The History of Collaboration and Work

Learn about the history of the dedicated workplace – from its very earliest inceptions to where it is today.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” Annie Dillard

Work, whether we like it not is an integral part of adult life. With the average working week consisting of 40 hours for upwards to 25-30 years, the business centric professional will inevitably spend one-third or 30 percent of their human life working.

The office we spend so much time in is evolving. It is no longer the rigid bleak 4-wall cubicle embedded into our subconscious but so much more. The 21st century has given way to open collaborative spaces, chic furniture and décor, premium infrastructure and flexibility. With greater employee comfort leading to higher levels of productivity and more companies adopting workspace providers into their business model, one might ask how we got to this stage? How did we end up here? And what did we have as an office prior?

The Birth of the Modern Office Space

The birth of the modern office space can be loosely traced back to the early 19th century. The globalisation of European empires led to a multitudinous amount of administrative and paperwork that needed to be handled in a centralised place and so hence the first office building was constructed.

The invention of the Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone and Edison’s dictating machine (typewriter) not only revolutionised the out-dated concepts of work at the time but also changed the design of offices for generations to come. These creations meant that workers and factories no longer had to be one entity – essentially separating the white and blue collar worker.

Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the open plan office in 1906. These open office floorplans were designed following the principles of Taylorism which believed tasks that could be rationalised, standardised and scientifically calculated into an efficient production regime. Although these offices were designed with the best intentions, the set-up itself was incredibly regimented, with workers sat in never ending rows, side by side. The addition of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting resulted in dehumanisation due to an almost complete disassociating cut off from the outside world.

Although the Europeans adopted their own personal workspace plan in the 60s known as Burolandschaft (Office landscaping) much of the workforce globally remained relatively unchanged and bleak. Compact and further confined, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the advancements in technology resulted in the downsizing of computers, laptops, mobiles phones and wireless internet connectivity which allowed workers to branch out of their cubicles and more into areas that served as collaboration hubs.

As the workforce became nimbler, the day-to-day worker came to the realisation that they no longer needed to be tied to their desks – compromising the role of brick-and-mortar office spaces. Soon after, it became normal to see work done within cafes, coffee shops, from home. Mobility became the standard with companies adopting “Hot-Desking” where staff weren’t given an official desk but rather were given the option of available places that they could work from.

Social media brought forth a new era of needs and wants. The creation of new office designs that inherited cool, trendy and colourful décor signalled the birth of the breakout space within the modern workplace. Digital whiteboards, Meeting Rooms , Virtual Office also became critical. A sense of relaxation and entertainment was instilled with the addition of leisure areas and creative spaces that had pinball machines, beanbags, barista bars and open kitchens.

There was a focus on comfort and employee satisfaction – companies were beginning to realise the paramount importance of both for attracting as well as retaining the very best talent in a diverse and competitive market. Office furniture had to keep pace too and as a result, we have seen sit stand desks become an integral part of many offices with larger manufacturers like 9am and Herman Miller marketing their products as ergonomically friendly.

As the history of office design continues to be written, we will continue to witness a meteoric rise in Co-working , with companies adopting flexible office solutions due to a host of benefits such as a fluid workforce, the option to scale up or down, workplace de-densification, fit-out cost avoidance and risk mitigation.

To learn more about the past, present and future of the workspace download our latest whitepaper report here.