The History of the Office … and Why it Matters for the Office of the Future
Recently, I was listening to a podcast from Marc Andreessen, who commented that there were no headquarters for the Roman Empire since people back then didn’t really have a need for offices.
I’m not sure that’s completely true. After all, the Romans did invent the business district, and there certainly needed to be a few offices in the palace for the white-collar workers of that era to keep records regarding trade, crop production, census, and other information.
What is certainly true, though, is that offices then as now, reflect, in radically different ways, how we work, communicate, and collaborate. Those factors have evolved over time and will continue to do so.
The Beginning and Middle Ages of Offices
Early offices seemed to be simply places of solitude in which to do solitary work – scribing, copying, accounting, and so on. We don’t get the sense that they were places of collaboration. They were shared worksites in locations that also housed records related to the kingdom and, later, commercial entities.
Eventually, those scribes and their peers did their work in locations meant primarily for information storage. It made sense to do the counting and ciphering in the location where that data, in the form of pages and scrolls, would be stored.
Then, as enterprises required more and more employees, these information storage-based offices also served as places of coordinated, overseen activity. As late as the mid-1900s, working in an office wasn’t so much for the sake of team building, planning, and problem-solving as it was for top-down communication, direction, and oversight.
With the advent of Cloud storage in the 1980s and 90s, the need for offices to serve as central information repositories became less compelling.
At the same time, influential business leaders like Peter Drucker were promoting the idea of employee empowerment and management delegation. These radical ideas ultimately led to less hierarchy within office environments, and offices began serving as ecosystems in which teams could collaborate and where innovation could be nurtured.
To accommodate this, at the turn of this century, office space began to look different, with increased shared space (including, unfortunately, cubicle farms) and open work environments, complete with the ubiquitous foosball tables, coffee bars, and bean bag chairs in rooms of solitude.
Communication Tech Changes Teams … and Offices
As businesses became more global, international organizations needed to remain in touch to coordinate and collaborate. With teams more geographically dispersed and thanks to improved interactive communication technology, co-location became less important. Offices connected with other offices and people connected with offices through teleconferences. Remember conference calls?
Video conferencing technology was actually developed in the mid-1900s (Bell’s Picturephone was demonstrated at the New York World’s Fair in 1964), but it was incredibly expensive and not terribly practical for widespread business use until the introduction of Skype and WhatsApp after the turn of the century.
Today’s popular video conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams emerged just in time – a few years before the pandemic.
The Great Scatter and Work from Home
At the outset of the pandemic, offices went dark, and organizations took full advantage of these communication tools as their employees transitioned to working from home. Whereas previously, these technologies were used primarily for connecting multiple offices or people to offices, now they are used to connect teams of individuals without any office.
It’s interesting to consider that video conferencing has led to physical isolation and, in too many cases, reduced emotional investment in a team’s shared purpose instead of drawing people and offices together.
Today, the future of the office stands at a crossroads. Will it survive as a place for workers and teams to work in a home away from home, or will offices completely fade away, leaving companies to devise other methods for developing cohesion and collaboration?
The answer is: “neither” and “both.” It will vary by company and employee and reflect the relative clout of each at any point in time.
What’s clear, though, is that offices will look different than they do now, trends that may have been underway prior to the pandemic but were sent into hyperdrive in the past several years.
Nine Visions of the Next Version of the Office
Given the historical evolution of the office from an information repository to a collaborative space and the pandemic-driven enhancements in intra-office communication/collaboration technology, what lies ahead for the future of the office?
- Most major companies will maintain headquarters and major regional offices. For many, an office is a part of their brand, as much as the Hollywood sign isn’t just there to tell us where we are but to conjure up the city’s unique aura.
- If they choose to, owners of desirable and trendy companies will be able to make tomorrow’s offices look a lot like the offices of five years ago. Elon Musk has reportedly told his Tesla employees they must work at least 40 hours each week in Tesla offices. Those who don’t want to comply can “pretend to work elsewhere,” he tweeted.
- Office vacancy rates will decline. During the pandemic, the pendulum swung well toward work-from-home-or-anywhere during the pandemic and remained there as defiant workers said they’d never go back. But the realities of today’s economic downturn are putting clout back in the hands of management.
- Many companies, unlike Tesla, will compromise and create hybrid office arrangements that combine days in the office with days outside the office. Days in the offices will feel more like a business trip – a chance to change scenery and stay in touch with colleagues and friends. Employees may be even less productive on those days due to these distractions.
- Most companies will have a smaller office footprint, thanks to desk sharing, hybrid schedules, and employees who will remain remote due to pandemic-era relocations.
- Offices will be reconfigured and rearranged. The pandemic may be over, but memories are long. Concentrated cubicle areas, for example, will feel dangerous – they’ll go the way of floppy disks, fax machines, pagers, and file cabinets. Offices will still have a common workspace but with plenty of elbow room.
- To compete with home offices and coffee shops, offices will feel a little more like both, with relaxed dress codes, flexible hours, and more on-site amenities.
- Some “offices” will exist solely in the Cloud. For example, my son works for GitLabs, the world’s largest fully remote company, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds.
- Owners will need to integrate emotional well-being considerations into their office space infrastructure and office activities. Our world has changed in the past three years – even beyond the impact of the pandemic – and it will be more important than ever to maintain an office that feels like a respite from the world.
In the future, fewer employees will work full time from offices. But these spaces will always be a part of corporate life in general, even as they continue to evolve to meet the needs of company leaders and, increasingly, their employees.