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Workplace History: What went wrong?

27 January, 2020

So far we’ve talked about the very first office design, the rise and (almost) fall of the open floor plan and the creation and destruction of the cubicle. As you can probably tell, the history of office design depicts a pattern of similar outcomes over and over again. New ideas and designs are released on the market and faster than we can say “cubicle” it’s all been turned upside down. How come?

For almost two centuries now people have been working in office environments. And for two centuries it’s been a struggle to figure out how to organize these offices to create the optimal space for the work that takes place there. Which makes you wonder… 

What is the problem?

Well, from the beginning the issue with the first office design clearly revolved around the fact that the employee was completely ignored when creating the design. The conditions were inhumane and the offices stiff and uncomfortable. When we started to rely on science and actually investigate what people need in an office... things changed. New designs entered the market, the open floor plan and the action office for example.

But all of these designs were basically abused and deformed into money-saving ratholes (as Probst would call them). People were crammed together into small spaces and the sound level became unbearable. There is clearly an issue in losing yourself on the journey towards maximized cost savings or profit. 

Let’s break it down

To make things clear, let’s go through each philosophy behind our historic office design and look at what actually went wrong in the implementation.

The American plan: if you ask us (or anyone really) this would never last. The American plan was made out by total control from management and the layout was copied from the factories. This meant that the workers were pushed to their limits and with today’s health standards you would all be terrified by the ruling standards. The big surprise isn’t the demise of this plan but rather the amount of time it was relevant.

The bürolandschaft: the office landscape was the first step after the open floor plan. As mentioned in an earlier article, the bürolandschaft placed desks in groups divided by departments. It also meant dragging the managers out on the floor as well with the goal to create a flatter organization. This was the reason bürolandschaft didn’t last too long. Organizations with clear hierarchies went back to the desks in a row-design. Although, we are seeing a clear comeback of the Bürolandschaft design now in the 21st century.

The Action Office: isn’t this just a sad story? The first version of the Action Office seemed to be perfect. It offered the employee freedom even though everything was still stationary back then. That version was thrown away pretty quickly at the sight of the price tag. But the second version, remember? With the cubicles? It had a good 20-year run but in the end, it pretty much led to depression. Employees felt they were too impersonal and soul-crushing. So, in the nineties, we went back to the open floor plan. 

Is there a solution?

There is. We’re not saying companies need to spend all that they have or totally ignore the cost issue. We’re simply saying do your research, collect your data and talk to your coworkers. By doing that thoroughly you will end up saving money, time and the wellbeing of your coworkers. 

By making these type of solid preparations before designing or changing your office you will understand what kind of space the staff needs, which will reduce lost time and money by not making errors. You will increase their wellbeing by giving them what they need and foremost a choice. And you will reduce cost by only creating spaces that will actually be used. We understand that as managers you have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. But right there at the top of all of them, you need to put your coworkers. 

Next time we’re taking on modern workplace design and depicting the future! You don’t want to miss that!

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