How has the office environment changed over the years?

When did the first office start? How has the office environment changed? It all appears normal to the modern-day worker, with a large number of people employed to work in an office.

office environmentIt has not always been this way. The office environment as we know it arrived over 300 years ago and has evolved in many different ways since.

Here British Gas business looks at how the office environment has changed over the years.

How it all started

Offices have always been used as a professional environment to increase focus and productivity on various tasks. They have been used for bureaucratic work, writing documents, signing papers and have been the place where the educated could read or write in peace since Roman times.

The office environment as we know it today first appeared in the 1700s. The Royal Navy constructed a centralised base of operations to help maximise productivity in their workers. The Old Admiralty Office was completed in 1726, swiftly followed by the East India Company who built East India House in 1729.

Trade became a major part of the dominance of the British Empire; the expanding empire meant expanding mountains of paperwork. This led to offices being constructed all over London to deal with this influx and sort through the bureaucracy.

150 years after the first office a technological marvel was invented that would change the office forever, the typewriter. In 1867, Peter Mitterhofer developed the typewriter, no longer was it necessary to put pen to paper and decipher handwriting. From the late 1800s onwards, every piece of paper would be written in the same script using the same machine.

The next technological development to radically change the office environment would only come nine years later. In 1876 the telephone was invented. Communication is essential to all business; now offices across the country could become connected by just picking up the telephone.

The 20th century

The turn of the 20th century saw offices become much more important to the day to day running of a business. The telephone and typewriter have been around for a few decades and offices are starting to be designed specifically for these relatively new technologies.

Sears opened their headquarters in 1906 and with 3,000,000 square feet of space it became the largest building in the world! The office environment was quickly becoming a viable career path for the increasingly educated world.

The standardisation of the typewriter in 1910 further pushed forward the idea of productivity and transferable skills. If you knew how to use one typewriter you knew how to use them all; this notion is still true well into the 21st century.

World War One forced men to fight for their country leaving women to run the Home Front. Women adopted more clerical duties whilst the men were away fighting, so the majority of the typist force were women. The suffrage movement that followed the War saw women stepping out of their traditional roles to work in a variety of roles, including office work. This was moved further forward during World War Two where women were integral to the war effort working in offices on the Home Front.

Productivity was the name of the game again in 1964 with the office cubicle ensuring privacy and no distractions in the office environment.

The 1970s and 1980s saw technology take another leap forward with the advent of the digital age. Video conferencing was in use as early as 1970 and computers started to rapidly take over the office. Personal computers required less space and more forgiving when it comes to making mistakes. Printers had become smaller and more affordable for offices. By 1985 you could send documents over the other side of the country instantly with a fax machine.

By the 1990s the typewriter was dead and buried. With IBM selling their typewriting division in 1991 to Lexmark this was seen as the end of the technology 120 years after it was invented. Personal computers were all the rage and during the 1990s a digital office environment became the mainstay.

The internet offered a new form of communication since its invention in the 1980s. By 1999, 248 million people were online sparking a new age of instant communication, and another big step for productivity.

The 21st century

The office environment changed once again in the early 2000s. Office cubicles were seen as stifling creativity and, after 40 years, went into swift decline.

The continued popularity of the internet quickly made it a necessity for every office, with Google becoming an indispensable tool for research and connecting with customers, clients, and even employees.

Employees now have access to the internet through their smartphones, tablets and any other connected devices. Wi-fi is available in almost every home and office so employees are encouraged to bring their own devices to work and conduct business on the move.

The Equalities Act of 2010 has combined a number of anti-discrimination acts that came before it to offer legal protection for minorities and women in the workplace. A trend of inclusivity and equality had become the norm in the office environment.

Increasing connectivity since 2012, the Internet of Things has made offices smarter and more responsive to employee needs. Lighting and temperature can be altered to improve productivity by collecting data then making changes to the office environment. Improvements in technology can also be seen since 2015 with sharing tools like Slack, Skype, Google Docs and Dropbox, so employees can now access documents instantly anywhere.

The future

Since 2010 office space has reduced by 71 square feet per employee and with the rise in remote working and bring your own device initiatives, businesses are operating without employees occupying them.

Artificial intelligence is becoming smarter, anticipating our needs quicker and completely remote work is more of a reality than it has ever been. We can expect our future office environment to be more like a meeting room than places where employees work day in day out, very different from rows and rows of people writing or typewriters typing.