The changing face of office spaces over 100 years

From typewriters and papers on the desk, to the digital age, we look at how office spaces have evolved over the last century and the trends that will influence the future workplaces

Our means and ways of communication have expanded drastically, in the second half of the 20th century, mainly due to technological advancements and the invention of the computer. Due to this, the way we work has also evolved, over the past 100 years. Office spaces have reflected these changes that have been happening in our professional lives and the way we work.

1900s-1930s: The paperwork factory

In 1906, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building was opened in New York, based on the design of an open-plan factory. This was the first time that a design based on the industrial revolution was introduced in corporate spaces, with offices that were large and spacious, with rows of identical workstations and undivided working floors. The concept rapidly spread and by the 1920s, it became the go-to design for the corporate world, globally.

The changing face of office spaces over 100 years

1940s-1950s: Impact of the Second World War

Although Wright’s concept lasted into the Second World War, businesses were forced to adapt, as the military started looking for spaces that they could take up. Offices that were temporary were clubbed together, to make room for required space. Underground offices without windows, became a necessity, for safety purposes.

1960s: Office landscaping

By the 1960s the concept of ‘Burolandschaft’ (German for office landscaping) started to gain popularity. The advent of plastic furniture made redesigning of offices cheaper and easier and this ergonomic approach spread worldwide. It also paved the way for innovation in office designing, as companies became more keen to build spaces that were suited to their workers and culture and reflected their ideology.

There was a lot going on in India too, after the end of the colonial rule. With the economic and political independence of the nation, the newly-formed government focused on investing in large infrastructure projects. The workspaces became dense but remained basic and pragmatic.

See also: Flexible workspaces to emerge as the new normal in the office space sector: Report

1970s-1980s: The age of computers

The 1970s and 1980s saw the introduction of computers in workplaces. With the focus now being divided between computers and the human workforce, desks were rearranged into clusters or rows, around power sources and communication increasingly became electronic.

The changing face of office spaces over 100 years

1990s: Rise of the cubicle

Keeping in mind the idea that ‘productivity would increase, if people had their work spread in front of them’, designer Robert Propst introduced the idea of a private cubicle in corporate offices. The cubicle was initially designed to be a large, private space, with adjustable walls, along with a phone connection and space for a computer. This idea flopped. However, with corporate structures changing frequently in the 1980s and 1990s, office spaces became more expensive. Consequently, cheaper, moveable cubicles became the norm, as companies tried to cope with these changes.

2000-2010s: Creative spaces

The arrival of large tech companies, like Apple, Google, eBay and Amazon, meant that business was no longer about boardroom rivalries. The focus, instead, was on ideas that change the way we live and work. This gave rise to innovative designs that encouraged free thinking and subsequently, concepts like game rooms, sleeping pods, etc., emerged in the corporate office market.

According to a Gensler Research on the evolution of workplace in India, the corporate market understands that the maturing global Indian workforce needs a workplace that caters to their values. Hence, what is expected from the future of Indian workspace design, is something that brings out the ‘Indian-ness’ in the infrastructure – reflecting it sensitively and appropriately.

The changing face of office spaces over 100 years

2020 and beyond: Flexible workspaces

Entrepreneurs and small businesses are now becoming increasingly empowered, through innovative concepts of mobile, space-sufficient and creative business models. This has also encouraged big companies to adopt more flexible models, leading to an increase in demand for short-term leases and co-working spaces, as these allow for minimal overheads and easy adjustment of headcount.

In the future, we can expect to see more co-working spaces around the world. This will help businesses to have a global presence, without a having to spend big budgets. It will also allow employees to travel across locations, while having access to meeting rooms and high-speed broadband. The future workplaces may well eliminate the problem of tight budgets and limited space.

(The writer is country manager, India, IWG plc)

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