Monks and Traders - The origins of office design

The modern office has been honed over hundreds of years. Places of work need to best facilitate the business of the time, so evolve as we do. New designs have consistently broken through as humans and technology have developed, eventually giving us what we have today. Understanding the history of the office and its design is important in contemporary business practice. By looking back at the earliest examples of working offices, it becomes clear what works and what doesn’t, as well as what workers need and the consequences of neglecting this.

So, we begin with the monks. It seems strange that the history of office design begins with religion rather than commerce but, as Jory Mckay writes in A brief history of office design, “the humble monk needed a space for copying and studying manuscripts”. In the 1400s, holy men needed private, distraction-free spaces for their pursuit of knowledge. The early cubicles that were designed for this purpose enabled quiet contemplation in seclusion. As Mckay goes on, “it would take centuries for them [the cubicles] to become a part of the modern office” but this does mark the origin of a built-for-purpose workplace. The monks needed an environment that was tailored to their work, something that their living space couldn’t provide. When their early cubicles were established, they mirrored the nature of the monks’ work: private, quiet, distraction-free. Significantly, these designs arose straight from the demands of the workers’. Today, this is an important (yet, often overlooked) notion: when creating an office space, the employees know what they need in order to best do their job. By listening and responding to these requirements, an environment that pleases the workers and is specifically fit-for-purpose can be achieved.

The next leap in office design, around 300 years later, came about thanks to the East India Trading Company (EITC). According to Lucy Kellaway’s 2013 article How The Office Was Invented, 1729 saw the first purpose-built office space appear in London. The EITC needed its headquarters to house the growing number of staff as well as the “huge volumes of documents” generated as a result of the long-distance trade with Asia. The secluded cubicle workspaces of the monks in the 1400s could not be further from the open-plan chaos and bureaucracy of the East India House. There are historical accounts of a burgeoning social life at the EITC offices, and as Huw Bowen of Swansea University writes, there was “a rich atmosphere in some ways”. However, the intensity of this environment drove many workers to the edge. “While intellectuals thrived at East India House, others found it very depressing indeed” says Kellaway. Suicides and insanity (what we would now call work-related stress) became commonplace due to the tedious bureaucracy, relentless working hours and the divide between “the creative side, and these other people who were clerical drones”, according to Bowen. Here we can see some of the shortcomings of an open-plan office space. Open plan environments should maximise collaboration, but this can only happen if the treatment and workstyle of the employees is pretty much the same across the board. In the times of the EITC no one was prioritising worker welfare, the companys growth was the only focus.

These two cases are the earliest iterations of the offices we know today. They can be understood to be the two poles of office design. On one end, the serene and private cubicle of the monk, built for the acquisition of knowledge not profit. On the other, a juggernaut of industry, dominating both the world and its employees. An office environment built with the companys needs put first, versus a workplace designed by and for its employees. Now, the modern office can (and needs to) find balance between these two poles. At the very start of office design, the spaces created were one-dimensional, inflexible and although had strengths, were largely flawed. Now, there is greater scope for a nuanced workplace. One that can adapt based on demand or morale. One that can prioritise corporate gain alongside employee wellness. So much has changed in the 600+ years of workplace design and yet the mistakes made then can be easily repeated now if we are not ready to keep listening to the past and keep evolving.

Featured artwork on this page – Top image; artist Kara Sanches.