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Offices through the ages

From the organization of the Roman Empire to the hybrid solution of today, we bring you the history of the office.

The Romans, "officium" and the start
The Romans laid the foundations of many things we still use today, including road networks and aqueducts. The ancient Romans were also well organized—perhaps a must when conquering other countries and annexing them into a giant empire. The massive administration of the empire required many scribes, who staffed the offices of public officials. It’s no coincidence that the Latin “officium”—meaning duty or service, has given us the modern word office.

The industrialism
After the fall of the Roman Empire, around 500 AD, the idea of dedicated office buildings faded from memory. Centuries of home-based work followed, which was quite natural as many businesspeople lived upstairs from their business. Many see industrialism as the birth of the modern office. The development of industry made office work increasingly common in the late 18th century, as the private sector, banks and insurance companies blossomed.

The first office buildings
Some of the first buildings intended for office work were constructed in the UK in the late 18th century. The offices of the day were often reminiscent of old-fashioned classrooms—the employees sat in rows of cramped little desks. An efficient use of space, but not very cozy. The UK was also home to the first high-rise office building, built in 1864. Oriel Chambers, which still stands today, is five stories high. Much of the facade is made of glass, letting in a lot of sunlight, which was revolutionary at the time. Today the building houses law offices.

During the 1950s the open-plan office took shape, with a focus on a pleasant working environment with good lighting and green plants. The greater openness and less hierarchical design of open-plan offices were a sign of the times in the post-war era.

In the 1960s, the office cubicle was launched in an attempt to create more privacy while retaining the open-plan concept. In the progressive 1970s, “office islands” were the new trend, giving employees influence over their working environment.

In the 1990s open plans regained popularity, but the goal now was creativity. Ping-pong tables and a living-room feeling were common.

In the 21st century, flexible and activitybased offices came along, thanks to the digitalization wave that made employees more mobile.

What does the office researcher say about the office of the future?

It’s hard to say what the office of the future will look like. Architect Christina Bodin Danielsson, office specialist, advisor and office researcher at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, says big changes are in the works.

“Our entire office culture is about to change,” she says. “We’re facing a paradigm shift. What we already know is that we will work more from home, and many organizations have already decided to implement hybrid offices. One major challenge for employers is that we are comfortable at home, so the office has to be able to offer something just as good or better. A fabulous view, a cozy setting, we need incentives to get us to the office.

“The ‘rat maze’ setup with employees crowded together at close-packed desks, has come to an end—especially considering the risks of contagion. This will also be a big question for employers post-pandemic: how to make the workplace safe, while still being pleasant and stimulating, since the office is now competing with home-based offices where the employees have more influence over their physical environment.

“The days of office clusters are over. Sterile areas with high-rise office buildings all built at the same time are no longer attractive. We’re going to see a new ‘green wave’ of urban exodus, which will bring all sorts of office hub solutions that benefit the suburbs, smaller towns and villages.”