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What is the Future of Office Space

Office space has always been a response to the prevailing culture, more specifically the prevailing economy. Today many wonder about the future of office space. As the economic and cultural dynamics change, the use of commercial office space adjusts. While change is accelerating, there is one key truth that has always remained: we are social creatures. We are designed for human interaction and social connection. As of yet, no technology has been able to replace the biological need for true in-person connection. Understanding this driver is critical to understanding the history of the office and its future. Technologies will advance, work will change, and culture will evolve but human interaction is a biological need we must support.

When Did Office Space Start?

We owe many ideas to ancient Rome, and workspace is likely one of them. Our word “office”, comes from the Latin word “officium” which loosely translates to bureau. Ancient Roman cities had a sort of business district they called squares. These squares became not just the place of commerce but also a place to shop. Business owners would often live above their place of work. Many of the businesses had employees, called clerks, and clerks would also live above their workspace.

Introducing Office Buildings

It’s not until the 1700s that we start to see the construction of the first office buildings. Two, in particular, were significant. The Ripley building and East India House. The Ripley building was named after the famous architect, Thomas Ripley, and was built in 1726 in Great Britain. Originally built for the Royal Navy, the impressive structure contained office space, staterooms and apartments. 

The Ripley building

Around 1730 in London, England, the wealthy conglomerate, East India Company, opened a very large and prominent building called the East India House. The building acted as their headquarters where they were responsible for trade from Asia to Europe. The building also had apartments that housed the many employed clerks. For hundreds and hundreds of years, the concept of living where you worked hadn’t really changed, that was until the late 19th and early 20th century. 

East India Company

The End of Work From Home

Today, many more of us are home and dealing with the work from home distractions. There are two key things that happened in the 20th century for office space that changed the work and live mentality. The first was the implementation of factories. The advent of factories and corporations started to drive the division between where one worked and lived. While factories started appearing in the U.S. as early as the 18th century, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution thrived that the factory became common. This is the beginning of the fracture in our culture; where an employee would go to work separately from where they lived. 

Work From Home

The second major 20th century shift is the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He first introduced what we now call the open office floor plan, reducing the amount of walls and in the workspace to make it more efficient. Some claim he created the most beautiful offices ever built. Many have since realized that open office plans have many challenges.

The Modern Office Space

In the 60s we begin to see the term “office landscaping”, the idea that staff should sit in an organic pattern that is made up of a mixture of open and closed spaces. This trend heavily influenced future office design. Additionally, suburbs developed and people lived further away from the city center where they worked. In the 1980s architecture and interior design become important and the cubicle comes into play. Giant open rooms are divided into separate offices that provide a more efficient workplace. Along with cubicles comes computers and a surge in technology. 
The changes in office space are accelerating.

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Office Technology

Fast forward to the late 20th century and early 21st century to find the invention of WiFi. This is when the internet significantly changes how we work. Knowledge work starts to push into the economy which separates us even more from the need to have a presence at the physical office. 

And as offices start to change, so does the concept and expansion of where and when we work. Mobile computers show up and coffee shops that offer wifi become a “third space”. We are now able to work when we’re not even at the office causing the lines to blur between work and home. 

The big push in commercial real estate as we move into modern-day is flexibility. We see things like “hot desking” or “co-working” pop up rapidly and change accelerates. Commercial real estate is a brick and mortar asset with hundreds of years of history. An industry like this has a difficult time adjusting fast enough. Through the early 21st-century office buildings have struggled to adjust to rapid change. It once took hundreds of years for a trend to develop but recently it might take only a decade

Coworking Office

The Future of Office Space is Here

So what will the office of the future look like?
First, we must understand the driving force behind the disruptive change in this article. Up until now, technology was the motivational factor behind change. Shipping and transport in the 1700s. Machines and the assembly line in the 19th and 20th centuries. The internet most recently. All of these technologies enabled new types of work and allowed businesses to accomplish new things.

During this global pandemic, the way business is conducted has changed for a different reason. Now it is cultural and social, which is much more fundamental. Necessity has driven us to work from home and keep our distance. While things may have been trending in this direction because technology made it possible, culture has now mandated new arrangements. Adjustments that may have required 100 years last century and 15 years this century have accelerated in just three to five months.

A number of people will go back to their conventional office spaces after the pandemic. However, the fundamental change is the implementation of more flexible work and work from home plans. Executives will start looking around half-empty office spaces with expensive leases and they’ll begin to roll out a plan for a virtual work environment to minimize their physical footprint. They will begin to realize, if they haven’t already, that commercial real estate for the longest time has been quite inefficient. 

A typical office building sits empty 68% of the week. Buildings have been adjusting to this for a long time as companies have decreased the square footage per person. But perhaps the most efficient office was where it all started – work from home with communal meeting places. Before the factories came online and the separation of work and life increased, most people worked where they lived. These technological, social, and cultural changes have shown:

  1. Traditional office space is inefficient;
  2. Employees are dissatisfied with the use of less square footage per person;
  3. Technology promotes productivity;
  4. The social shift brought by COVID-19 means workers do not want to be close together.

The answer, and likely the future of office space, is flexibility. Employees want more space, but if we spread out with more square footage per person, we’re continuing in our inefficiency. Instead, we’ll likely find people want more on-demand physical spaces like conference rooms and flexible desk options. We are still social creatures and this biological need has yet to change. Because of this, we’ll need some sort of office work environment. The future of office work isn’t fully home or fully in the office. The future is flexible, on-demand, space.

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