A brief history of office design (And how they became so distracting)

It seems ironic, but the office is probably the last place any real work gets done. Instead, most workplaces have devolved into dens of distraction and disruption.

There’s the dreaded drive-by interruption. The awkward ‘hoverer’. The unsolicited feedback session. The noisy neighbor. And countless others.

For most of us, we’ve had to acknowledge that this is just how it is and get our focused work done out of hours. Otherwise, we commit ourselves to headphone prison.

But has office design always been this bad? If not, where did we go wrong? And can we fix it?

The origin of office design

If you want to trace the history of the office back to its origin, you need to go back to the Medieval ages.

Eschewing the Game of Thrones-esque drama in favor of rigorous studies, the humble monk needed a space for copying and studying manuscripts.

These early ‘cubicles’ provided the privacy and distraction-free working zones required for long periods of deep concentration. Yet, it would take centuries for them to become part of the modern office.

Instead, up until the 17th century most “knowledge work” like this happened in the home. However, as professionals realized they needed a dedicated space to work out of, they started to move out.

As Witold Rybczynski explains in Home: The Short History of an Idea, this was the first real cultural distinction between the office (work) and home (comfort and privacy).

A good first step. But the idea took a while to take hold.

In fact, even as late as the early 19th century, the Rothschilds and Barings operated some of the most powerful banking organizations from luxurious home offices.

But then something happened…

Technology came along and completely changed the way we think about work (and where we do it)

Fast forward to post WWII Germany. Reeling from the end of the war, the country was looking for ways to rebuild itself both culturally and physically.

With advancements in telecommunication—which meant offices could be separate from factories and warehouses—the first half of the 20th century was all about cramming as many workers into a space as possible. (A practice still popular at most co-working spaces).

But in 1950s Germany, professionals were thinking about the actual implications of working together.

This led the Quickborner consulting group to start promoting the Bürolandschaft or “Office Landscape”—an open-plan office designed around the natural flow of information.

A section of an office floorplan showing the Office Landscape design style

Instead of rows of desks, workspaces were separated by curved screens and potted plants to promote collaboration and communication. While still providing enough privacy to get focused work done.

The idea resonated with Robert Propst, a designer at the newly formed Herman Miller Research group in the states.

Propst took the “office landscape” idea and put it under a microscope, trying to understand what an office space that balances productivity, creativity, collaboration, and focus could look like in practice.

“Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”  – Robert Propst

Propst’s final design was The Action Office. A modular group of furniture and office dividers that provided each employee with multiple workspaces. Large multi-height desks with integrated storage (and you thought standing desks were a new idea!). And vertical displays to keep key information in sight.

The goal was to promote movement and ‘action’ in the workspace to keep creativity and energy flowing. While 120 degree enclosures ensured you had enough privacy for focused work.

The Action Office furniture included multiple workspaces for different tasks.

In theory, The Action Office was the ultimate workspace. Semi-private. Different stations for different work. Vertical displays to keep your important work up and in sight.

But in practice? It didn’t quite work out that way.

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The quick decline of the human-centered office

Unfortunately, The Action Office was ahead of its time.

It was expensive. Too modular. And managers fought back against the price and investment of implementing it. They didn’t care about Propst’s research and just wanted a space and furniture that worked for their budget.

As Nikil Saval writes in Wired:

“Office space was growing at too fast a volume for anyone to be concerned about niceties. Something faster was needed, something more easily reproducible.”

And so, office design fell victim to the laws of supply and demand.

Managers wanted the look and feel of Propst’s design, without the cost and commitment. And so other companies started providing just that.

Equipment suppliers started to create mini-Action Office knockoffs that could be bought piecemeal and placed wherever you needed them.

But without the research and design thinking into how to optimally set these offices up, most companies reverted to the rows and rows of desks and dividers of the earlier half of the century.

The furniture and design that was originally meant to free us instead became a prison.

In place of well-thought out spaces, designed for movement and creative thinking, we ended up with the illusion of privacy and less space than ever.

The rise of the open office (and why it’s only going to get worse)

But once again, technology was on the precipice of a giant leap forward that would disrupt the way we work.

While the cubicle acted as a mini-conference room, giving us the space we needed for the bulky tools of the era. The continued miniaturization of the personal computer and the rise of the business laptop in the late 1990s meant we no longer needed to close ourselves off.

Companies around the world rejoiced and tore down the walls of their cubicles in favor of the “modern” and “airy” open office.

Researchers rejoiced, saying this “new” design would help us be more creative and productive. And would create serendipitous connections.

In response, the International Facility Management Association estimates around 70 percent of US offices now have an open concept.

But taking our office design all the way to the other extreme has had unexpected side effects.

Noise levels continue to climb with a 2013 study showing that ⅔ of US workers are upset with the noise levels in their workspace. Workers are reporting more interruptions and distractions than ever, both from their work environment and from the tools they use.

And organizations seem to be returning to the idea that the best office space is simply the one that can fit the most people in it.

While in the 2000s, private sector US companies allocated between 200 and 400 square feet per person, today, the industry standard is about 190 feet. And it’s shrinking fast.

According to WeWork—the billion-dollar coworking startup who now build office furniture and design spaces for some of the biggest companies in the world—in 5 years, that space allocation could hit just 60 square feet.

Less space. Less privacy. More distractions. What could go wrong?

So, what does a productive, distraction-free workspace of the future look like?

For as long as we’ve been working in dedicated spaces, designers have been trying to balance the need for privacy with availability and visibility.

But looking at the history of the modern office, it feels almost like we’ve gone in a big circle and ended up right where we started.

From working at home, to crammed into rows of desks, to the Action Office and Office Landscape, back to crammed rows of cubicles, the open office, and now working at home (for some of us at least).

So, if we haven’t really made much advancement, what is the answer?

First, we need to understand what we need from a productive workspace. That means prioritizing things like:

  • Human connection and opportunities for chance encounters
  • A balance between privacy and availability
  • Multiple workstations to promote creative thinking
  • Some sort of sound protection that doesn’t require headphone exile
  • Easy ways to show you’re doing ‘heads down’ work

And while a lot of this comes down to the physical space itself, it’s also the responsibility of your company culture.

Without rules and expectations around interruptions, availability, and responsiveness, it doesn’t really matter how nicely designed your office is. It’s still not going to be the best space to get work done in.

Our work environment has a massive influence on our habits, actions, and ability to focus.  But if we can learn anything from the history of office design, it’s that when we focus on just filling space our work and our happiness suffers.

Where to go from here:

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

    1. Thanks Joey! It was a lot of fun to research and write. I’ll definitely check your documentary out

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