A Brief History of the Modern Office

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Kelsey Gripenstraw and Anne Noyes Saini for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

* * *

In 1868 Christopher Latham Sholes and colleagues patented what would become the first commercially successful typewriter. At first many people were skeptical of “mechanical writing”; handwritten documents and correspondence were the norm, even in business. But after Remington started mass manufacturing typewriters in the 1870s, and with the rise of scientific office management around 1900, as JoAnne Yates of the MIT Sloan School of Management notes, the machine found a new home: the office.

“You can learn a lot from the typewriter,” adds Agustin Chevez, an architect and a workplace design researcher at Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, Australia. “That’s what brought more women into the white-collar workforce, which was a big social change in the fabric of society.”

Offices, and the ways we use them, have continued to evolve. In the 1960s full-service office lunchrooms were replaced by self-service kitchenettes, says Chevez. Around the same time tightly packed rows of desks — a layout borrowed from factory floors — began to give way to the flexible “privacy” of cubicles, a shift that continued over the coming decades. And breakthrough technologies — such as telephones, personal computers, and email — have expanded where, when, and how we work.

All of this brings us to Covid-19, which has upended office life worldwide. Given this sudden shift to working from home, we wondered: How can understanding the ways the office has evolved help us frame the changes happening today?

With the help of Yates, Chevez, and others, we identified four key moments in the history of modern offices. Then we asked HBR readers to share their memories of those disruptive transitions and tell us how the changes affected the ways they work. Here are their stories, which have been lightly edited for clarity.



In 1964 the Herman Miller furniture company introduced the Action Office, a flexible combination of desks, tables, and walls. It was colorful and elegant, intended to liberate workers by enhancing their freedom of movement and privacy. But the need for office space was growing quickly in the late 1960s and 1970s. Companies demanded furniture that was cheaper, more adaptable, and required less space. Herman Miller redesigned the Action Office to be smaller and lighter, and other furniture companies introduced copycat versions. The cubicle, writes Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, was born.

The Action Office II aimed to give employees more privacy, according to Yates, who conducts historical and contemporary organizational research. Cubicles eventually became a billion-dollar industry; many companies used them as a way to fit more people into small offices. Robert Propst, the inventor of the Action Office, spent his final years apologizing for his creation. “Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive,” he said in 1998, two years before he died. “Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

Here’s what some HBR readers recall about their early experiences with cubicles:

“At work in an engineering company in the 1970s, I witnessed the rows upon rows of back-to-back drafting tables. People yelled across rooms to each other, sometimes crazy mad at others, so that everyone heard them. It was debilitating for people, with nowhere else to go to escape it or to concentrate on their work. Even small cubicles gave the illusion that there was some separation and helped.”
—Margaret Ricci, who worked in architecture in Minnesota from the late 1970s to the late 1990s

“At first, I loved having my private space to be able to concentrate and perform my work, but shortly afterwards I had difficulties with adaptation due to the isolation and little connection with people.”
—Ailton Morais, who worked in the beverage industry in Brazil in the early 1990s

LISTEN: Clemencia Villamil, who worked in HR in Venezuela in the 1990s“I got lost in my first cubicle farm. Thank goodness I had a map.”
—Alan Korpady, who worked as a lawyer in Wisconsin in the 1980s

“I was the deputy manager of HR. We were growing rapidly and were running out of space. As more managers kept joining, we would slowly move the partitions closer. Thus, as the business grew bigger, the cubicle sizes started getting smaller. And one of my jobs was to go and explain the rationale to each impacted manager.”
—Nalina Suresh, who worked at a technology distribution company in India in the mid-1990s

“Cubicles reinforced the power of the corner office, as status and authority was so clearly reflected in visible, divided community versus protected, individual status. Nothing made you feel more like a powerless cookie cutter than being in a cubby.”
—Nancy Halpern, who worked in retail in New York from the late 1980s to early 1990s

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Kelsey Gripenstraw is the audience engagement editor at HBR. Anne Noyes Saini is the senior audio producer at HBR.


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.