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A brief history of the office

Tech has long changed how people work. Here’s a look back at key moments, and a glimpse at the AI-powered workplace

By Howard Rabinowitz

How much has the office changed—and changed us—over the past century? Both radically, and not as much as you’d think. For nine‑to‑fivers, the clock must still be punched, metaphorically if not literally. The biggest transformations have all been driven by technology, and the digital tools we use today have changed how we get things done. Artificial intelligence now promises to reimagine the office not so much as a physical environment but as a cognitive partner—adapting and learning on the fly to match the needs of its inhabitants.

Office as factory

Behold the “efficient office.” Inspired by the work‑efficiency theories of mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor, early modern offices featured open floor plans with densely packed rows of desks where workers pecked at Burroughs adding machines and manual typewriters. Supervisors monitored workers’ productivity by pacing the aisles or watching over them from private offices from above. This top‑down management approach remained more or less standard for more than half a century.

Head of the class. Taylor’s research also influenced U.S. classroom layout by organizing students into tight rows of seats facing a teacher.

PC ancestor. The Burroughs Adding Machine Company was an early computer pioneer, and rival to IBM, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Eight is enough. Among the innovations that offices adopted in the 1910s was the eight‑hour workday (reduced from a 10‑ to 12‑hour day). Henry Ford was the first boss to cut his workers’ hours to increase productivity.

The birth of IT

Knowledge work took a big leap forward in the 1950s and ‘60s as the mainframe computer moved from academia and NASA into corporate offices. The IBM 1401 and Series 360 began taking over manual functions in accounting and data processing. Old jobs disappeared, new ones emerged (say hello to the IT department) and productivity shifted from an army of workers doing drudge work to a central computer and its gatekeepers.

Going remote. Office computer networking began as early as 1959 as “dumb terminals” in various departments connected to the central CPU via serial cables.

World conquest. In 1961, corporate sales of the IBM 1401 topped 12,000 units. By 1965, it accounted for nearly half of all computers in operation worldwide.

Primitive power. The IBM 1401 weighed five tons and had 16 kilobytes of memory. The average smartphone, with about 32 billion bytes of memory, is 10 million times faster.

PC revolution

The much‑loathed “cube farm” became the go‑to office layout. Where workers once chatted across desks in open spaces, they now communicated via PCs. The upside for workers? A computer at every desk and privacy—or whatever semblance of privacy was afforded by three squat, grey‑felt dividers. And for companies? Cheaper furniture (pioneered by designers Herman Miller and Robert Propst) that could be bought in bulk—and more bodies squeezed into the office to maximize their return on rental space.

Keeping your cool. PCs and their monitors generated a great deal of heat, raising office costs for air conditioning and better ventilation.

Futuristic fizzle. When Miller and Propst first put their “Action Office” on the market in 1968, it flopped. Executives found it too costly and too high concept.

Condensed cube. The average cubicle was 90 square feet in 1994, but by 2010 the worker’s average cube had shrunk to 75 square feet.

Open office 1.0

As technology went mobile in the 2000s with the advent of laptops, tablets and smartphones, offices skewed toward fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing. Cubicles were out; flexible and open communal spaces were in. The goal wasn’t simply to be flexible, but “fun” as well, merging working with socializing to boost employees’ morale. Companies tried to update their buttoned‑down corporate images with bright colors, open lounge spaces and in‑office games. Did any of it boost productivity? Who knows—but air hockey at work was pretty awesome.

Doubling down. A 2012 survey found that two out of three of U.S. workers used multiple devices—including desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones—while working every day.

Daily siesta. In 2008, five percent of U.S. companies offered employees “nap rooms” or “nap pods” to catch a little shuteye at work. Average cost of a nap pod: $13,000.

Wild west. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, Facebook’s West Campus boasts 430,000 wall‑less square feet, making it the largest open office space in the world. 

Open office 2.0

Not every worker has loved open office 1.0. Some employees complain of endless distractions and decreased productivity. Open office 2.0 seeks to correct these imbalances by diversifying the kinds of spaces available in the office: open meeting areas mixed with soundproof pods for solo work, private phone booths next to glassed‑in conference rooms. Video conferencing and collaborative file sharing also let workers “meet” anywhere, any time.

Back to HQ. In 2017, 47 percent of workers reported working remotely at least some of the time. Yet not all employers are bought in. Recently, big companies like HPE, Yahoo and IBM have launched initiatives to get workers to return to the office full time.

Tighter squeeze. Currently most U.S. offices provide 150 square feet of office space per worker. That’s down from 225 square feet per worker a decade ago.

Automatic for the people

Early AI is already working for us in our calendaring apps and through voice. Expect AI to take over more of the admin side of work—and life—in the years to come. How else will the rise of machine intelligence impact the physical workplace in the future? Architects today are leaning into “generative” office designs driven entirely by data, not the whims of CEOs; so‑called ambient AIs will respond to aural and visual cues as we move around during the workday; intelligent elevators, fed with live data about people flow (as well as your calendar) will take you to the right space at the right time.   

Howard Rabinowitz a former senior editor with Comcast Interactive Media, writes frequently about culture and technology.