Office Design

The Fascinating Histories of Today’s Office Styles

David Spence
June 19th, 2014

The Stories Behind Our Work Desks

If your company is small enough to sit everyone at one work table or large enough that you need an office seating allocation tool to keep everyone organized, the places we sit while conducting our jobs have evolved.

Between working from home, coworking and coming in for the classic 9-to-5, the concept of where and how one works has changed dramatically.

How did some of today’s working arrangements come about, though? Read about some of their fascinating histories, as well as some of their pros and cons, below.


Once a classic design staple, cubicles are becoming less common as open-office layouts become the standard. These two styles have formed a sort of design cycle, arising in response to each other.

The open office concept first originated in Germany in the 1960s. The design had its share of critics in Europe, but it held strong in the U.S.—at least until American inventor Robert Propst, who worked for Herman Miller, revealed the cubicle design in 1968, one that was more spacious than the typical workspaces found in cubicle farms today.

People loved the new privacy and order the earlier cubicles provided.

Pros: More privacy, greater sense of owning individual space, security of assigned seating

Cons: Negative connotations, higher real estate costs

Open Office

The original term for the German-born open office layout was “Bürolandschaft,” or “office landscape,” designed by brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle in 1958.

Rejecting a linear design, open offices instead opted to place desks in random groups, seating employees together “based on how they worked.”

Thought Propst’s cubicle prevailed in the workplace for many years, today many companies have adopted this layout to encourage greater collaboration among coworkers and make offices more egalitarian.

Pros: Lower real-estate costs, greater teamwork, flexible design

Cons: Increased exposure to sick coworkers, lack of privacy, noise issues


Much like open-office layouts, hotdesking is experiencing a second wave. Companies first began experimenting with hotdesking in the ‘80s and early ’90s. In some cases—such as that of advertising agency Chiat/Day, the company responsible for the Energizer Bunny commercials—it didn’t go so well.

Wired’s Warren Berger described some common problems associated with hotdesking when he wrote, “The ad agency became engulfed in petty turf wars, kindergarten-variety subterfuge, incessant griping, management bullying, employee insurrections, internal chaos, and plummeting productivity.”

Counter to that, however, are several creative companies who say that this open setup promotes collaboration, creativity and a feeling of ownership over the entire office—not just one small piece of it.

Pros: Good for transient workers such as sales employees, sense of novelty

Cons: Conflict over space, lack of stable environment


Teleworking has technically been around since the 1950s. In that age of factories and manual labor, it wasn’t unusual for some companies to allow select employees, like working mothers, to do complete work at their homes.

The concept of working from home really took off in the 1970s, however, when Jack Nilles, considered the “Father of Teleworking,” began studying the implications of teleworking and realized its value for saving fossil fuels.

Later, as computers became more common, teleworking did too, and in 1994, AT&T celebrated Employee Telecommuting Day. Today, it’s a popular option for workers equipped with a laptop and a good Wi-Fi connection.

Pros: Saves gas money, better for the environment, convenient for workers

Cons: Social isolation, lack of face time can lead to slower turnaround

Given the many different shapes that working takes today and the almost continual improvements in technology, one can only imagine how we’ll be working 50 years down the road.


photo credit: slworking2 via photopin cc