A Brief History of the Workplace of the Future

The first in a series of articles about the workplace of the future by Jodi Williams, an associate vice president at CallisonRTKL.

workplace of the future

A desk from Robert Propst and George Nelson’s 1968 “Action Office” for Herman Miller. Image via hermanmiller.com.

One of the most popular questions we hear is: what is the workplace of the future? We are not futurists, but we are strategists, designers, and workers ourselves. While we cannot definitively say what the workplace of the future will entail, we can, with a reasonable amount of certainty, make predictions for the next five years and offer overall trends and direction for what we expect to see over the upcoming 10 to 25 years (even futurists get it wrong sometimes).

In order to discuss the workplace of the future, it is important to understand that the workplace is bigger than a set of desks and collaborative spaces or the strategies surrounding their use. Over the course of this series, we will examine several components that affect the workplace (yes, technology is integral to all of them!):

  • The worker, and the changing dynamics of who we are and what we do
  • The work location, and how we understand place and its impact on where we work
  • The building, or where our workplace is housed and how we use it

It is important to consider that the future of work and the workplace also relies on a number of other factors:

  • The economy/business cycle (in the U.S., the average expansion period lasts five years, and the average contraction period is 11 months)
  • Globalization
  • Geopolitical volatility
  • Climate change
  • Urbanization (urbanization is anticipated to be at less than one percent per five year period; however, it is much higher in least developed countries and lower income countries)
  • Artificial intelligence (does the singularity occur by 2040?)

The beginning of the future workplace

Image courtesy of the author.

Before exploring the future, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the past. The modern concept of the office began with the merchant class. The offices themselves were initially very much like what we picture in stories like A Christmas Carol: merchants and clerks work in a largely open area on the ground floor of a building, while the merchant and his family live on the floors above.

As companies grew, so did their office needs. One of the earliest examples is the East India Company: initially serving as a trade group, this company expanded to handle Britain’s imperial interests. In the 1600 and 1700s, this corporation housed enormous amounts of paperwork, arriving by mail. While their real estate portfolio was massive, the most well-known facility is East India House. Originally a home, the building was demolished and redesigned to accommodate the growing company. The large facility included not only offices, but also large meeting rooms and a courtyard/garden, which was used for receptions.

The modern concept of the office began with the merchant class: merchants and clerks work in a largely open area on the ground floor of a building, while the merchant and his family live on the floors above.

Fast-forward to the 1900s and the introduction of the open plan office in the United States: Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1906 Larkin Administration Building  in Buffalo, New York was among the first to feature an open floor plan. This arrangement evolved into the Mad Men-style office: executives and managers seated in large window offices located around the building perimeter, and rows of desks housing secretarial pools in the center.

The late 1950s and early ‘60s brought about a new strategy: Burolandschaft. Created by Quickborner, a German design group, Burolandschaft broke up rows of desks into organic groupings, with the intent of creating a free-form environment that provided flexibility, while still keeping offices around the perimeter.

This strategy eventually gave way to what is perhaps the most iconic office innovation: the cubicle. Robert Propst, a designer for Herman Miller, devised the Action Office as a way to transform the workplace from a wasteland of rows of enclosed offices into a more open and space-efficient solution. Action Office debuted in the 1960s and the cubicle has been a mainstay of offices in the U.S. ever since.

Today, most companies see the workplace as a source of competitive advantage, not simply a cost burden.

As the Action Office morphed into “Dilbertville,” it became clear that the workplace needed a change. Workplace strategy was introduced to the mainstream around 1985, when Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti declared “Your Office is Where You Are” in the Harvard Business Review. At the time, emerging technologies (like the cellular phone) made the once-novel concept of working away from the desk a real possibility, and soon the physical office began reflecting the idea of activity settings.

In 1995, the eminent book Workplace by Design by Cornell University’s Franklin Becker and Yale University’s Fritz Steele was published, marking one of the first times the design of the physical workplace was directly tied to an organization’s business success. By 2002, the U.S. General Services Administration launched the Workplace 20|20 research and development program, bringing together a consortium of experts to develop a toolkit that enabled Federal Agencies to realign work settings to support their business needs. This program evolved into GSA’s Total Workplace Program, which continues as standard practice today.

In 2005, the Journal of Corporate Real Estate published an article titled, “Workplace strategy: What it is and why you should care.” By this point, major corporations had jumped on board with workplace strategy. Deutsche Bank was among the first companies to establish a strategy: db Smart Office (in 2002). Microsoft began researching its own ways of working in 2004 and 2005, eventually beginning the Workplace Advantage Program. Both programs continue to evolve to this day.

Image courtesy of the author.

Today, most companies see the workplace as a source of competitive advantage, not simply a cost burden. Facility costs, including design fees, construction, and operations and maintenance are a small part of the overall corporate cost: staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically account for about 90 percent of business operating costs. With this knowledge, companies are seeking ways to make their real estate work better, rather than simply cost less. We anticipate this trend will continue long into the future.

In the upcoming months, my articles will feature thoughts on the future worker, commute, and building and how changes in each of these areas will drive changes in the way the workplace is owned, operated, designed, and used.

1 Comment

  • Sai Bharath says:

    Great to know about the history of workplaces. The environment at the workplace are changing according to the need of the coworkers which proves that workplaces are becoming more productive. Thanks for sharing the post.

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