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Hate the thought of returning to your cubicle? Thank medieval monks

The modern open-plan office and the cubicle have origins in historical periods such as ancient Rome and 18th-century London.

Hate the thought of returning to your cubicle? Thank medieval monks
[Photos: Cassius Ahenobarbus/Wikimedia Commons; Flickr user AEPM]
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If you’re reading this from the comfort of your couch or kitchen table, you’re likely among the seven in ten knowledge workers who Gallup finds are still working remotely. In fact, Gallup’s report revealed that nearly as many workers hadn’t returned to the office as those who were working from home in 2020. And things aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

As the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to rage, employers who said they would phase workers back into the office by the fall are rejiggering their plans. One thing that’s become evident: Many people don’t want to go back to the office. And it’s not just because of the love/hate relationship most have with open-concept spaces where once upon a time the majority of work got done.

A majority (65%) of those polled by FlexJobs said they’d like to be full-time remote employees post-pandemic, and 31% are willing to do hybrid work. Taken together, 96% of workers are looking to change where work gets done, at least part of the time. Such sweeping change is coming swiftly—especially when you think that the “office” has its roots in antiquity.

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Academics and architects are currently debating the virtues of design and its effect not only on workers’ productivity but also on their health and safety. From flexible floor plans to furnishings, the office of the future may resemble its former incarnation somewhat, but the way we work in it will change radically. Looking back at its long history may help reveal why some leaders still cling to the “old way” of gathering for work while revealing how we got here in the first place.


Ancient, medieval, and Renaissance periods: Secluded spaces to maximize focus

As far back as ancient Rome, the Tabularium was used to house public records and also may have served as an office building for workers. But medieval monks were likely to have been the first to use cubicles—or a scriptorium, as it was called—as they worked on manuscripts. These writing rooms were also used by lay scribes and illuminators.

Botticelli’s painting of St. Augustine in his cell depicts a small, three-walled alcove with a curtain, further suggesting that such work in Renaissance times was done in secluded spaces to maximize focus. Coincidentally, this painting hangs in the Uffizi Gallery, which was originally the central administrative building of the Medici empire.

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1600s-1800s: Professional individual workspaces

The 1600s ushered in a new era for the workplace. Witold Rybczynski, the author of Home: A Short History of an Idea, reveals that lawyers, civil servants, and other professionals started working from offices in London, Amsterdam, and Paris, where previously many had worked from home. In 1726 London, for instance, the Old Admiralty Buildings were the first purpose-built offices constructed to store paperwork for the Royal Navy and had meeting spaces like the Admiralty Board Room, which is still in use today.

The East India Co. followed suit with its own headquarters, and others began to build during this time as well, prompting Sir Charles Trevelyan, permanent secretary to the Treasury from 1840 to 1859, to write:

For the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it . . .

1900s: The birth of open offices

Flash-forward to the early 20th century, and Frank Lloyd Wright steps in to design the Larkin Administration Building, the first modern office, in 1906, and then the first open-plan office building for SC Johnson Wax in 1936. It’s not surprising that the idea of work was changing and office layouts were designed to maximize productivity, which was the holy grail for “management experts” like Frederick Taylor who were consulting with companies during the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century.

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1960s: Distractions and the “Action Office”

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the open office really started to gain traction as a popular design for workplaces. Bürolandschaft, originally a German design approach that translates to “office landscape,” aimed to democratize the workplace and create more interaction among colleagues.

In response to the growing popularity of the vast, open office space, Robert Propst, president of Herman Miller Research Corp., wrote, “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

The company’s answer was the debut of the Action Office, which was arguably the first flexible cubicle space, because it offered an alternate work setting with some privacy while still not restricting movement.

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There was a bit of a backlash to the open office as more women entered the workforce in the 1960s and ’70s. A 1968 article in Britain’s Observer detailed the problems (and some positive elements) of the new Boots open-plan office. From the piece:

Ivan Mitchell, Boots’ own chief architect, sits in a private office with smoked glass walls through which he is clearly visible and says that he suffers from visual distraction. He has to turn his desk sideways to avoid seeing the mini-skirts.

Unsurprisingly, this ushered in a new design feature that was called a modesty panel, which covered the front of the desk so female workers could wear their skirts without being on view. Yet another Observer article, this one from 1970, argued, “A woman’s legs are nothing to be ashamed of, and there is no reason for hiding them behind an obstruction that serves only to tear stockings and add to discomfort and inconvenience.” Designers interviewed for the piece suggested that the middle drawer of a desk should be removed to allow the female worker to cross her legs more easily.

As more businesses caught on to the idea of the Action Office and its modular flexibility, the concept morphed into a mass production of what we now know as cubicles. This wasn’t a stellar iteration for designer Propst, who declared, “Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places.” Too late, as many companies had already made the investment in the fabric-covered mazes.

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Now: Workplace perks and the rise of remote work

Pre-pandemic, of course, companies from small startups to massive global corporations were vying to up the design ante in favor of keeping their workers happy and productive. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the introduction of game spaces, sleep pods, plant walls, lounges, hot desks, and more. 

And alongside all of this came the shift no one was expecting to happen so rapidly: The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a return to working from homejust like in the Renaissance.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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