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Workplace History: The First Office Design

7 January, 2020

To understand where you’re going you have to know where you’ve been… Cheesy right? Yes, but not wrong. Which is why we’ve decided to sit down and write a series on the evolution of office design. We will begin with the very first office design, or at least the first conscious one. We will move through decades marked by torn down walls and a couple of setbacks...

Let’s start from the beginning 

There have been traces throughout the history of what could have been spaces where official work might have taken place. Could have, maybe, nobody knows for sure. Something we do know is that right before the industrial revolution broke loose, more specifically in 1726, the first office building was built in London. That building was the Old Admiralty Office. Because of the massive expansion of the British Empire and the increase in trade between them, and pretty much the rest of the world, they needed somewhere to keep all of the Royal Navy’s paperwork. So, they thought - why not throw in a boardroom and some meeting rooms to keep all that paperwork company? It turns out it was a good idea because that boardroom, also called the Admiralty Board Room, is still being used today. 

The need for space 

The Admiralty Office set off a chain reaction through London. More and more office buildings started popping up all through the 18th century. In connection to the construction of the Admiralty Office, the British government released a report stating:

for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it.

This means that the idea of different types of spaces for different needs and tasks was born back in 1726. Apparently, it’s been easier said than done to implement task specified office spaces since we’re all still working on it… 

A systematic approach

After this statement, a new model for efficiency in the workplace was created by Frederick Winslow Taylor, where a systematic approach was taken to the whole setup of the office. A bunch of desks were put in rows and isles were created between them. Managers would walk up and down the isles to control the workers and make sure they kept a certain pace. The main objective was to be as efficient as possible (Taylorism).

The interesting thing here is that we still look for the magic formula to be more efficient. Although we’ve come a lot further than treating our coworkers that way, of course. But the question is - what have we kept and what have we invented since then? And why? 

In the next part of this series we’ll talk about the invention and rise of the open floor plan. Something that set the trend for a long time to come. You’ll want to read that! 

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