Offices have been present in one form or another since ancient times. They have rapidly transformed in the past few decades, right alongside technological advancement and the new era of globalization. How their functions and equipment work together is instrumental in the efficiency and success of any business. Offices evolve so swiftly, every generation has its own iconic workplace experiences.
The ‘80s and the Cubicle Farm
Open plan offices prevailed in the first half of the 20th century all the way up to the Taylorism trend of the ‘50s. Robert Propst, the father of the modern-day cubicle, believed modular autonomous environments would achieve more freedom and productivity. In the ‘60s, he designed the revolutionary Action Office series of workstation furniture and movable wall dividers.
The ‘80s corrupted Propst’s ideas, giving birth to the Cubicle Farm. Businesses wanted to give employees their own dedicated spaces, but in the cheapest way possible. Propst later expressed his disapproval of the “barren, rat-hole places.” The dystopian Cubicle Farm exacerbated the idea that managers were more concerned about the bottom line than employee prosperity, which spawned tons of satire about corporate drudgery.
Gizmos circa the ‘80s
Typewriters were quickly replaced by word processors and crude computers, while data was transferred through 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. The ‘80s also saw the introduction of low-cost laser printers and the prevalence of fax machines. Rotary phone dials gave way to push buttons, and the first mobile phones came on the market. They were chunky bricks with thick, big antennae, but utterly miraculous at the time nonetheless. ‘80s technology was unwieldy and funky. Today, there’s nostalgia for yesteryear’s comical inventions, but back then, they were mind-blowing and cutting-edge.
The ‘90s and the Dot-Com Bubble
The most significant ‘90s development was the Internet and its World Wide Web. People from all over the globe grew increasingly connected, and more information was shared than ever before. Countless Internet upstarts rode the wave of this boom and wiped out hard in the subsequent Dot-Com Bubble. Their offices were progressive and quirky—blurring the lines between work and play. This hip mindset persisted in many of the fun, dynamic offices we see today.
The early ‘90s recession pushed multinationals to erect gargantuan facilities in industrial parks, away from city centers. Virtual offices popped up to offset costs when telecommuting and outsourcing was made possible. Updated open plan offices applied the novel hot-desking trend, in which workers had to constantly move to different desks. Hot-desking intended to enable flexibility and collaboration, but workers felt less grounded and invested without spaces to call their own.
Tech from the ‘90s
For the first time, personal computers were staples of middle-class households and flip phones became hot commodities. Early tablets, in the form of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) with styluses, were used by diligent businessmen. Intranet LANs and WANs streamlined and consolidated office operations throughout the world. Data was ubiquitously stored and exchanged via 3 1/2-inch floppy disks, with zip drives emerging in the late ‘90s. Presentations were still done using slide or transparency projectors, but more projection systems emerged as compatible with computers. The ‘90s expanded on the technological innovations of the ‘70s and ‘80s, solidifying society’s direction towards mobile connectivity.
The 2000s and Digital Globalization
Offices of ad agencies, design firms, and other creative industries started taking on more casual styles in the 2000s. They relaxed dress codes and acquired homier decor to enhance the comfort of employees who spent long hours on highly specialized work. These offices encouraged the personalization of workstations and featured informal, multi-purpose meeting rooms that saved money and space. The open plan office made a comeback, despite its significant flaws, as a rejection of the bleak Cubicle Farm. Workers frequently complained about the distracting cacophony and lack of privacy that cursed open plan offices. People were more likely to be interrupted without the need to schedule appointments, knock on doors, or wait at the behest of secretaries.
Gadgets of the 2000s
The first digital natives entered the workforce—armed with new gadgets, their very own cell phones, and the uncanny ability to type on tiny keypads at lightning speeds. They exchanged data on re-writable CDs or USB hard drives, wielded graphic tablets, and navigated the Internet with an effortlessness that struck elders with awe. Touchscreen computers and interactive whiteboards went mainstream, while collaborative groupware flooded businesses. The Internet provided affordable international communication, so meetings were often held through video conferencing… Wider access was made possible through mass investments into the expansion of telecom infrastructure across the world. People became more interconnected, and so did their devices. Data smoothly flowed via wireless radio technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The 2010s and the Millennial Workforce
Some companies considered activity-based working as a solution to open plan problems. This concept presents workers with separate, open offices they can choose from according to their specific tasks and preferred working styles. The different spaces range from high-tech suites packed with IT equipment to quiet, comfortable lounges. Activity-based working hopes to facilitate uninterrupted focus with the ability to switch between intimate, private spaces and flexible, social environments. Unfortunately the system can keep the negative effects of hot-desking: distraction, marginalization, identity loss, indifference, and wasted time during moves.
Tech-savvy millennials joined the rat race. They are creative and motivated, but harbor stronger personal desires. Many millennials prefer telecommuting from co-working spaces or home, and some disaffected youngsters trade structured corporate routines for digital nomadic lifestyles. Millennials typically seek heightened work-life balance and harbor disdain for harsh capitalist realities and their inherent financial disadvantages. Management style affects their wellbeing more so than office layout and decor. It’s why companies started shifting their priorities to increasing the satisfaction and loyalty of millennial employees. These firms try to one-up each other in the areas of thoughtful design, environmental sustainability, mentorship, corporate responsibility, fitness, wellness, and mental health.
The Internet of Things in the 2010s
Wireless technology saw the explosion of mobile apps and peak smart phone ownership. An astounding number of business apps are available for various functions, including accounting, collaboration, sales tracking, e-commerce, and sending faxes online. While storing data on the Internet was prevalent by the ‘90s, current cloud technology allows regular users to conveniently store and access larger amounts of data online.
Many companies are going completely wireless and manufacturers are rushing to provide them with the means. Wireless display connectivity allows mobile devices to stream on projectors without the need for cables. The “bring your own devices” (BYOD) concept gives workers additional autonomy, but results in additional security issues for IT departments. Wireless docking systems allow people to seamlessly integrate their own laptops with the electronic peripherals of workstations. Some brands now also offer wireless charging products.
The Past, Present, and Future of Office Technology
Photocopy machines, scanners, and laser printers have remained mainstays at offices around the world. Indispensable function never goes out of style. However, no one can deny that the way we connect has drastically changed in fundamental ways. Disruptive technologies like virtual reality, cryptocurrencies, automation, biometrics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence will further alter the future workplace in ways we can only imagine. Organizations and designers are aware of these shifting trends, determined to develop transformative spaces and useful technologies that cater to the values of the next-generation workforce.
Palm PDA – Wikimedia creative commons
Home Office and Cubicles – pixabay creative commons
Guest Author Bio
Charlotte is a long time food industry professional, and now a stay at home mom of two. She loves sharing natural recipes, gardening tips and creative foodie advice with the world.