THROWBACK THURSDAY: History of the Office

For centuries people have been getting up, joining a daily commute or retreating to a room, to work. The office has become inseparable from work. Its history illustrates not only how our work has changed but also how work’s physical spaces respond to cultural, technological and social forces.

Saint Augustine in his cell, or study, 1480.

The origins of the modern office lie with large-scale organizations such as governments, trading companies and religious orders that required written records or documentation. Medieval monks, for example, worked in quiet spaces designed specifically for sedentary activities such as copying and studying manuscripts. As depicted in “Botticelli’s St Augustine in His Cell,” these early workstations were comprised of a desk, chair and storage shelves.

An early version of the modern corporate office was a building originally constructed as the central administrative building of the Medici mercantile empire in 1560. It was both a workplace and a visible statement of prestige and power.

Eventually, lawyers, civil servants and other professionals began to work from offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris. This led to a cultural distinction between the office, associated with work, and the home, associated with comfort, privacy and intimacy.

hefner plane bed
Hugh Hefner did business from a bed, even in his “hare jet” built in 1970.

Despite these early offices, working from home continued. In the nineteenth century, banking dynasties such as the Rothschilds and Barings operated from luxurious homes so as to make clients feel at ease. And even after the office was well established in the 1960s, Hugh Hefner famously ran his Playboy empire from a giant circular bed in a bedroom of his Chicago apartment.

But these were exceptions to the general rule. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, increasingly specialized office designs “ from the office towers of Chicago and New York to the post-war suburban corporate campuses “ reinforced a distinction between work and home.
Managing the office

Various management theories also had a profound impact on the office. As Gideon Haigh put it in “The Office: A Hardworking History,” the office was an activity long before it was a place . Work was shaped by social and cultural expectations even before the modern office existed. Monasteries, for example, introduced timekeeping that imposed strict discipline on monks’ daily routines.

Later, modern theorists understood the office as a factory-like environment. Inspired by Frank Gilbreth’s time-motion studies of bricklayers and Fredrick Taylor’s book, “Principles of Scientific Management,” William Henry Leffingwell’s 1917 book, “Scientific Office Management,” depicted work as a series of tasks that could be rationalized, standardized and scientifically calculated into an efficient production regime. Even concessions to the office environment, such as flowers, were intended to increase productivity.
Technology in the office

Changes in technology also influenced the office. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone and Edison’s dictating machine revolutionized concepts of work and office design. Telecommunications meant offices could be separate from factories and warehouses, separating white and blue collar workers. Ironically, while these new technologies suggested the possibility of a distributed workforce, in practice, American offices in particular became more centralized.

In 1964, when IBM introduced a magnetic-card recording device into a Selectric typewriter, the future of the office, and our expectations of it, changed forever. This early word processor could store information; it was the start of computer-based work as well as early fears of a jobless society due to automation.

Now digital maturity seems to be signalling the end of the office. With online connectivity, more people could potentially work from home.

But some of the same organizations that promoted and enabled the idea of work anywhere, anytime  “ Yahoo and IBM, for example “ have cancelled work from home policies to bring employees back to bricks and mortar offices.
Why return to the office?

How we interact with one other and how physical proximity increases interactions highlights the importance of being together in a physical space. The office is an important factor in communicating the necessary cues of leadership, not to mention enabling collaboration and communication.