The Evolution of Office: Then & Now

The way we work has been in constant evolution for the better part of a century. Herman Miller has been innovating at every turn by putting humans first.

The typewriter, the telephone, the elevator, the personal computer, the internet: these are all inventions that have been transforming how we work since the end of the 19th century. What has changed very little in the last century or so, however, is where we work. “We find ourselves now with office forms created for a way of life substantially dead and gone,” said Robert Propst in The Office: A Facility Based on Change.

Propst, Herman Miller’s Director of Research, wrote those words back in 1968, and even then he understood that we are living and working in a “constant state of radical change.” “What is different now is the pace of change and the prospect that it will come faster and faster,” he said.

Action Office (Courtesy of George Nelson Office)

Initially introduced to the market in 1964 and enhanced in 1968 – just before the third industrial revolution began in 1969 – “It allowed you to create your own space for you to work by yourself or collaboratively with others. And it helped you to organise yourself with other accessories,” says Jack Wang, Director of Research, Design and Development for Herman Miller in Asia.

The sit-to-stand modes of working Action Office proposed didn’t take off at the time, but the cubicle concept it introduced certainly did. It enabled businesses to position the majority of their workforce within one space while maintaining a degree of privacy. At the same time, companies began placing more emphasis on large, formal meeting rooms.

The first activity-based workstation

Understanding that the office needed to respond to change, and to the many tasks any one person undertakes in their working day, Propst and George Nelson created Action Office, a workspace solution with an adjustable desk that allowed people to sit or stand; with vertical filing systems, plenty of desk space, and partitions, so that they could work privately when they needed to.

Action Office

The rise and fall of the cubicle

In the 1980s and 1990s – the dawn of the information era, during which personal computers became increasingly commonplace – the cubicle became the norm; to the point that it became a ubiquitous people trap. In Propst’s eyes, the cubicle had lost its ability to support deep, focused work: his original intention. He called these fabric-panelled cubicle factories “rat-holes” and “monolithic insanity.”

Beginning with Silicon Valley’s tech companies, others saw it too, and this prompted a return to the open-plan office that had first made its appearance in 1939.

The return to open-plan offices was a breath of fresh air after the contrived efficiency of the cubicle. It brought with it “more access to daylight, and more transparency between functions and departments,” says Wang.

Action Office

A defining product of the open-plan era was the Aeron Chair. Launched in 1994, it was a response to how people used personal computers in the early 1990s. Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf observed that workers would sit with their keyboards in their laps, or slouched back in a semi-reclining position, and this prompted them to create a chair with a reclining mechanism that tied into the seat’s movement, too.

Aeron quickly became a pervasive sight in the open-plan offices of the 1990s and the 2000s, putting function first and the focus on comfort, and humans.

As Aeron’s popularity grew, so too did the personal computer’s – and so did the internet. Initially a U.S. government experiment, it entered the public domain when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1990. Wireless networks followed in 1997, and now, 20 years later, no longer bound by cords and cables, the way we work has become much more mobile.

The office still looks much like it did back in Propst’s time, but changes are happening there, if incrementally.

Rethinking work and the workspace

“With the rise of agile workspaces and the coworking space, it’s more about how people arrange their office furniture, how they use it, and maximising square footage, than the furniture itself,” says Wang.

This is the thinking behind Herman Miller seating products such as Embody, which recognised and supports the fact that people need to move as they work, and Cosm, which launched last year, and which adjusts instantly and automatically to every body that sits in it.

Left – Embody Chair, Right – Cosm Chair

Human movement and furniture that’s flexible enough to respond to changing ways of work were also at the core of the design for Atlas Office Landscape, the latest workstation in Herman Miller’s workplace offering for the APAC market. Designed by Tim Wallace, it’s the culmination of the workplace research that has been underway at Herman Miller since Propst’s time.

For Wallace, Atlas was inspired by the realisation that “We are on the threshold of having to break away and fundamentally reorganise work,” he says. “As office manufacturers, we don’t determine how people work; we just support it. We have to recognise what’s going on. We recognise that for some people, they have to move into a different environment where they are released from single-use desks into a much more eclectic environment with spaces that have evolved to support what they need to do.”

Atlas achieves this by taking the height-adjustable desk and making it flexible. A unique system of legs allows Atlas to be reconfigured with ease, so that rectilinear, 90-degree and z-plan desk arrangements are all possible within the same space, and using the same equipment.

Atlas also gives users the ability to work as they need to: L-shaped screens can be clipped into place in an instant to give the user privacy if they need to concentrate, or removed and desks reconfigured as necessary to allow for more collaborative scenarios.

Wallace and Wang see Atlas as the beginning of a new era in the crowded height-adjustable table market. “The next revolution is about what height-adjustable tables can do differently within the workspace,” says Wang. “How do we maximise utilisation of space? How can we create good flow in the office? Atlas allows us to reconfigure the office in so many different ways.”

“Advances in technology have reduced our requirement to work in one particular place,” says Wallace. We will, he says, “finally abandon the ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy of space planning that has blighted offices since the early 1980s, and release individuals from the shackles of an allocated and irrelevant desk.”

Explore how Atlas can transform your workspace here.