Evolution of the Office Space

January 6, 2021

If you’ve ever watched  any TV shows from the 1950s and ’60s, you were probably struck by the unique style of the offices portrayed. With couches and bar carts as office decor, the office space was very different from what we’re accustomed to today.

The office space — including the accessories, technology, and furniture it holds — has evolved significantly over time, often reflecting changing attitudes and trends in the working culture. Even today with social distancing, the environments we work in are continuing to evolve in line with how we work.

In the examples below, discover how the office space has transformed over time — and find out how you can equip your workspace to meet the demands of modern office life. You may even find some office inspiration and decorating ideas that inspire you to make over your own workspace.

In this article:

Offices in Ancient Rome | 18th-Century Offices in Britain | The First Skyscraper Office: Chicago, 1884 | Early-1900s Taylorism: The First Open-Plan Office | 1930s Offices: All About Efficiency | Bürolandschaft | The Arrival of the “Action Office” and Women in the Workplace | Office Interior Design in the 1960s and 1970s | Introduction of the Cubicle “Farm” in the 1980s | 2000 and Beyond: From Pods to Open-Plan Spaces | The Modern Work-From-Home Office Space

Offices in Ancient Rome

The Romans are credited with inventing many essential elements of modern society, from roads to sewers. The word “office” even comes from the Latin word officium, used in ancient Rome to indicate the area where people performed administrative business.

Every Roman city had a business district, which was critical to helping the empire control and organize its far-reaching interests. The business district was organized around the forum, a central square surrounded by shops, businesses, and government offices. This practical arrangement allowed for efficient work and close contact between officials.

18th-Century Offices in Britain

In the 18th century, the British East India Company and the Royal Navy established modern office spaces to expand Britain’s overseas interests. The Old Admiralty Office was built for the Royal Navy in 1726, while the East India House was built in London in 1729. The architects followed the logic of Roman office design, centralizing administration by building offices around a single square to enhance efficiency.

These included many aspects of modern office structure still seen today. For example, in addition to individual offices, there was a large boardroom for meetings. Today, the Old Admiralty Office is called the Ripley Building, which still stands and houses the British Department for International Development.

The First Skyscraper Office: Chicago, 1884

The world’s first skyscraper office was erected in Chicago in 1884. The Home Insurance Building stood 10 stories tall, making it tiny by today’s standards. This ushered in a new age of office spaces, allowing large companies to make the most of a small space of land by building upward, not outward. Unfortunately, the “Father of the Skyscraper” was demolished in 1931.

Skyscrapers allowed workforces to expand. With the Home Insurance Building, 10 times as many people could occupy the same land area as a single-story building covering the same amount of ground. As the exterior layout of office spaces evolved, so did the interior. Instead of centralizing around an open square, life moved indoors.

Other modern achievements, like electric lighting, played into this transition. With electricity, the need for windows to let in natural light decreased. Offices also had to accommodate new tools, like typewriters, telegraph machines, and, later, telephones. Furniture like office desks had to be tailored accordingly.