How office spaces are changing for the better

Since the Industrial Revolution, offices have shifted from crowded open spaces to monotonous cubicles back to hipper open spaces, in a never-ending quest to foster productivity, boost creativity and spread collaborations between team members. But has it ever worked? And what does the future office space look like?

At the peak of the First Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th century, office spaces were almost entirely designed to foster productivity: new manufacturing processes had just birthed machines that helped automate production and workers’ first mission was to be efficient.

Workers were often timed with a stopwatch to measure efficiency and productivity.

US mechanical engineer and management consultant Frederick W Taylor had an idea: to design an office like a big open space, with minimalist decor and zero extravagance, focused on systematising work processes. The model left little time and space for craftsmanship and creativity, and a lot of time for repetitiveness, impersonality and mental boredom.

Taylorism was born and the concept went on to shape working spaces for most of the 19th century, fronting many soulless open spaces, with desks lined up next to each other and crammed humans hunched over their work, while their bosses monitored from closed offices upstairs. Workers were often timed with a stopwatch to measure efficiency and productivity.


At the turn of the 20th century, new technology and electricity revolutionised lifestyle and working spaces, spreading neon lights and air conditioning over natural air and green spaces; thankfully, a few years later, social changes began and a new wave of designers started to rethink working spaces to integrate an emerging female workforce, the need for more flexibility, and more interactions.

depending on someone’s needs, offices are adjustable, with screens for privacy and bigger rooms and open areas for collaborations.

In 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright created the now iconic office space at Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, taking into consideration the well-being of the building’s occupants. A field of “lily pads”, dendriform columns swimming in natural light, carefully thought-out desks with wide spaces in between that allowed for fluidity, semi-privacy and teamwork led the way for streamlined offices.

In the late 1950s, the Bürolandschaft movement– which considered office space as a social affair – pushed forward the concept of office design fluidity, where the comfort of workers goes hand in hand with options for office configuration: depending on someone’s needs, offices are adjustable, with screens for privacy and bigger rooms and open areas for collaborations. The Schnelle brothers, behind the movement, worked in their father’s furniture shop and wanted to offer a more flexible and adaptable office space and a counter-solution to the rigidity of Taylorism.

In America, Robert Propst, a designer and director of the research division of furniture company Herman Miller, created the first modular office system, dubbed ‘Action Office’, which was the precursor of the cubicle.

However, the original concept was stretched and transformed, and soon screens turned into the cheap and light walls of tiny offices, and workspaces grew into cubicle farms, identical and impersonal booths with little opportunity for interactions and inspiration.

Office spaces have moved from monotonous cubicles to today’s agile working environments.

Today, office spaces are influenced by people’s continuous access to connectivity, increased mobility, high technology and a greater awareness of the impact that buildings have on our environment and life. In an article from Issue 75 of 360º, headlined New Work. New Rules. the authors, the team at Steelcase, a US-based manufacturer of furniture for offices, hospitals, and classrooms that also sells in South Africa, talk about “the Agile Revolution – agile teams structure their work into a sequence of activities that guide them to execute quickly, monitor progress and readjust workflow. These teams constantly shift between modes of work, working alone and together as the task demands.”

Indeed, collaborative office spaces are the 21st century’s signature; co-working spaces are on the rise, not only in the US but also in South Africa where people can now have access to boardrooms, desks and individual offices with greater ease and flexibility than when renting their own independent private space.

Balance is a key term in the creation of modern office spaces: they need to be about freedom of movement as much as privacy...

More traditional offices have also transformed into hybrid spaces, that fit not only the needs and core values of a company, but also cater for the comfort, safety and happiness of its employees, singular individuals who occasionally come together to collaborate, challenging the saying that “there’s no ‘i’ in team”.

Julie Barnhart-Hoffman, principal, WorkSpace Futures at Steelcase, notes, “Learning happens by being connected to one another, by overhearing and overseeing, which seems counter to all the negatives we hear about open offices. This is how we capture multiple points of view and embed learning within the process. But, this level of intense collaboration must also balance the needs of the ‘we’ with the needs of the ‘me’.”

Balance is a key term in the creation of modern office spaces: they need to be about freedom of movement as much as privacy; agility as much as experimentation; collaboration as much as individuality.

Steelcase is not the only company to change the way we work; AngelShack, a Gauteng-based manufacturer of office furniture, also identified the shift in the way people did business: “Life is changing. We mix personal and professional. Speed is everything. And internet is accelerating the pace of change. Yet one part of work remains stuck in the past. Office furniture. It’s expensive. It’s inflexible. It’s dull. So we decided to change the game [and] create innovative and high quality furniture that works the way we do today. Make it easy to plan and buy. Make it affordable for more companies and organisations.”

The result? Adaptable desk systems, chairs, tables and accessories that help create office spaces that are everything but static. And movement and mobility are key in today’s world: hot desking and virtual offices are terms widely used to describe today’s workspaces, and new features blur the lines between personal life and office time.

As we move into a new era of work, and artificial intelligence improves and interferes with our human skills, agile working environments replace yesterday’s open spaces and cubicles. The team at Steelcase calls it “an office rebellion”, where teams “hacked their offices” – agility in work simply means that the environment becomes a vector for team members to work effectively together, adapting the space to their needs. An office needs to now allow for individual working styles, projects and sets of skills: the key to productivity and workplace well-being.

“Teams need flexibility to change their day-to-day activities. Particularly, teams using agile and design thinking practices need to be able to change how they work over time. This shift in how teams are working required us to look at solutions through a new lens,” says Bill Bennie, director, design at Steelcase.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill. A new freedom of working is born. ML