What if the office is new

Chapter 1: What if the office is the new invention?

Posted by Luke Thomas
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Let’s establish the foundation of this book by outlining the history of the office and from where it came. It’s important to ask the question: “Is working from anywhere a new idea or are we returning to a way of working that was normal in the past?”

What if the idea of going into a busy city center to a dedicated workspace is new compared to working from anywhere? Perhaps history can provide clues into what the future holds?

Where did the office come from?

The idea or the use of the word “office” started in ancient Rome. The Romans had a business district at the center of their town, with shops, offices, and government bureaus. The Roman word “officium” loosely means “bureau,” which gives us the word “office” that we use so often today.

In the 15th century, we see evidence of monks who worked in a place called a scriptorium. This was an office-like environment where monks would work in small cubicles. Scritoriums were places where they could write, work, and do deep thinking.

In the 18th century, the office started to gain meaningful traction. The East India Company presents a clear example of a purpose-built office, which is currently known as the Ripley building. This structure was created to handle complex bureaucracy and trading between Europe and Asia. Charles Lamb, a novelist, documented his time working in this building and reported on environment. They would work from 10 A.M. to 11 P.M! Workers were granted perks like holidays and bonuses, but there also were downsides that Lamb mentioned. For example, he wrote,

"You don't know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls without release day after day."

Sounds like a great time, right? Let’s keep going.

The UK government referred to an office environment in the following way:

"For intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary. So that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted, but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room they're proper superintendents is the proper mode of meeting it."

The basic idea is that people who work with their mind shouldn’t be interrupted, so a separate room was necessary. On the other hand, for mechanical work it was important that everyone be in the same room to make supervision easy for managers. It also was easy to do administrative work and store written records and books when the work happened in one place.

In the 19th century, we saw the invention of the light bulb. This innovation encouraged people to work longer hours. Before this, people had to use candles and literally burn the midnight oil.

In the 20th century, we see the the office explode in popularity. Urbanization was driving the rise of cities, and the idea of the open office floor plan started to take shape. Frank Lloyd Wright is a well-known architect who inspired this floor plan to be developed down line. It had fewer walls, with a bullpen environment that resembles the open-office floor plans of today.

As the floor plan advanced, so did the technological improvements. Electric lighting, telegraphs, telephones, typewriters, calculators, etc., were all developed. Then you saw the growth of skyscrapers. We saw the growth of scientific management by Winslow Taylor, which was focused on quantifying every aspect of work. In 1939, the Johnson Wax Company had an open-office floor plan that brought bright lights, warm spaces, and cork ceilings to the office space.

In the 1960s, the action office was invented by Robert Propst, which allowed for more privacy for certain workers. This led the way for the rise of the cubicle, which allowed organizations to easily adapt their floor plans.

The role of the office

As we navigate history, there’s a clear trend that emerges. The office was a way of coordinating a group of people with its roots deep in manual work. With the rise of technology, the internet, and the ability to communicate with coworkers across the world at a moment’s notice, perhaps it is time to rethink if the office makes sense for the world we live in today?

Maybe the work-from-anywhere movement is grounded in thousands of years of history, whereas the office is the new invention? When we frame it this way, it makes the idea of not going into an office everyday feel a bit more normal.

It's about choice

The final point I’d like to make is that as you’ll learn in the remainder of this book, we are not against working in an office. The shift and the beliefs that we have about the way work is moving is that people work in a variety of ways. As a business, if you want to build a highly productive and engaged workforce, you will need to offer each employee a choice.

For some, that may be going into an office every day of the week. For others, it may be working two or three days a week from home and then going into the office to meet up with coworkers. Some people may want to be fully remote and live in the middle of nowhere.

In a world where each person has flexibility and autonomy, the office can no longer be relied on to create the structure, connective tissue, and collision space for your team to get work done. If this is a permanent shift, you will need to rethink how you communicate, operate, and lead.

But is this a permanent shift? In the next chapter we'll break down if working from anywhere is a passing fad or a permanent shift.

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