Changes in Modern Office Mirror the Past

Technology Drives Evolution in the Workplace<@VM>Transforming the Office<@VM>The Modern Office

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

In 1906, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the six-story Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, N.Y.

The light-filled workplace included a restaurant, classroom, library and organ. It was also the first air-conditioned office building, and it had the most advanced communications and distributions systems.

The expensive amenities were needed because Larkin, a soap manufacturer, depended on female workers to fill mail orders at the growing operation.

"That office was not in a desirable part of town. They needed new employees, and they wanted to attract female clerical workers, [so] they needed to make it an attractive place," said Chrysanthe Broikos, co-curator of a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., that traces the evolution of the American office.

Today's businesses have adopted strategies not unlike the Larkin Co. to recruit and retain happy employees. While modern offices probably don't have organs for entertainment, they do have coffee bars, billiard rooms and gyms.

Similarly, just as flexibility became more important in the turn-of-the-century workplace, office space today can be customized to reflect employees' personalities and job responsibilities.

The National Building Museum exhibit, "On the Job: Design and the American Office," explores these physical changes in the American office as well as the cultural shifts accompanying them.

Although many people think the office could disappear as the Internet, laptop computers and telecommuting become more widespread, Broikos disagreed. With companies focused on cutting the time from idea to saleable product, employers realize their workers need places to collaborate. "That means the office," she said.
Technology has been a driving force behind change in the workplace since the office became the hub of American work at the end of the 19th century.

First came the Sholes & Glidden typewriter in 1874. Remington & Sons Co. developed it as the gun manufacturer sought to diversify its product line after the Civil War. Adoption of Remington's typewriter as the American standard led to the uniform paper, envelope and file sizes still used today. From the typewriter emerged an office landscape of efficiency and standardization, the curators found.

Desks, for example, evolved from the Wooton model, featured in the exhibit, to flattop desks arranged row upon row. The Wooton Patent Cabinet Office Secretary, first manufactured in 1874, was a large structure with two wings and myriad cubbyholes; the flattop desk allowed managers to see employees and forced workers to move paper off their desks quickly.

As technological improvements shifted the economy from manufacturing to knowledge work, office design had to accompany the change, said Washington architect Lewis Jay Goetz, chief executive officer and principal of Group Goetz Architects.

"The computer has given us so much more information that what people do now is very different," said Goetz, whose firm has designed offices for clients such as American Management Systems Inc., Lucent Technologies Inc. and Oracle Corp. "[Now] mechanical work is only a byproduct of what we have to do. It has given us a whole new way of working that has forced the office to change."

The development of office furniture systems, characterized by modular walls, floors, ceilings and workstations, mirrored the shift to knowledge work, Broikos said.

Cubicles, for example, allow workers to tack papers around them, making work more three-dimensional.

Office space needs to be as flexible and adaptable as today's workers, whose tasks and responsibilities can change minute to minute. Many desks and walls have wheels, making them easily movable. Computer hookups are easy to move, too, as cables dangle from ceilings or slither under special flooring.

"Organizations are changing so rapidly," Goetz said. "They need to accommodate some new company mandate, merger or way of doing their work. They don't want to spend the money of tearing down walls. They want to do it in a fairly easy way."
At 11600 Sunrise Valley Drive in Reston, Va., employees come together in the "Chill-Out Room," a recreation room that resembles a bar and billiards parlor. Other amenities include an indoor basketball court, café, fitness center, jogging trail and outdoor volleyball court.

The building, created by the Morino Group, is home to emerging Internet businesses and private equity groups.

"The idea was that you would create the environment where knowledge and connections could be shared. It really has happened that way," said Liz Wainger, spokeswoman for the Morino Institute, a building tenant.

"The building facilitates getting knowledge out of people's heads and used to create exciting new things," she said.

Furniture systems that adjust to individual needs are key to keeping employees, said James Ludwig, director of product design for Steelcase Inc. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company is the world's largest office furniture manufacturer and a sponsor of the National Building Museum exhibit.

"We really have to provide solutions that allow people to feel ownership with their workspace, to identify with the place they spend a significant period of their lives," Ludwig said.

Some employers have changed their office model to a hotel concept, where workers reserve office space according to their needs each day. One day, a worker might need a cubicle for individual work; the next day he might need a conference room for a large meeting and a then a smaller room to talk with a boss.

Consequently, workers must be able to put all of their belongings in tubs that are 8.5 inches wide, 11 inches long and 15 inches deep, so they can move easily from one office space to another. Assistants get two tubs, managers get four, and partners get six tubs.

Having a hub office is crucial, said corporate anthropologist Karen Stephenson, who helps clients improve worker interaction.

"[Employees] do have to come in and form the bonds of trust. Once they do that, they can be dispersed," said Stephenson, a management professor at Imperial College at the University of London.

Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, began hotelling when its downtown Washington office moved to Reston, Va., in November 1999. About 2,200 employees are assigned to the office, which can accommodate about 80 percent of them.

"We were growing 20 percent to 30 percent a year. You get to the point where you have to do something monumentally different to accommodate that growth," said Scott Rohleder, managing partner, USA Government.

Although older partners were reluctant to give up their offices, and everyone had to get used to putting their belongings in a tub each night, the practice has worked, Rohleder said. "It has put our employees back at our clients' offices, where they should be anyway," and has reduced operating costs, he said.

As for the future, Rohleder was reluctant to predict it. "We just want to digest this change," he said. "I can't even imagine what the next wave will be."

Officials at Sun Microsystems Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., said they believe they have envisioned the office of the not-so-distant future, said Scott Ekman, program manager for the company's workplace effectiveness group.

The hardware and software manufacturer is developing a "network of places," which will allow employees to work anywhere that meets their needs.

Central to the idea is the company's Sun Ray computing appliance, which is featured in the museum exhibit. The appliances' smart-card technology will allow employees to access work wherever they are: an airport, home, hub office or satellite office, for example.

"We needed a strategy to aim at to lead the company around the way work will get done. We've decided that the network of places is about as good as we can get," Ekman said.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

What is your e-mail address?

My e-mail address is:

Do you have a password?

Forgot your password? Click here


  • POWER TRAINING: How to engage your customers

    Don't miss our Aug. 2 Washington Technology Power Training session on Mastering Stakeholder Engagement, where you'll learned the critical skills you need to more fully connect with your customers and win more business. Read More


    In our latest Project 38 Podcast, editor Nick Wakeman interviews Tom Romeo, the leader of Maximus Federal about how it has zoomed up the 2019 Top 100. Read More

contracts DB

Washington Technology Daily

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.