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Office Design History – How Office Designs Have Changed

Office spaces have changed dramatically throughout history as businesses adapt to the way we work and the technology we use. From furniture and layouts to interior design trends, the offices of today look vastly different from workplaces of previous generations. There’s a lot we can learn about how our workplaces have changed over time to see how far we have come and where office designs may take us in the future. This week our commercial refurbishment services team takes a look at office design history and how office designs have changed since the early 1800s. Continue reading for more.

Office Design History from the 1800s to Modern Design


The concept of offices first came about in the 18th century as the British empire expanded, and the first multi-functional organisations began to form including the Royal Navy and East India Company. Things really kicked off for business however in the 1800’s during the industrial revolution.

Way back in 1856, the UK Government stated in a report about office space layouts that “for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted”.

The mid 1800 hundreds was a crucial turning point in office design history as offices had to quickly adapt and change over this decade as new technology began to emerge that improved efficiency and communication for businesses such as the typewriter, calculator and the telephone.

In 1864 the first skyscraper was also built, which expanded office space upward while also bringing in more natural light thanks to the iconic wall to floor glass present in the design.



By the 1900’s, as newly developed technologies were introduced into businesses more and more, the first open plan offices also began to emerge. Open plan offices not only saved space to make way for all these new tools, but this open space also encouraged collaboration within the workplace. Open plan workplaces also made it possible for businesses to grow and have larger workforces.

The very first open plan offices featured basic linear layouts which were heavily influenced by the manufacturing industry and mimicked a factory floor. This layout served well during both world wars and remained relatively unchanged for decades.

Office design history photo

1950’s & 1960’s

Any significant progress in office design stalled during the two world wars and the great depression with a focus on work getting done cheaper and in less time. By the 1950’s, however, employers eventually realised that the office structure they had used for so long was rigid, ineffective and discouraged productivity.

The open plan office was further embraced in this era with less rigidly divided environments and more creative use of partitions and plants within the space.

Modern materials such as steel and glass began to be used more extensively in the 1950’s. The design of this era was smart and clinical. The advances of air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting further improved the comfort for employees.

The ‘Action Office’ was also developed in 1968. This was the first modular business furniture system to be developed which also included low dividers and flexible work surfaces. The action office is still developed and used to this day.

1980’s & 1990s

The 80’s and 90’s saw the introduction of desktop computers into the workplace, and the office layout had to be changed to accommodate this. This meant more face to screen time than face to face time in the office, leading to the use of more dividers and cubicles so workers could focus on the task at hand.

1950 & 1960

1980’s & 1990s

The 80’s and 90’s saw the introduction of desktop computers into the workplace, and the office layout had to be changed to accommodate this. This meant more face to screen time than face to face time in the office, leading to the use of more dividers and cubicles so workers could focus on the task at hand.

Cubicle farms began to pop up in the 80’s as businesses who strived to grow their profits tried to compress more and more people into office spaces.

Hot-desking also began to be used in some office in the 80’s, where multiple people made use of a single workstation during different time periods to save on space and resources. The term was borrowed from ‘hot bunking’ which refers to submariners sharing their bunks.

Cheap, standardised office furniture could also be purchased in bulk which was great for the hip pocket, however, this resulted in the spread of generic workplaces that lacked personality and identity.

1980’s & 1990s
1980’s & 1990s

2000’s & 2010’s

The new millennium also brought with it a new focus on building and growing networks. Social interactions and connecting people between departments became more of a priority, and spaces that encouraged this were becoming more and more prevalent. This has made way for fewer office cubicles and more barrier-free office spaces.

Shared spaces began to be implemented in offices to strengthen networks, and this collaborative and flexible working environment continues to be expanded upon today with a growing shift towards Activity Based Working.

Improving office culture and structures has also gained more significance in recent years. Businesses want to create a space that people like working in, leading to a happier office culture and boosting employee retention. This included creating fun and enjoyable breakout rooms with pool tables and pinball machines and replacing bland and corporate façades with brighter and more inviting colours and décor.

Steering clear of the generic offices seen in the 80’s and 90’s, individuality and standing out amongst the competition is more important than ever in this decade, which has grown the demand for quality and innovative office interior design services.

A modern office space. Thumbnail image.
2000’s & 2010’s

Interested to learn more?

If you’re interested to learn more about office design history? The Future Fitout’s team have a passionate for transforming spaces. Find out more and get started today by calling our office fitouts Brisbane team on 1300 368 461 or get in touch with us online and we will be more than happy to discuss how you can incorporate some classic and modern design ideas into your contemporary office space.

Updated 18/03/2021