Offices of the Past, Present & Future

Offices of the Past, Present & Future


One thing that’s changed enormously with the rise of computers, technology and the Internet is the office. As the nature of work has changed, so too has the workplace – and I wanted to explore how the world of work used to be, how it is today and what it might be like in the future.

My first stop was at the Early Office Museum, which has a fascinating range of photos of office life in the 1930s and 1940s.

Early Office[Above: http://www.officemuseum.com/photo_gallery_1930s_1940s.htm]

I find the above image fascinating – we’re used to a computer on every desk, but that would have – of course – been impossible 70 years ago. Instead you’d find typewriters – and interestingly enough, I suppose because so many things are written on paper, there’s also a lot more room devoted to the desk-space itself. As I write this, I’ve got a computer to my side, a keyboard in front of me and a screen behind that – there’s very little room for paper – but the image above shows almost a full desk’s worth of space is devoted to paper. Notice, also, the rack of pipes on the desk at the front – certainly something that is unlikely to be seen today!

Large Early Office[Above: http://www.officemuseum.com/photo_gallery_1930s_1940s.htm]

Often, people think that there was a stark contrast between the open-plan offices of today, with workplaces where almost everyone had their own seperate, isolated office 50 or so years ago – but that wasn’t always the case. Here we see an example of a huge, open-plan office – much bigger than any I’ve ever worked in. It’s a surprisingly odd sight to see such a large number of desks without a single computer on them, or any plug points or wires trailing anywhere.

Large Early Office[Above: http://www.officemuseum.com/photo_gallery_1930s_1940s.htm]

Here again is another example of the large open-office in action. One thing that’s fairly unusual is how everyone is seated in a row. Everyone seems to sit next to each other, facing forwards – nobody ever sits across from each other. That’s a surprisingly big difference between how many open plan offices of today are – where often teams of people will work in their own separate groups, instead of everyone working in rows.

Of course – the rise of computers, technology and new ways of working changed how offices were designed and arranged. Here’s a photo of something that a lot of people who worked in the 90s will recognise – cubicles.

Office Cubicles[Above: NicoleKlauss on Flickr]

The rise of cubicles was interesting – it was to afford a small amount of privacy for the inhabitants so that – amongst other things – people could have phone calls without distracting others, but it was also cheap to mass-install office layouts like this, and it made moving employees around easier. Cubicles aren’t – of course – particularly popular with employees themselves, and they’ve come to resemble a working environment that’s perhaps not as exciting as it could be. Many young businesses and startups have started to discover that they can attract the best talent and the best work by having exciting, vibrant and fun workplaces.

Facebook's Office[Above: http://design.printexpress.co.uk/creative-startup-offices/]

The photo above shows the offices of Facebook – which is just one of many successful startups that have embraced beautiful, spacious and interesting workplaces. Of course, not many offices are quite like this – but theirs points to a direction that a lot of young, creative companies are moving towards. Expensive and well thought-out offices like this aren’t just for show – they’ve been meticulously designed with functionality in mind. They’ve taken the best of offices over the years and left the worst, so there are meeting rooms that are enclosed where you can work if you need some quiet, private space, and there are wide open-office sections so you can get face time with your colleagues easily if you need to.

Dropbox's Office[Above: http://www.nextventured.com/2013/dropbox-office-tour/]

Here’s Dropbox’s office, which shows a similar design style to Facebook – meeting rooms and private areas when they’re needed, but a big emphasis on open-space, room to breathe and easy access to chat to your workmates. Google is another good example – their Mountain View office was designed to encourage serendipitous conversations in the hallway, so that engineers and product managers could talk to each other with no barriers in the way.

Airbnb's Office[Above: http://design.printexpress.co.uk/stylish-office-designs/]

It’s true too of Airbnb, the apartment rental startup – shown above. Their enormous level of success has allowed them to spend their money on building a beautiful, thoughtfully designed office that’s built with both beauty and function in mind.

And of course, there’s the question of what the office of the future will look like. Will the introduction of new technology, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, create an entirely new way of working? Will life end up like Minority Report?

Microsoft Hololens[Above: https://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-hololens/en-us]

I love the idea of futuristic technology like this changing how we work – and that future may seem like it’s held in the very distant sci-fi world, but it’s actually much closer than you might think. Microsoft’s Hololens (shown above) is a wearable headset that allows you to see and interact with virtual “holograms” – how this will change the everyday office is something that we’ll just have to wait and see.

One other thing that technology, and in particular the Internet and significantly faster broadband speeds, has brought with it is the ability to work remotely. Remote working has become much more commonplace, particularly in sectors like software engineering, and it’s a model that often proves successful. Could the office of the future be a home office? Only time can tell.

What do you think about the future of the workplace? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

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