It is 2020, the dawn of not just a new year but also a new decade that will continue its relentless evolution from a commodity-based to a community-based society. And at the core of this evolution is the change to the very concept of the workplace – marking a shift that has been increasingly community-centric, mirrored in the mainstreaming of flexible workspaces.
The three elements that have acted as catalysts to this change and metamorphosed the once invisible office worker are the rise of the millennial workforce, continued shifts (and disruption) in technology and communications, and finally, evolving and varied consumption trends for products and services. New and continued changes in the ways of working are mirroring not just the shifts in the collective professional evolution but also the transitional evolution of the workspace over the past 100 years.
The history of the workspace is as much a sociological phenomenon as it is an economic-industrial one. The evolution has been interestingly chronicled in a book titled Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval. He offers a glimpse into how the modern workplace evolved, beginning sometime in the early to mid-nineteenth century when the "first office workers" joined clerical firms or counting houses. These early offices were small, one-room affairs with two to three clerks, a partner, and a bookkeeper sitting there.
The advent of the industrial age, leading to the dawn of manufacturing, brought about an irrevocable change and led to the emergence of blue-collared workers (primarily factory workers) which further resulted in the emergence of a formal middle class, followed by the emergence of a white-collared workforce by the 1920s.
By this time, offices, at least in the US, had become mainstream. The emergence of skyscrapers forever altered the urban and architectural psyche and redefined the way people worked. The continued development of railroads, expressways, aviation and telecommunications, leading to the availability of goods and services across the globe, further accelerated the workspace evolution.
Creation of Modern Office
The first modern office was the Larkin Administration Building in New York, created by American architect and interior designer Frank Lloyd Wright. The building came up in 1906 and was modeled around the concept of the factory work-floor with efficiency and oversight as the central premise. The offices were large and spacious with row upon row of identical workstations and undivided work floors. The concept spread rapidly and by the 1920s, it had become the go-to design for the corporate world.
Redefining the Culture of Workspaces
- The arrival of tech titans such as Apple, Google, eBay, Facebook and Amazon meant business was much more than just business – the focus was on creative disruption and radical free-flow of ideas that changed the way we live and work.
- With more millennials joining the workforce, companies now look at creating workspaces that help employees evolve, network and grow.
- The community of employees is no longer homogenous, it is heterogeneous.
- The distinction between workplace and home has blurred and this mirrors in the development of offices with game rooms, sleeping pods and recreational centres.
- Flexible workspaces, though not an entirely new concept, celebrates an individual more. It takes the office to where you are and not the other way around.
- Expect to see more coworking spaces around the world resulting in much wider community-based collaboration.
Wright's concept lasted well into the late 1930s, but World War II changed the office dynamics and businesses had no choice but to adapt to survive. Open spaces were in short supply as the military started looking for additional space, so existing offices were clubbed together to create more space. Underground, windowless offices emerged and became a necessary requirement due to the added focus on safety.
Post-war Building Boom
It was during the economic crisis of the 1960s that 'Burolandschaft' (German for office landscaping), with its focus on ergonomics, disrupted the regimentation that the old offices sported. By 1960s, the ergonomic concept was finding favor worldwide. The introduction of plastic furniture did away with the old and heavy steel and wooden furniture and made redesigning offices both cheaper and easier. This led to even greater innovation in office design and companies were once again keen on building spaces that mirrored organizational and socio-cultural ideology. Notably, this period mirrored a post-war economic boom that lasted well into the 1970s. US payrolls alone increased by 32 percent during the 1960s, fuelling the highest growth in jobs by far of any decade during the post-war period.
While there was a lot going on in the US and Europe, things were a little different in India. This period mirrored the post-independence period and a time when India was extremely poor and spending, whether government or private, was frugal with a focus on enabling core necessities. The government was focused on investing in huge infrastructure projects, which were called 'temples of modern India.' The number of workspaces grew in key metros but remained basic and pragmatic in nature.
Dawn of Computers
The 1970s and the 1980s saw the introduction of computers in workspaces and this once again led to an ergonomic shift in office layout and construction. Interior designers had to now make a distinction between computers and the human workforce, and this was reflected in the layout as ease of communication took center stage. Keeping in mind the idea that productivity would increase if people had their work spread in front of them, designer Robert Propst introduced the idea of a private cubicle.
The cubicle was initially designed to be a large, private space with adjustable walls along with a phone connection and computer space. This idea flopped then as it was considered too expensive to be adopted by most workspaces. However, smaller, cheaper and sometimes even moveable cubicles became the norm.
Emergence of Creative Spaces
The arrival of tech titans such as Apple, Google, eBay, Facebook and Amazon meant business was much more than just business – the focus was on creative disruption and radical free-flow of ideas that changed the way we live and work. The workplace now needed to celebrate the individual and collective innovation, free-thinking and sustained bursts of creative flair, all this needed to be mirrored in the office design as well. The office had to stimulate, excite and engage. The distinction between workplace and home had to blur and this was mirrored in the development of offices with game rooms, sleeping pods and recreational centres. The focus on the 'self' was now complete.
Beyond 2020: Flexible Working
With more millennials joining the workforce, companies now look at creating workspaces that help employees evolve, network and grow. This has inspired companies to start using more technology to support a wide range of work styles, especially flexible working or co-working. Put simply, it is now increasingly easy for a person to plug in and work from anywhere.
Flexible workspaces, though not an entirely new concept, celebrate an individual more than any previous concept did. It pays heed to the creative and the innovative, but it also makes a fundamental and radical departure from previous concepts – it takes the office to where you are and not the other way around. The community is no longer homogenous, it is now heterogeneous, inspiring a revolution in office design characterized by the design of new systems.
Offices are now designed to create environments that foster productivity and collaboration. Instead of a space to occupy, they are the spaces to be used. More workplaces are embracing new-age office designs to include little or no corporate furniture or other interior features, comfortable seating, fast broadband, interesting and engaging people to work alongside, private work areas, good music, and decent coffee.
In times to come, we can expect to see more co-working spaces around the world, resulting in a much wider community-based collaboration that the new generation of millennial workers is finding comfort, meaning and joy in.
Harsh Lambah is Country Manager India at IWG plc