A Brief History of Workplace Design and Where it Might be Headed Next

A Brief History of Workplace Design and Where it Might be Headed Next

Many of us spend more time at our offices than ever before and sometimes see our colleagues more than our own families. Workplaces can be considered to be our second homes, which is why the way we deliberately design them in the present day has garnered so much attention. The overarching design of workplaces aims to create a perfect balance between heads-down focus work and layers of collaboration to improve the productivity and general well being of employees. As workplace trends come and go, there’s a new progression on everyone’s minds- and it predicts what a post-COVID-19 office might look like both in the immediate and long term future. Although there’s no crystal ball answer, many architecture firms, research groups, and real estate companies have been tapped to ideate and implement forward-thinking design solutions and health safety policies that will be critical in redefining how we utilize our workplaces for the years to come.

© Herman Miller
© Herman Miller

The 1960s was a period of prolific advancements in design, with the workplace being at the experimental forefront. Dismissing archaic ideas of endless rows of workstations, more democratic layouts that enhanced collaboration and socialization became the new standard. Later dubbed the Burolandschaft, a german office concept which roughly translates to “office landscape”, these workspaces placed emphasis on meeting the needs of the workforce instead of creating a formulaic “one size fits all” approach. Between this and the later developed Action Office concept, alternative seating options and workstations clustered together fostered many more social interactions that occurred between staff members of all levels. These two workplace models are often referenced when describing the original principles of modern office design.

Only twenty years later, large corporations completely flipped the switch on workplace design with the introduction of the cubicle and the “sell them cheap, stack them high” mindset. The sole focus on profitability at the expense of working comfortability was the driving force behind this shift towards this period of depressive office design. After nearly two decades of employees being trapped behind these desk walls, the emergence of new technology and the rediscovered desire to collaborate paved the way to our present-day pseudo-Burolandschaft-Action Office. 

Courtesy of DLR Group
Courtesy of DLR Group

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some workplace design critics are predicting the return of the high walled cubicle mazes in order to enforce social distancing and calling for the death of the open office plan in favor of a permanent working from home solution. However, taking into consideration everything that designers have learned about workplace trends, human factors in design, and the potential for technology to impact where and how we work, many in the profession believe that the future of offices actually looks brighter than ever. The global pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has given designers the ability to reinvent workplaces by combining the best elements of the past with the promise of the future to give us healthier and more dynamic workplaces than we could have imagined before.

Courtesy of DLR Group
Courtesy of DLR Group

One of the main considerations regarding return to work strategies has been how to implement new policies and technology that will allow employees to continue to work remotely, and whether this decision will have an impact on individual workplaces and large scale real estate portfolios. With many companies saying that a portion of their staff will now have the option to work from home indefinitely, what does this mean for the future of collaboration and the spaces that facilitate those necessary interactions? B. Sanborn, Design Research Leader, and Jeremy Reding AIA, the Global Workplace Leader of DLR Group believe that one of the reasons working from home during the pandemic seems easy, is because everyone is forced to participate in this way of collaborating. However, the matter of working from home or working from the office is not binary, as it was never a black and white question of if you were in the office 100% of the time, or if you were not. Often, employees experience a hybrid sense of flexibility in where they can perform their jobs, and as companies slowly begin to return to the office, Sanborn and Reding say that employees might find that some of the old challenges of working remote may resurface. Those who are in the office will experience reclaimed opportunities for impromptu collaboration and will have the ability to be engaged by overhearing their co-workers discuss their daily tasks.

Rachel Casanova, Senior Managing Director of Workplace Innovation at Cushman & Wakefield, similarly noted that given our current situation, we are only “showing up where we are invited.” In a global survey that Cushman & Wakefield launched for over 40,000 people from 40 companies, they found that the opportunity to work remotely might open up the possibility for new permission to be flexible, but not for a completely new mode of working that hasn’t been done before. “The dial isn’t turned 180 degrees, and this isn’t the abrupt cliff of change that people seem to think it is. Everyone is in the same boat right now and it makes life a little bit easier,” claims Casanova.

Courtesy of Cushman & Wakefield
Courtesy of Cushman & Wakefield

The increased ability to work remotely will also come with the opportunities to completely reshape how our workplaces are designed. Reding noted that in the long term, it will be critical to reevaluate the purpose of certain types of office spaces and understand why they were originally introduced into the workplace. Offices might see more specialized conference rooms, re-invented work cafes, and smaller collaboration hubs to reduce the number of employees allowed in a space at a time. Subtle visual cues, such as a pattern on a table or floor, might also become present, and will subtly indicate how many people will be allowed in a room. Once the pandemic is over, these cues will blend in and become just an additional design feature. Cushman & Wakefield developed a continuously evolving prototype of their own post-COVID-19 workplace, dubbed the “6 Feet Office”. The concept addresses design issues regarding social distancing guidelines as a short term solution for the immediate return to work concerns. The idea is that by following 6 rules about maintaining distance, walking in certain paths, strictly following various signage, entering and leaving meeting rooms as indicated, and cleaning off your desk daily, employees will be allowed to return to their offices both safer and sooner. All seem to agree that this is not the end of the open workplace, but that offices might merely shift in the purpose that they serve. Instead of being hubs for heads-down focus work, they will become spaces that foster social connections in the forms of project collaboration and mentorship.

Courtesy of Cushman & Wakefield
Courtesy of Cushman & Wakefield

Even the future of co-working spaces have their place in a post-pandemic workplace. Sanborn, who has an extensive oeuvre on the topic, says that co-working will change in that it will become an anchor in a centralized node of convenient spaces. Why travel to your workplace every day when you can work from a local shared space near your home and other places you frequently visit? These spaces might also shift their shared aesthetic and increase a sense of privacy and control.

Perhaps our current global dilemma is actually the perfect opportunity to push ourselves in the right to make the changes in how we think about workplaces. Rachel Casanova emphasized that the job of designers is to have either a positive or neutral impact on everything we touch, and we need to understand how to undo the harm that people think is inevitable in a post-COVID-19 world. This is a moment that will define companies as they are able to adapt to a series of changes in order to advance their workstyles and keep their culture intact. As DLR Group perhaps summarized it best, “There are a lot of serious events we think will change our world forever, but end up going back to our old habits. The workplace of the future is a long conversation, and once the stress of this current situation is removed, we will have a clear picture of what it means for all of us to do our jobs in the most effective way.”

We invite you to check out ArchDaily's coverage related to COVID-19, read our tips and articles on Productivity When Working from Home and learn about technical recommendations for Healthy Design in your future projects. Also, remember to review the latest advice and information on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO) website.

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "A Brief History of Workplace Design and Where it Might be Headed Next" 29 May 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/940538/a-brief-history-of-workplace-design-and-where-it-might-be-headed-next/> ISSN 0719-8884
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