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Ditching The Office Cubicle For In-House Barista’s – Evolution Of Office Design

Taking the commuter train into town, you witness an eclectic bunch; standing, leaning, sitting, sleeping, your eyes peruse the crowded train and observe the many ‘uniforms’ – some dressed up, some dressed down, and others hardly dressed at all. What do we all have in common? Our work-day lies ahead. For some, however, it’s already begun – commuters click-clack away on their laptops and smartphones and implement the trendy, ‘Martini’ work style:

‘Anytime. Anyplace. Anywhere.’

Changing cultures have influenced work styles over the past hundred years. Once upon a time, the suit and tie would have been an indicator of somebody going to work, what they did, and, sometimes, how much they earned. Now, the Intern and the CEO have seemingly swapped uniforms, with even more companies instilling a ‘casual’ approach to its ‘uniform’ and workplace; blurring the line between work and play.

So if the term ‘Agile Working’ doesn’t mean anything to you, it should. Defined by NHS Employers Organisation as ‘a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose.’

Many of the worlds biggest corporations implement this work style, offering their staff greater autonomy and flexible workspaces that are adaptable to its user. As characterised by The Royal Institue of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), “work is an activity, not a place.”


To fully understand our modern-day work culture, we must first backtrack a hundred years, to the roaring 20s, when office design carried more importance than you may think.

At the time, companies were becoming interested in offices that expressed a more corporate image and were keen to get work done cheaper and in less time through the implementation of streamlined offices. Frederick Taylor is credited as being one of the first people to design a modern office. Determined to maximise productivity, he designed open-plan spaces with forward-facing desks. Many modern companies across America and Europe adopted Taylor’s design.

Evolution of Office Design 1920s open plan

1920s style open-plan office, National Archives


By the time the 50s came around, advances in office design had soared. Modern materials like glass and steel were used to construct new high-rise buildings; benefitting from natural light and open-plan office floors. Many ‘glass boxes’ sprung up across the New York skyline, and influenced office design internationally.

1960s – 1980s

Robert Propst and George Nelson invented the Action Office I; a furniture design intended to make effective use of office space, allowing its user’s privacy and yet maintaining the open-plan office. This then developed into the Action Office II and what would be more commonly known today as the ‘office cubicle’.

evolution of office design robert propst action office

1960’s Action Office Designed by Propst

Iconic ‘cubicle farms’, heavily referenced in movies of the 80s and 90s, including Office Space, Matrix, American Beauty, and Fight Club – sadly refelcted its depressing reality.

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Scene from ‘Office Space’ 1999 film

Despite its success, Nelson became a prominent critic of the Action Office, saying:

“One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realise that Action Office II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for “employees”, for “personnel,” corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.” 

21st Century – The Tech Boom

At the turn of the 21st Century, with new technologies, world wide web, laptops, smartphones, and the quiet steps of social media, tech companies were riding the dot com boom and embracing the turn of the millennia with exciting office designs to fit their progressive new image. Rich designs with loud colour schemes in large open plan spaces.

The advent of technology made workers less fixed to their desks and allowed them to work anywhere. But it is Silicon Valley giants (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Ebay), who were some of the first to allow staff to work whenever and however. They recognised the benefits of autonomy, flexibility and also encouraging their staff to unwind.

Breakout spaces are now becoming more common; areas for activities and games within the office (ping pong, table football) and in-house coffee shops for staff to socialise and regroup (like the one here at Maris Interiors!) – all of which has shown an increase in employee happiness and well-being.

Foam_Office Design_Office Relocation

Foam Coffee Shop, Maris Interiors

Other benefits also include: attracting and retaining talent at the company; an energised environment increases productivity; and these offices reduce carbon footprint by better utilising space.

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