HR News Articles

A short history of the office

File 20170811 1202 9p7a0j
In the seventeenth century lawyers, civil servants and other new professionals
began to work from offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris. British Museum/Flickr


Agustin Chevez,Swinburne University of TechnologyandDJ Huppatz,Swinburne University of Technology

For centuries people have been getting up, joining a daily commute or retreating to a room, to work. The office has become inseparable from work.


Its history illustrates not only how our work has changed but also how work’s physical spaces respond to cultural, technological and social forces.


The origins of the modern office lie with large-scale organisations such as governments, trading companies and religious orders that required written records or documentation. Medieval monks, for example, worked in quiet spaces designed specifically for sedentary activities such as copying and studying manuscripts. As depicted in Botticelli’s St Augustine in His Cell, these early “workstations” comprised a desk, chair and storage shelves.



Sandro Botticelli St Augustin dans son cabinet de travail
or St Augustine at Work.
Wikipedia Commons


Another of Botticelli’s paintings of St Augustine at work is now in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. This building was originally constructed as the central administrative building of the Medici mercantile empire in 1560.


It was an early version of the modern corporate office. It was both a workplace and a visible statement of prestige and power.


But such spaces were rare in medieval times, as most people worked from home. In Home: The Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybczynski argues that the seventeenth century represented a turning point.


Lawyers, civil servants and other new professionals began to work from offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris. This led to a cultural distinction between the office, associated with work, and the home, associated with comfort, privacy and intimacy.


Despite these early offices, working from home continued. In the nineteenth century, banking dynasties such as the Rothschilds and Barings operated from luxurious homes so as to make clients feel at ease. And, even after the office was well established in the 1960s, Hugh Hefner famously ran his Playboy empire from a giant circular bed in a bedroom of his Chicago apartment.



A police station office in the 1970s. Dave Conner/Flickr, CC BY


But these were exceptions to the general rule. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, increasingly specialised office designs – from the office towers of Chicago and New York to the post-war suburban corporate campuses – reinforced a distinction between work and home.


Managing the office


Various management theories also had a profound impact on the office. As Gideon Haigh put it in The Office: A Hardworking History, the office was “an activity long before it was a place”.


Work was shaped by social and cultural expectations even before the modern office existed. Monasteries, for example, introduced timekeeping that imposed strict discipline on monks’ daily routines.


Later, modern theorists understood the office as a factory-like environment. Inspired by Frank Gilbreth’s time-motion studies of bricklayers and Fredrick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, William Henry Leffingwell’s 1917 book, Scientific Office Management, depicted work as a series of tasks that could be rationalised, standardised and scientifically calculated into an efficient production regime. Even his concessions to the office environment, such as flowers, were intended to increase productivity.


Technology in the office


Changes in technology also influenced the office. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone and Edison’s dictating machine, revolutionised both concepts of work and office design. Telecommunications meant offices could be separate from factories and warehouses, separating white and blue collar workers. Ironically, while these new technologies suggested the possibility of a distributed workforce, in practice, American offices in particular became more centralised.



IBM Selectric typewriter marked a change in office
technology. Christine Mahler/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA


In 1964, when IBM introduced a magnetic-card recording device into a Selectric typewriter, the future of the office, and our expectations of it, changed forever. This early word processor could store information, it was the start of computer-based work and early fears of a jobless society due to automation.


Now digital maturity seems to be signalling the end of the office. With online connectivity, more people could potentially work from home.


But some of the same organisations that promoted and enabled the idea of work “anywhere, anytime” – Yahoo and IBM, for example – have cancelled work from home policies to bring employees back to bricks and mortar offices.


Why return to the office?


Anthropological research on how we interact with each other and how physical proximity increases interactions highlights the importance of being together in a physical space. The office is an important factor in communicating the necessary cues of leadership, not to mention enabling collaboration and communication.


Although employers might be calling their employees back to the physical space of the office again, its boundaries are changing. For example, recent “chip parties”, celebrate employees getting a radio-frequency identification implant that enables employers to monitor their employees. In the future, the office may be embedded under our skin.


The ConversationWhile this might seem strange to us , it’s probably just as strange as the idea of making multiple people sit in cubicles to work would have seemed to a fifteenth-century craftsman. The office of the future may be as familiar as home, or even our neighbour’s kitchen table, but only time will tell.


Agustin Chevez, Adjunct Research Fellow, Centre For Design Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology and DJ Huppatz, Senior Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jobs Just For You, The HR Professional

Our weekly or daily email bulletins are guaranteed to contain only fresh employment opportunities


More info

Latest Jobs

Risk Business Partner - Contract
Western Australia

Talent Acquisition Specialist
New South Wales

HR Adviser
New South Wales

HR Analyst
New South Wales

Internal Recruiter - Contract
New South Wales

Recruitment Administrator
New South Wales

Recruitment Advisor - Contract
New South Wales

Organisation Development Manager
New South Wales

HR Manager - Permanent Part Time
Victoria

L&D Specialist - online learning
New South Wales

Work Health & Safety Officer - Contract
Victoria

HR Manager
New South Wales

HR Coordinator - Contract
Western Australia

Organisational Development Consultant - Permanent
Victoria

Recruitment Advisor - contract
New South Wales

HR Coordinator - Contract
New South Wales

Recruitment Officer - Contract
New South Wales

Change Consultant
Victoria

Recruitment Coordinator
New South Wales

HR Generalist - Contract
New South Wales

Human Resources Consultant
Queensland

Senior Industrial Officer - Contract
Western Australia

Manager People & Performance
New South Wales

EL1 WHS Specialist - Contract
Australian Capital Territory

Safety, Wellness & Compliance Adviser - Contract
Western Australia

WHS Manager
New South Wales

HR Coordinator
Victoria

HR Coordinator
Queensland

HR Coordinator - Contract
New South Wales

HR Advisor - Contract
Western Australia

Human Resources Officer - Contract
Western Australia

Head of Learning & OD Consulting
Victoria

Remuneration Analyst contract - until end of March
New South Wales

Senior HR Advisor
Western Australia

People & Culture Manager
Victoria

Head of Culture & Inclusion
Victoria

Rostering Coordinator - Contract
Queensland

Talent Acquisition Advisor - Contract
New South Wales

HR Officer - Contract - Part Time
Victoria

HR Business Partner
Victoria

Technical Recruitment Advisor
Western Australia

People & Culture Partner - Part Time
Victoria

L&D Consultant - Contract
Victoria

Senior Learning Consultant
New South Wales

HR Manager, People & Culture
New South Wales

Manager HR Risk & Compliance
North Island

HR Project Manager - Contract
New South Wales

HR Business Partner
New South Wales

Organisational Development Manager - Contract - Part Time
New South Wales

Payroll Team Leader
Queensland

Remuneration & Benefits Manager
New South Wales

Senior Talent Recruitment Partner - Financial Services
New South Wales

HR Advisor - Contract
New South Wales

HR Business Partner
New South Wales

HR Administrator
New South Wales

Internal Recruitment Officer
New South Wales

HR Business Partner - Contract
New South Wales

HR and Recruitment Officer
New South Wales

Human Resources Manager - Permanent Part time
Victoria

Talent Specialist - Contract
Victoria

Internal Recruiter - Contract
Victoria

Recruitment Consultant
New South Wales

HR Business Partner - Contract
Queensland

Talent Acquisition Advisor - Part time
Queensland

Group Manager, Case Management
New South Wales

Workforce Planner - Contact Centre
Victoria

HR Manager - Contract
Victoria

People & Culture Business Partner
New South Wales

HR Business Partner (6 month contract with potential to go perm)
New South Wales

HR Business Partner - Employee and Industrial Relations - Contract
Victoria

Senior HR Advisor/HRBP (Professional Services)
New South Wales

Employee Relations Manager
New South Wales

Injury Management Advisor - Contract
Queensland

HR Business Partner - 12 month contract
Queensland

Head of Organisational Development
Victoria

HR Specialist - 6 month contract
New South Wales

Senior Consultant Health and Wellbeing - Contract
Queensland

Internal Recruiter
New South Wales

Remuneration Specialist
New South Wales

Senior HR Project Manager
New South Wales

Browse All Jobs