People in an office sitting at rows of desks with computers

The evolution of the office

Origin of the word…

One of the earliest uses of the word ‘office’ in the sense of its modern definition was in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as a place where business is transacted! Given that this piece was written circa 1395, we can presume that workplaces have been around for not far off 1,000 years. 

The word itself comes from the Latin word ‘officium’, which referred not to a place, but to a body of staff who made up a formal seat or position – a modern example of which would be the presidential office. 


From antiquity onwards through history… 

The beginning of the evolution of the office can be traced back as far as the Roman period, where we know there were spaces filled with scribes (people who wrote and recorded) and scrolls (not of literature, but of records, censuses, etc). Rather than offices, these were often referred to as libraries, but the concept of a place in which qualified people gathered to carry out similar work was the same as our modern-day interpretation. This was also one of the earliest forms of central government.

By the time we reach the Middle Ages, more of these centralised bureaus of work are appearing, in industries other than central government. Whilst the official work of the church and the state were often grouped together, trade and commerce was starting to emerge and required a lot of administration to keep everything running. Such merchants started to work in common spaces, so by the end of the 15th Century there were clearly defined workplaces for different industries. 

This wasn’t only the case for the UK. In other European countries like Italy, large organisations had their own headquarters, much like the Vatican had its own ‘offices’ full of scribes. The Medici Bank had its “Uffize”, the Italian word for office. The Medici commissioned this building, now one of the most famous museums and galleries in the world, to house not only their own administrative teams but also some of the official management of the Florentine state (in which they were very much involved). 


17th & 18th Century…

Many of our modern workplaces are housed in purpose-built buildings. One of the earliest examples of this in the UK was The Old Admiralty Office, home to the Royal Navy’s administrative function. It was swiftly followed by the Private Sector Headquarters of the renowned East India Trading Company. 

Whilst these buildings were very grand (both internally and externally), they contained a variety of spaces. For those further up the chain, private offices with high ceilings and large windows were common. But for those doing the more ‘mechanical’ admin tasks, they were likely to be in a large room, equally as grand, but with tens or hundreds of other administrators.


Industrialisation and 20th Century… 

After the industrial revolution, there were not only more people and more companies, but also new industries which required teams to keep them running smoothly. And as industry gained pace, so did the evolution of office space. 


In the 20th Century, the world started to shrink; transport, mail, and travel to the opposite sides of the world was now possible when it wasn’t a mere 100 years earlier. 

In the early 1900s, to satisfy the increasing demand for office work, companies started creating large, open spaces, filled with desks to house their employees carrying out administrative work. Around this time, F.W Taylor wrote one of the earliest workplace analyses, The Time and Motion Study. Originally drafted for manufacturing workers, it was later adapted for the office and focused around open-plan spaces filled with desks, where a manager was responsible for ensuring the efficiency of his workers. 


To more modern times… 

By the 1950s, there was a rise of creative industries like advertising, and with that came the theory that these professionals required a little more space to be creative and deal with discrete business. By the 1960s, the cubicle was born, in its early form – the ‘Action Office’ furniture system designed by Robert Propst.

This allowed people to have space. It became more common for offices to be stylised and aesthetically pleasing, as collaboration became more valued and meetings more common. The principles behind this were human-centric; in a post-war period where business was booming and energy was high. 

By the 1970s and 1980s, however, Propst’s futuristic design had been repurposed into ‘cubicle culture’. In a New York Times article, the designer reflected in the year 2000, “Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them.” 

Moving on through the 90s and noughties to the modern day, space, wellbeing and employee needs have become increasingly more valued and considered in workplace design. But we haven’t seen as significant a movement as in the last few years, and even more so now, post-COVID. 

Our modern workplaces need not just satisfy employee needs and expectations, but excel them. We’re doing that already, by building workplaces not for the past, or present, but for the future.