How do office seating arrangements impact the day-to-day experience of office workers? Let’s have a look at how office layouts and workstations have changed over the past 100 years—and what this has meant for individual employee privacy.
At the dawn of the 20th century, white collar clerical work and “knowledge work” was becoming a more and more important part of commerce. Businesses had moved to a centralized administrative structure that allowed them to house white collar staff together for easier management and oversight. This led to some interesting experimentation with office layouts. Putting a large number of people in the same room to work on different tasks was definitely not the same as designing a factory assembly line where everyone worked toward the same goal. Here are some of the ideas that have been tried over the years to make the office space efficient and productive.
The School of Work
In a 2009 Wired Magazine article, Cliff Kuang takes us through an interesting pictorial representation of office seating arrangements from the early 1900s through today. The first highly regimented layout with row upon row of desks was reminiscent of a school—only with no teacher at the front. Everyone worked with someone (literally) peering over their shoulder from a desk immediately behind them. There was little real privacy for anyone except the bosses who had private offices from which they could oversee work on the “production” floor.
Breaking up the Workforce
The early 1960s saw an uptick in more innovative seating arrangements, with different tasks being supported with varying layouts. Workers who needed to focus might sit in rows so they could more easily ignore one another. Those who were expected to collaborate might gather in clusters. Panel systems had not yet been developed, so there was nothing to dampen noise or create visual privacy. This was the time of the bull-pen office, with its hustle and bustle. While some people still look back on this era with fondness, it wasn’t a layout that was well-suited to very many industries.
Cubicles Create the First Mini-Office
Individual workstations with dividers (Action Offices) were introduced in the late sixties and have been arranged in a huge variety of ways ever since. They’ve gone from pods to rows and back again, changing shape from squares to honeycombs and other novel office seating arrangements. Dividers started out fairly low, but got higher over time to simulate office walls. The improvement in visual privacy was immediate, while the ability to dampen distracting noise improved with the development of acoustic materials.
Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll look at what happened after the cubicle began to fall from favor.