The evolution of the office

The evolution of the office

Many of us work in offices – business leaders more than most – but they tend not to be a huge topic of conversation.

Journalist and author Gideon Haigh tells LeadingCompany that offices are: “in the water supply, and we don’t recognise how enormous and significant that shift is that we’ve become a part of.”

The shift Haigh speaks of is that to a service-based economy, one he says is similar in its nature and totality to the industrial revolution. It is chronicled in a beautifully illustrated book Haigh has written, released this week by Melbourne University Press.

The Office starts in ancient Egypt, and finishes where we are today. Each chapter is a self-contained essay on a particular aspect of the office, from skyscrapers to scientific management to the myriad of technological advances we take for granted but which were each crucial to the shape of the spaces we spend much of our lives in.

Haigh says offices are, at their heart, about people getting together to solve problems.

“I find something quite moving and almost heroic about people going off almost every morning in this great seething mass, that they often don’t like very much and barely manage to tolerate,” he says. “Despite the fact that we don’t get to choose our workmates, we manage to find a way to get on and collaborate.”

We spend so many of our waking hours in offices, but Haigh was shocked to find in the course of writing his book that so few had tackled the topic before.

“I’ve always been interested in work,” he says. “I like work, I get a real kick out of it.”

“As I considered the subject, I realised that over the past 100 years we’ve become a society of office-workers. We chiefly move information around… Even though we’re supposedly so materialistic, we’re quite comfortable dealing with the immaterial.”

Despite having studied the subject in great detail, he’s reluctant to make pronouncements about the likely future of office work.

He insists he’s no futurist, and chiefly qualified to speak of the office’s past.

“But I will say, the death of the office has been prophesied endlessly over time. But what’s happened has been quite the opposite.”

“H.G. Wells was saying there would be no need for cities because of the telephone, but what happened was that the telephone generated more possibilities, more linkages, more trade, which resulted in greater consolidation, and actually increased the size of offices. Even though it’s becoming sort of intellectually fashionable to say there’s no need to go into offices, office work isn’t going away. The need for handling of information is multiplying. Even if we don’t do it in a place we call an office, it’ll go with us.”

“If we work from home, I would say that’s not the end of the office, but the office’s final triumph.”

Five things about offices you probably didn’t know:

1)     Office work has existed for a very long time, but for much of human history it wasn’t tied to a particular place. Rather, scribes would sit down and work wherever it suited them. “With modern technology, in a sense, things have come full circle,” says Haigh. So when did offices become tied to a physical location? After the industrial revolution, it seemed only natural to apply the same principles of supervised management to knowledge-work.

2)     It took the telegraph and telephone to convert offices from places of work to places of power. Before the advent of the telephone, business leaders would have to leave the office to get things done, and would return to unwind and do their paperwork.

3)     Even before the telephone, long business hours were the norm for corporate leaders. Diaries of businessmen from the 1800s often describe them staying in the office until 10 or so in the evening.

4)     Women have been an integral part of the modern office for much longer than most people realise. In America, they flocked to office work after the civil war, and were the first subjects of scientific management, the practice of finding the quickest way to complete a mechanical task pioneered by Frederick Taylor. Adapted straight from the factory floor, it was described by management guru Peter Drucker as “the most powerful as well as the most lasting contribution America has made to western thought since the Federalist Papers”.

5)     The first office building isn’t in America, but in Italy. The Uffizi in Florence is now an art gallery, but it was built for Cosimo I de’Medici, duke of Tuscany, as the offices for the Florentine magistrates. “Cosomo I liked work, but he also liked pleasure,” says Haigh. “He wasn’t in Florence for six months of the year. So he created the Uffizi to stand for him when he wasn’t there. It was a reminder of his power, capped with statue of him in the centre looking down.” It seems despite their diverse origins, office buildings have often been physical representations of powerful personalities.

Source: The Office, Melbourne University Press.

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