February 1, 2024
The fact that the need for designated workspaces hasn’t disappeared but has instead evolved over the years truly fascinates us. The humble office has seen paper trails and filing cabinets disappear and screens become the norm - but just how has it happened?
It’s no secret that the offices our parents and even our grandparents may remember differ wildly to the ones we find ourselves in today, so we’re taking a look at the offices of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
To understand the stark difference between offices of the past, and the working environments we’re looking at today, we need to take a trip down memory lane. Or just a trip down the lane; some of us won’t even really know what offices of old used to look like. The culture difference might stop you taking flatscreen monitors and the smoking ban for granted…
We’ll start with the offices of the 80s; we’d recommend popping some Madonna on to get yourself in the zone. We’re starting here because the 80s was when offices began to resemble the ones we’re familiar with now, in the sense that the Personal Computer (PC) started to become commonplace. Until then, screen-less office cubicles were more or less the norm, separating each worker and generating an eye watering amount of paperwork.
Now, in the era of backcombed hair, leg warmers and MTV, the office took on a new look: open plan. It was thought that this would be a step in the right direction for eliminating harmful office hierarchies, both ‘materially and spatially’.
Whilst the term ‘open plan’ may initially conjure up the sleek, roomy offices were cognise in the 21st century, the reality was different. The PC was still a large, heavy piece of kit, the desk phone was still something you didn’t pickup so much as wield clumsily, and most administration was still almost exclusively paper based, which meant overflowing in-trays and a painful need for filing.
The result of all this is a cluttered working space with zero portability, so office employees were as chained to their desks as they always had been - they just had more tech to play with while they were there.
However, a taster of office environments to come was made by a little more freedom in personal expression; the strictly business attire that had dominated offices thus far was eased up on during the 80s, with business casual becoming more the norm - think shirts with no ties and more casual tops paired with smart trousers and skirts.
To see all this, you’d have to, in many cases, peer through the smoke. Smoking cigarettes was still a popular way to pass the working day back in the early 80s, which is somewhat unthinkable now. However, the harmful effects of smoking, not to mention the smell, were becoming more widely acknowledged throughout this decade, which saw an introduction of ‘smoking lounges’ in many large corporate spaces, to try and limit the workplace puffing.
To indulge ourselves a little, we asked AI programme Chat GPT (a concept that we imagine would blow the minds of 1980s office workers) to conjure an image of an office in the 1980s. Here’s what it came up with:
Imagine the excitement when the cumbersome machines set up on desks around the world became able to communicate with each other. This was the reality of working in an office in the 1990s, when a brand-new colleague introduced themselves as the World Wide Web. This ability to connect to a network revolutionised working practices, but whilst it did wonders for business, the office-scape remained largely unchanged; computers were still, for want of a better word, massive.
In the spirit of connection and collaboration, businesses kept up with their approach to open plan spaces, which has proved to be enduring even today. Whilst the computers didn’t take up any less space, offices began to be designed around them a bit better, making them the focal point as more and more of the day was spent on them.
While the impact of Britpop and Girl Power influenced this decade of dress, the office outfit moved further away from its stuffy beginnings too; women could wear a wider variety of outfits, and many men chose to shun the tie altogether.
It’s worth pointing out something of the obvious here; everyone working in an office role still needed to work within a central office throughout the latter half of the 20th century, and well into the 21st. This is significant because more people in the room meant far more noise than we’re used to today. If you worked next to a sales team, for example, you’d need concentration of steel; those guys don’t stop talking until they’ve got a deal.
If you’re wondering where we’d got to with smoking, it was marginally more socially unacceptable in offices than it was in the 80s. Many businesses implemented a ban within their offices, or more harshly enforced the use of smoking lounges. Smaller enterprises still lit up frequently though, and it wasn’t against the law…yet.
Hello new century! Once the fireworks had finished, a wild ride of big changes within the office environment began - and there were even more offices themselves popping up thanks to the ‘dot com boom’ that led to an increase in technology companies. This appealed particularly to the young and ambitious, birthing awork hard, sleep-when-you’re-dead working culture that we’re still trying to shake today.
Offices themselves changed to reflect shifting technological advances such as smaller PCs, the emergence of the ‘laptop’, and quicker internet connections. Desks no longer had to be huge, individual affairs, and could instead be more like long benches along which teams could sit, and, in theory, collaborate. It took awhile to reduce the reliance on paper though (those old enough to remember will recall, somewhat fondly, a daily fight with the printer), so filing cabinets and in-trays were still widely found on desktops around the world.
The mobile telephone became less of an exclusive accessory and more of a (large)pocket staple, making it much easier to communicate with field sales teams, for example. The rate at which technology evolved throughout this decade, though(and those that have followed it), means that mobile phones looked completely different by the end than they did at the beginning, with the first iPhone being launched in 2007. BlackBerrys, too, allowed workers to be more connected to their office whilst away from it, with emails available at the touch of a button.
It wasn’t just the iPhone that made 2007 a significant year for office culture; July 1st in particular was a big date, as it heralded the start of the smoking ban. From this date forward, smoking inside public buildings, including offices, was banned in the UK. This cleared the air in the office, though it conversely created a time-wasting excuse to nip outside for a cigarette and a chat with colleagues.
With laptop computers now firmly ingrained in UK working culture, some remote work becomes more popular as we head into the century’s second decade. This idea that we can still be productive whilst working somewhere other than the traditional office is somewhat revolutionary, particularly to the younger business owners working in the tech space.
It’s these ‘start ups’ that prompt a rise in relaxed, collaborative office culture too, all casual-dress, after-work socials and trendy table football areas to provide brain breaks. Gone are the days of big computers squeezed in around fax machines, piles of paper and enormous desk phones; the office of the 2010sbecomes about minimalism, collaboration, and the idea that work can look a little different to how it used to.
This flexibility we’ve mentioned prompted a rise in ‘co-working spaces’ in the2010s, made famous by companies set up to facilitate it, such as WeWork(launched in 2010), which featured hot desks, a fast internet connection, and tea and coffee facilities. This enabled people, regardless of who they worked for, to work in an office environment at a time and place that suited them.
These spaces made the ‘gig economy’ more possible too; freelancers had somewhere they could do deep work and hold meetings without the outlay of a whole office. Working on your own terms was becoming easier.
Ultimately, office design and culture can be split into two eras: before COVID, and after COVID. Whilst technology changes how we do our jobs, nothing has changed where we do them quite like the global pandemic of 2020. Suddenly, being crammed into a room for 8 hours a day with all your colleagues was not only outdated, but almost off the table completely.
Pretty much overnight (between 23rd March and 24th March in the UK, to be exact),businesses had to find it within themselves to not only supply their employees with what they needed to work from home (laptops, phones, headsets etc), but to trust them, too.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home, and of those who did some work from home,86.0% did so as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Video calls, Slack or Microsoft Teams chats, and lunch breaks in your own kitchen became the norm.
In the months and years that followed, it was widely believed that offices would never be the same again; in fact, were offices even necessary at all?
Whilst there are companies that took to remote working like ducks to water and still operate ‘remote first’, in 2022 and 2023 we began to see businesses wanting to see their teams at least some of the time.
The big boys, in fact, were the first to start asking. Amazon did so by stating a list of reasons why in-person was better than remote working. X (formerly Twitter) owner Elon Musk scrapped the platform’s work from home policy, and, more surprisingly, Zoom implemented a ‘structured hybrid approach’ which instructed employees living within 50 miles (80km) of an office to work in person at least twice a week. Hybrid working is defined as a portion of the week spent in the office, with the rest of the time spent working remotely.
In a study by Travel Perk, it was reported that ‘over 40%of survey respondents claim that their companies have shifted to a hybrid model since the global pandemic’ in the UK. This means that some semblance of the office culture we’ve explored in this article remains, but it’s blended with the working-from-home set up that we were forced into in 2020.
With hybrid working now a popular model, let’s look at the impact of it. There are pros, and there are cons:
There’s no denying that we hadn’t really realised that our work life balance was impacted by the office until we were told we couldn’t go there. Things like going to the gym on your lunch break, grabbing the kids from school, and walking the dog straight afterwork all became possible when working from home. In fact, 43% of respondents in the Travel Perk survey reported a better work life balance through hybrid working.
We’ve also been able to save money while working at least a portion of our weeks from the comfort of our own home; fuel, fancy lunches, and public transport costs have been greatly reduced by not having to leave the house to do our jobs. Every little helps in the cost of living crisis!
Employees aren’t the only ones saving money; with reduced overheads and downsizing made possible by hotdesking (thoroughly cleaned between uses, of course), businesses can, in theory, invest more in their staff.
Fewer distractions, such as loud office chatter and long and unnecessary meetings, can also impact productivity; being able to get your head down at home can be so much easier than if you’re surrounded by colleagues.
Whilst contact has to be partly online in a hybrid model, it allows a best-of-both worlds scenario in which you can still maintain relationships with your co-workers and feel part of a team, but also protect some peace and energy at home.
Many would say nothing bonded them with their colleagues better than being forced to spend 40 hours (or more)of their week in a room with them. The change in this culture that hybrid working has brought about, therefore, has meant a certain loss of community, and a disconnection with colleagues that could be perceived as negatively impacting their work. Certainly, different schedules and an increased reliance on tech reduces that natural collaboration, and those lightbulb moments that can often only be achieved through chat.
Then, there’s the potential for it to negatively impact work life balance. Having access to your working life at home can mean it’s harder to switch off, easier to overwork, and you’re far more contactable. Out of the office? No worries, they can get you on your mobile. Anxious about how your team is getting on whilst you’re on annual leave? Let’s quickly check. Got a lot on? Why not put those early mornings, commutes, and evenings to ‘good use’. Not well enough to come into the office? That’s fine - just work through the pain at home.
There’s also an argument to highlight the space remote and hybrid working leaves for a ‘toxic’ working environment to thrive outside of the office. US Corporate Culture expert Donald Sull and his colleagues defined a toxic workplace culture as ‘disrespectful, non inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and/or abusive’. The blur between work and home can certainly give rise to feeling impacted by those things in your own home - hardly healthy. Think micromanaging, bullying by stealth, and isolation.
We’ve talked about how our approach to offices has changed since COVID, but how, specifically, have offices themselves changed to reflect this? These are some of the trends that have emerged post-pandemic:
The COVID-19 has shown that changes can be made by businesses to protect and improve the health and wellbeing of employees, so it’s no surprise that there’s now more awareness of ways in which offices can be made more comfortable. Being able to work remotely in itself can open up roles to individuals with a disability or neurodiversity, who may otherwise have been excluded from the typical office.
For example, these are some of the ways that an office can be made more productive, as well as a nice place to be on the days you’re required to be there:
The comparative silence of working through the pandemic contrasts harshly against the noisy offices of old. In fact, the University of Cambridge reported within a study that looked into the impacts of workplace office noise that background office noise‘ did not reduce immediate cognitive task performance compared to the quieter environment, but it did reduce psychological well-being’. Immediate task performance may not be impacted, but working under reduced psychological well-being doesn’t exactly make for productive working.
It’s now generally accepted that peace and quiet is required for both focused work and important meetings, which makes acoustic partitions and suspended ceilings helpful for absorbing unwanted chatter.
If there’s one thing COVID taught us, it’s what 2 metres feels like - and anything closer now feels a little too cosy. With less need to all cram into offices at once and with little collective desire to do so. you’ll find open plan to mean something a little more spacious these days, with ample room between monitors.
Ergonomic working set ups designed to reduce back, neck and wrist strain aren’t brand new, but stand up desks are, relatively speaking. In a time where getting out and about was limited, walking pads became popular as a way to get your steps in whilst working from home, and so desks that accommodate this became a must-have. They can often be lowered too, making them ideal to cater to wheelchair-using staff.
The harsh overhead strip lights of the old-school offices that we talked about earlier aren’t all that nice to spend all day under, and are considered headache and eyestrain fodder by many. Therefore, sensitive and adjustable LEDs that simulate natural light can improve the mood of employees, reduce eye strain, and make it a lot easier to concentrate.
Research completed in 2014 by University of Exeter found that enriching a ‘lean’ office with plants could increase productivity by 15%. In our experience, it’s true that both large and small indoor plants can brighten up an office as well as separate areas of an open place space. They improve air quality too!
With the office portion of your hybrid week now coming with added pressure to make the most of face-to-face interaction with your colleagues, there’s an increased appetite for collaborative spaces.
This doesn’t necessarily refer to meeting rooms and boardrooms - those still feel a little claustrophobic and stuffy having worked from home for a while. No, we’re talking about ‘break out’ spaces, adding homely touches to make staff feel more at ease while they share ideas, using comfortable seating, and plenty of those plants that we mentioned.
While the evolution of technology leaves a healthy gap for the unexpected to become the norm, we’re already seeing some trends pursued that we think will become customary in modern offices.
In the spirit of flexibility that the now popular hybrid working model promotes, offices need to adapt to the needs of different numbers of people being in the office on different days. For team days, everyone’s on site, but on others, just small groups of people are in the office working together. So how can office furniture and room layouts adapt? The answer is modular furniture.
This includes sofas that can be moved around to suit different numbers of staff in the office, lounge chairs with desk attachments, acoustically protected booths, and desks that are easily separated. There could also be an increase in the use of lockers, as desks are no longer the set-in-stone personal zones that they once were.
Let’s face it, one of the perks of working from home during the pandemic was our proximity to our own kettle; communal kitchens just aren’t the same. In order to make offices nicer places to be, we may see the introduction of coffee stations or kiosks, complete with their own barista, popping up in larger offices. This goes beyond the vending machine, for mid-morning treats, and somewhere to head for when colleagues get together on the days that they’re in the office.
Trends that are backed hard by what is arguably the UK’s best known office-based development, Canary Wharf, are ones that other businesses can confidently explore too. One such example is the ‘green spine’ that has been proposed within Canary Wharf’s Middle Dock. The idea behind this is to give office workers quick access to a natural environment during the working day, and would feature ‘new public spaces, extensive planting, biodiversity initiatives and water activation’.
Obviously, whilst this is a fantastic idea, it’s not an easy one for smaller office complexes to implement, let alone individual units. However, the concept can be adapted. Harvard Business Review conducted a study in the US that found that ‘experiencing even small doses of nature at work improved the way employees felt in ways that fuelled higher task performance, increased helping, and enhanced creativity’. This exposure to nature could range from ‘micro’ forms, such as potted plants and ‘living walls’, to larger initiatives such as roof terraces - just like Google’s planned rooftop garden designed for employees to enjoy.
With the benefits of nature on mental health clear to see, and with an awareness of the importance of employee wellbeing set to last, offices of the future are likely to be designed to include more greenery and fresh air than they once were.
Workplace rights body ACAS describes accessibility at work as ‘about removing barriers to make sure disabled people can take an active part inworking life. Employers should make sure their workplace, and the way they work, is accessible to as many people as possible. This is on top of the legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff and job applicants.’
It’s fair to say that the bare minimum is no longer enough; disabled and neurodiverse staff expect to see their needs met in the very least in order for them to do their jobs; ideally, they’d like their expectations to be exceeded.
With companies such as Hive Home making it easy to control energy use within the home from a smartphone, it makes sense that such clever tech can be extrapolated to office spaces. Business owners are looking for ways to make their offices not only more efficient (both in an energy sense and in a budget sense), but also better for employee well being too.
Therefore, we can expect to see elements such as climate control, air quality, energy efficiency and lighting intelligently controlled by technology - or at least remotely by the boss!
Smart tech feeds into sustainability, but sustainable office design is about more than that; it’s about making the fixtures and fittings work for the planet as much as possible too. This includes:
Solar power has become a more popular feature in homes in the last 10-20 years, so we should expect to see commercial buildings following suit.
Offices will be designed with, or switch to, LED lighting, which are 80-90% efficient compared to their incandescent predecessors. The PIR sensors ensure that they’re only in use when they’re needed, too.
Bamboo, mushroom leather and sustainable timber are all materials that are likely to crop up as the office fit-out industry seeks to make the stuff of business more sustainable. Of course, furniture, carpet and even hard fixtures such as window frames can all be made out of recycled materials too.
Offices are likely to be built with bigger windows, to flood the room with natural daylight to improve wellbeing, and cut down on energy usage during the day.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are likely to be under scrutiny to ensure they’re as energy efficient as possible.
Ensuring that the building itself is built sustainable is something many businesses may not feel they have control over. However, when choosing an office, BREEAM accreditation indicates that the building meets sustainability goals and will continue to perform optimally into the future.
In offices of the future, we’re likely to see sustainability policies hammered home to employees a little harder, and carbon neutrality become the ultimate aim for any business.
In a world that’s working to afford employees more flexibility, save the planet, and carry on creating thriving businesses at the same time, hybrid seems the way to go. Remote first will still be a ‘thing’ for a few businesses (particularly those in the tech space), but most employers would like to get the best of both worlds in terms of happy employees with high morale, and the benefits that instant, spontaneous interaction in-person can spark.
To keep your corporate space moving with the times, and being the kind of place talented individuals want to spend at least a portion of their week, taking heed of some of the trends we’ve mentioned above will stand you in good stead.
Of course, here at Spacelink we’d always emphasise the importance of a high quality office fit out, which includes, in particular, the acoustic structural elements such as office partitioning that keep the office calm and peaceful.
No one saw COVID-19 coming, and the difference it made to offices across the world was truly astounding. Whatever comes next for workplaces, we’ll be keeping our finger firmly on the pulse, and ensuring that those who want to adapt their offices can do so with confidence.