10 Inventions That Shaped The Workplace

From cubicles to comfy chairs, these innovations had a lasting impact on office life.

10 Inventions That Shaped The Workplace
[Illustration: Peter Oumanski]

1. Otis Elevator, 1857

The Otis Elevator Company installed the first public version of its newfangled invention inside New York department store E.V. Haughwout, which helped convince people it was safe to use.


The impact: Freed from the tyranny of stairs, buildings soon shot skyward, enabling the creation of the office tower.

2. Five-Day Workweek, 1908

The modern weekend was born when a New En­gland cotton mill with a large Jewish workforce started to close on Saturdays as well as Sundays so all employees could observe the Sabbath.

The impact: The practice spread to nearby businesses and then caught on nationwide, especially after labor unions started pressing for it.


3. Rolodex, 1956

In the days when the telephone was the essential workplace tool, Danish engineer Hildaur Neilsen invented a clever rotary desktop device that stores contact information for easy reference.

The impact: The Rolodex proved so useful and iconic that even in the digital age it’s still available at an office-supply store near you.

4. Casual Fridays, 1966

To boost Hawaiian-shirt sales, a Honolulu trade group cooked up “Aloha Fridays” and encouraged local workers to wear the shirts to the office at the end of each week.


The impact: Employees embraced the idea, and Aloha Fridays eventually hit the mainland, evolving into today’s familiar Dockers-fest.

5. Cubicle, 1968

Herman Miller rolled out its “Action Office” line of modular components, which let employers create individual desk spaces with partial walls—a privacy upgrade for many workers.

The impact: The concept sparked an office-design revolution. Today, cubes remain common, but many people consider them dehumanizing.


6. Personal Computer, 1975

Launched by New Mexico tech company MITS, the Altair 8800 wasn’t super useful—no keyboard or monitor—but it’s generally credited with sparking the PC revolution.

The impact: As desktop computers grew more sophisticated, they reprogrammed virtually every aspect of the daily office routine.

7. MCI Mail, 1983

Email was a novelty when MCI debuted this tool for business use. At the time, workers preferred low-tech communication methods like interoffice envelopes (remember those red strings?).


The impact: MCI Mail fizzled out in 1994, but the underlying technology influenced key email products from Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google.

8. Aeron Chair, 1994

Herman Miller hit upon another office-furniture breakthrough with this transformative desk seat, which helped popularize ergonomic design and became a dotcom-boom status symbol.

The impact: The Aeron remains one of the country’s best-selling chairs, though copycats abound and some experts question its health benefits.


9. Coworking, 2005

Just because you’re self-employed doesn’t mean you have to spend the day alone. That was the idea behind the first coworking space, created by a programmer in San Francisco. It had eight desks and offered group lunches and activities.

The impact: WeWork launched five years later and soon took the concept mainstream.

10. Slack, 2013

Email-fatigued workers longed for a better way to talk to each other. Enter this social-media-inspired communication tool, which has made office chat more effective (and fun).


The impact: To be determined. Slack could prove revolutionary—or simply give way to the next short-lived office upgrade.


About the author

Kim Lightbody is an editorial assistant at Fast Company, where she does all sorts of editorial-related things for both print and web.