassigned seating, on-site daycare, healthy food, and amenities to make the workplace overlap more seamlessly with life. Traditional companies, many of which were growing their own tech teams and wanted to attract top talent, followed suit.

By the late 2010s, as this new amenity-rich office took off and coworking and flexible offices gained popularity, so did a suite of digital tools, such as Slack and Zoom. Companies were experimenting with virtual work due to rising rents, the digital revolution, and increasing demands for flexibility.

2020: The Year Everything Changed

Fast forward to 2020, when COVID-19 hit. Businesses were suddenly catapulted into the next iteration of workspace, not by choice or gradual evolution, but by necessity. Overnight, office workers became remote workers, unsure of when they could go back.

What Comes Next

As we emerge from this crisis, a new era in office is starting to take shape. Here’s what we predict:

  1. Work from home will play a much larger role in every office strategy. There are many benefits to a flexible approach to WFH, and companies are moving past the preconception that you must be in the office to get work done. But for most, it cannot be the only strategy. There is a reason that the office has consistently withstood and adapted — because we need it to.
  2. Companies will need to safely facilitate a shared experience of working together. Creativity is a contact sport. A team needs a dugout, a sideline, a practice court — at least their own locker room. A home for culture and community.
  3. The new office will not be the same. We’re likely to see the emergence of physical, activity-based workspaces that foster connection, creativity, and innovation. While the next iteration of the office may look similar (trends like unassigned seating are likely to stick around), its purpose will change. No longer will the workspace feel like a place that employees “have to go.” Employees will be empowered to work at home, but many will choose not to.

The evolution of the office is a story of resiliency, of continual adaptation to meet changing needs. By stripping away our long-standing ideas about the office and identifying its core value, the next iteration of the office may just be the best one yet.