The evolution of the office; from open plan to open mind

A hundred years ago, rows of workers sat close enough for their shoulders to touch. Later, we entered the dark age of cubicle working. Now, we’re starting to see offices controlled by decentralised artificial intelligence (AI). “The office” is no longer a drab building where you go and get strapped into a desk. Modern office spaces are living hives of creative thinking, collaborative working and innovation. But it’s not always been that way.

 

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax complex, which opened in 1939, recognised, as we do, the value of good lighting.

We’ve come a long way, baby

Evidence suggests the first offices appeared in ancient Rome and were home to many history-making decisions. But let’s skip forward a little.

In the early-20th century, as an office worker you would have found yourself in something like an open-plan office. They didn’t have cushy couches or WIFI, though. They were generally one large room where every employee was crammed in. The goal was maximum efficiency, with rows of desks providing easy oversight for managers. But they were terrible for morale, and we know now that employee satisfaction is crucial to success.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax complex, which opened in 1939, recognised, as we do, the value of good lighting. Bright and warm spaces were intended to create a more comfortable environment for staff. Offices built around this time began to account for acoustics, too, absorbing sound with materials like wood and cork. Designers working around this time clearly understood the impact ambience can have on employees.

 

An accidental cubicle

After World War II, economies affected by recession looked for other ways to bring their workers together. The 60s was a time of action and forward-thinking, and this was reflected in less rigid workplaces. They were open-plan, but they had started to recognise the need for other types of spaces, introducing small private offices alongside a main work area. These ‘action offices’ were based on the idea that an employee’s productivity might be linked to their environment, and so were intended to encourage people to move around, feel included and therefore work better.

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By the 1960s they had started to recognise the need for other types of spaces, introducing small private offices alongside a main work area.

The action office evolved and re-evolved, eventually relying on workers to create their own personalised spaces within a three-sided divided area. Yes, the same three walls we recognise today as a cubicle. In its mission to make a personalised workspace for everyone, it inadvertently bundled workers into silos. The addition of fluorescent track lighting made sitting at a desk a too-bright, headache-inducing nightmare, separated by partitions that discouraged conversation and interaction.

 

The rise of digital technology

It wasn’t until the 1990s, with the advent of the internet and mobile networks that we started to shift back to an open-plan idea. With space-age devices like colour laptops and handheld PDAs, workers were suddenly mobile. We ditched typewriters and replaced them with 9600-baud modems and low-resolution monitors. Once again, offices became a place for engagement and productivity, pulling economies out of recession and into a brave new digital world.

Today, more than ever, technology is shaping our workspaces. As many as 68% of Australian employers now offer remote working options, and globally 68% of employees work remotely at least once a month. Companies are spread across multiple workforces around the world. We can teleconference, work on collaborative documents, store everything in the cloud and even send email from our fridges.

Convergence of data delivers smarter, more integrated buildings where different layers of technology and sensors are linked together to deliver a building which seamlessly responds to us, and learns from us.

 

Now our office spaces adapt to us

All of this means that offices are people-led now, more than they ever have been. They’re not simply one central location where everyone goes to work. The world’s best offices accommodate every kind of employee, whether they are always in the building, on the road or working from their loft. Now, they are a hub, an activity centre and a place where ideas are born.

The technology driving them has evolved to become autonomous. Smart offices incorporate data and machine learning into their design, with central or mesh networks connecting devices that control everything from responsive smart-lighting to heating and even real-time responsive maintenance. Today’s office has become more intelligent, predicting what needs to happen to keep employees at their most comfortable, so they can do their best work.

For some of us, “going to the office” now means heading to well-focused facilities that reflect our needs as humans. Through responsive lighting, we are treated to the perfect ambient conditions. Ubiquitous sensors know when we’re leaving or entering a room and can have it ready at our ideal temperature. Location alerts help us find teammates, use spaces more efficiently and save on unnecessary energy costs.

 

The technology can come with us

The Internet of Things (IoT) now lets us connect all of this together. The lighting in our office can be controlled by our wearables or other smart devices. We can ask a voice search at home to order supplies for our meeting tomorrow. The technology itself can look at what we have done before and predict what we need before we know we need it.

Soon you might enter a workplace that will know who you are as you walk up and will open the front door for you, advise you where your first meeting is located, and guide you along your way.

All of this data can be shared with other building systems or integrated building networks, or even made available to the cloud, opening up even more possibilities through Artificial Intelligence and data analytics platforms. This convergence of data, delivers smarter, more integrated buildings where these different layers of technology and sensors are linked together to deliver a building which seamlessly responds to us, and learns from us. Like climbing into a car that knows your preferred seat position, soon you might enter a workplace that will know who you are as you walk up and will open the front door for you, advise you where your first meeting is located, and guide you along your way with an easy to follow map.

Ancient Rome might have had innovative aqueducts, but they couldn’t have imagined a modern office space. As businesses have learned the value of their people and looked to understand their needs, approaches to office design have drastically changed. At the same time, technology and culture shifts have made it increasingly possible to create personalised workspaces – all to give people the best possible environment so they can do their best work.