We tend to think of working from home, standing desks, and offices designed to foster collaboration as modern phenomena, but you may be surprised to find that all these ideas have deep roots in the past.

With the concept of Worklife in mind, we were keen to explore the origins of how people’s personal and professional lives have balanced out – or not – over time.

In a period in which we arguably have greater flexibility than ever before, we look back at the history of our working lives and the evolution of the dedicated spaces that have emerged as a result.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, ‘working from home’ was the norm. In medieval times, most working class families lived and worked together in a single room, under what was called the ‘domestic system’.

Eating, sleeping and preparing food all happened right alongside their trade, which was likely to include farming and anything from butchery to blacksmithing.

Over time, spaces with multiple rooms allowed a little more separation and in London’s Spitalfields, you can see the first purpose-built live-work spaces: 18th-century Huguenot weavers’ houses, characterised by large attic windows to let in light for the looms.

But it was the emergence of the division of labour, and then the Industrial Revolution, that first moved workers out of their homes.

Once the tools of production moved into urban ‘manufactories,’ workers had to follow.

Eventually rules restricted the amount women and children could work, so many returned home taking in laundry, making food to sell, or taking on ‘finishing work’ for the factories.

The origins of the office

Rooms set aside for the ‘official’ work that gave rise to the word ‘office’ can be traced back to ancient Rome when scribes worked in dedicated scroll rooms and to the monks who worked standing up in medieval monasteries.

More formal offices, such as the Uffizi Gallery built in Florence in 1581 by the Medici family, emerged during the Renaissance as intellectual work gained importance.

London’s first purpose-built office was the Royal Navy’s Old Admiralty Office (1726); followed by East India House built on London’s Leadenhall Street in 1729 as HQ for the East India Trading Company.

In the late 19th century, telephones, telegraphs and railways triggered an explosion in offices, which largely followed Taylorist principles with workers arranged in rows for maximum efficiency under close observation.

Secretarial and other ‘pink collar’ work was deemed suitable for women and they entered the workforce in large numbers, often on a part-time basis as they juggled domestic duties.
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The creation of safer elevators meant architects started building skywards while steel-frame construction enabled open-plan layouts. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building (1904) was one of the early offices to take advantage and included innovative features such as air conditioning, bright lighting, sound-absorbent cork ceilings, and the first rolling chairs.

Mid century matters

The second world war increased the number of women in US workplaces from 11 million to almost 20 million, and although most returned to domestic roles after the war, many continued to work from home, most famously hosting ‘Tupperware parties’. Meanwhile, artists, writers and other creatives carried on the medieval model with studio apartments that provided space for both work and living.

By the mid-20th century, the modernist belief ‘form follows function’ meant that offices were designed to support what happened inside rather than following factory models.
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In the 1960s and 1970s, the service economy exploded, computing took off and Henry Dreyfuss published his seminal texts about ergonomics – The Measure of Man and Human Scale – and suddenly human-centred designs challenged rigid Taylorist layouts. In the early 1960s, the ‘Burolandschaft’ (office landscape) concept championed a socially democratic layout that promoted interaction.

Robert Propst’s ‘action office II’ for Herman-Miller offered low dividers between private desks for focused work and alternative settings for collaborative work, empowering any member of staff to 'behave like a manager’.

In 1974, Herman Hertzberger followed with his ‘village worker’ concept for Centraal Beheer, so that workers could feel like ‘part of a community’ sitting on ‘islands’ in groups of up to 10.

However, as both middle management positions and the pressure to maximise profit grew, Propst’s ‘cubicals’ won out, but instead of offering flexibility and autonomy, they became tightly squeezed into ‘cube farms’, described by even Probst himself as ‘hellholes… barren, rat-hole places’.

Further pressures on costs led to hot-desking – borrowed from the practice of ‘hot-bunking’ in which submariners on opposite shifts share bunks.

For the following two decades, offices were characterised by repetitive, monotonous design – parodied to comic effect in the 1999 film Office Space.

A greater need for flex

In 1973, Jack Nilles wrote the Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff, arguing that modern telecommunications would remove the need for offices altogether by uniting workers remotely. And in the 21st century; this is starting to come true – new technologies mean that people can work anywhere and increasingly do just that.

People are also seeking meaning and purpose from their work and we’ve seen an explosion of start-ups run from dining tables and coffee shops.

For larger businesses, the challenge is to tempt staff back to the HQ.

Today’s workplaces are increasingly focused on wellbeing with homely touches like sofas and vintage furniture sitting alongside technology such as air purification systems, natural daylight bulbs and biophilic design.

And as we’ve seen in Rethinking Workplace: Part I, the key is to offer a choice of working environments, both inside and outside the office, trusting employees to know where they will do their best work, and empowering them to do it.

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Katie Treggiden Design Journalist Full bio and articles


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