This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of B2B.
For all the time we spend in our office, very few of us are familiar with how that space came to be. You may actually be surprised by the events and inventions that helped form the work environment we know today. From the development of the railroad to innovations in communication, our current corporate habits, structures, and tools have all played a role. In his book Cubed—A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval shapes the advances that created the conventional office we are familiar with today.
The advent of the Morse telegraph spawned long-distance communication. Then, starting in 1860, a series of technological innovations changed the possibilities of the workplace: the use of iron framework permitted the construction of taller buildings, and elevators assisted the climb. The Remington typewriter entered the office in 1874; Bell’s telephone was patented two years later.
At the same time, railroads expanded across the country, reducing transportation costs and extending markets for goods and services. Additionally, railroads produced an organizational transformation still in use today. The coordination of trains required employees, housed in structures all across the country, bringing a variety of offices to the American landscape. Between the executive, the manager, and the worker…the organizational chart was born.
The invention of telecommunications fostered the speed of information to surge, creating more work and, subsequently, more workers. As these workers moved into new structures, the spaces reflected their various levels of management. In 1915, the Metal Office Furniture Company (now Steelcase) invented the modern desk—a flat metal table outfitted with file drawers. The new desks, massed together in defined rows, offered managers full visual access to the goings-on of the workplace; and this “sea of desks” became the norm for decades. Lockers and various cabinets, popular in the Great Depression era, became vertical files once steel became readily available after World War II.
In 1968, Herman Miller introduced the first panel system with attached components. Designed by Robert Propst, the Action Office system revolutionized the “office” in form, flexibility, and cost. Other furniture manufacturers mimicked the modular system, which became the norm for many businesses.
Up to the ’90s, the personal computer’s popularity grew, and the relative size of work stations decreased between 25-50 percent. By the middle of that decade, the dot-com revolution on the West Coast created an unprecedented workplace culture. The formal atmosphere of the office became much more casual, and discontent for the Dilbert-esque cubicle grew. Subsequently, creative furniture solutions evolved, with the desire to be more mobile leading the way.
In the early 2000’s, collaborative, open offices grew in popularity. New and improving technologies now offer connectivity in the office, home, or public spaces. As a result, nearly every company today is adapting and using new furnishings as a tool to attract new workers. At the same time, retaining existing employees is equally important. The goal is to make everyone more effective and efficient in their work.
Whether you work in an office, from home, in the local coffee shop, or out of an airline terminal, you may start to notice that much of the furniture is beginning to look very similar. As long as you are able to connect to technology, you can work from virtually anywhere.