1800s: Routine work under the watchful eye of the boss
This is what the first offices looked like: office workers tapping away on their typewriters in a big hall, and supervisors keeping an eye on things from their private offices. (Photo above: The large office hall at the head office of Elanto in 1948, Helsinki City Museum.)
The industrial revolution created paperwork. To begin with, the offices of factories, banks, railways and stores were filled with men, but gradually women started entering the offices. Technological innovations, such as fluorescent lamps in the 1940s, made work easier and more efficient, but the authoritarian office ideal resiliently lived on until the 1950s.
“In industrial age offices, the majority of work was the routine following of instructions, and employees were hardly ever required to use their own initiative. The relationship between management and employees was very hierarchical and formal,” says Reetta Ripatti-Jokela, Head of Workplace Solutions at Senate Properties.
1960s: Equality ideal starts to have an impact on offices
The 1960s introduced an aspiration for humanity and equality. Cooperation gained importance and social working environments were developed to support this.
In the most fashionable open-plan offices, attempts were made to improve the functionality of the organisation by placing the furniture asymmetrically and using plants as space dividers. However, the organisations remained hierarchical and if you wanted to talk to the most senior manager you would have to go through the secretary first.
“It was common for the offices of supervisors and managers to be located by the exterior walls of the building, which meant there was natural light and a view. In contrast, the open-plan spaces between these offices were populated by the ordinary workers.”
1970s–80s: The silence of individual offices
After working in the exposed and sometimes noisy open-plan offices, employees started craving privacy. A modern and cost-effective solution was to erect high partitions in open-plan offices.
A more solid solution to this was an individual office. “Public office buildings” were characterised by never-ending corridors lined with closed office doors. The small number of meeting rooms had massive meeting tables, and coffee breaks were spent in ascetic break rooms.
“The focus of office buildings in the 1970s–80s was to enable employees to concentrate on individual work. Heading towards the 90s the nature of work started to change, as the tasks of many office workers started to become more varied and the need for interaction grew.”
1990s: Second coming of open-plan offices
When Finland was plunged into recession, public organisations and companies were forced to cut costs. In many office buildings the desire to improve the space efficiency was met by getting rid of individual offices and placing employees together in open-plan and considerably smaller spaces.
“However, employees still had their own assigned and personal workstations. These were often surrounded by cabinets with plenty of room for books, binders and documents.”
2000s: The age of the versatile office
As we entered the new millennium the contents of these cabinet started to be transferred first into network drives and then into the cloud. Portable computers gave employees the freedom to move away from their desks. Before long, organisations started to realise that as many as 40 % of their workstations were unoccupied during working hours.
“At the same time the need to work together became more important at workplaces. Supervisors faced the challenge of managing this flexible way of working, which was no longer tied to time or place. Instead of employees turning up at the office, working was based on trust and results.”
Open-plan offices started to be converted into activity-based environments, which supported different types of working needs: there was a move away from assigned workstations, and in the space that was freed up, quiet spaces where employees could focus on their work, phone boxes, spaces for meetings and group work, and areas for relaxed interaction, such as pleasant coffee rooms were created. In many work communities, managers accelerated this change by being the first to move out of their corner offices and into the new type of environment.
Today: Creative and welcoming meeting places
“Office work is more demanding, creative and autonomous than ever before, as information technology now takes care of the mechanical and routine tasks.”
The increase of project work and working in networks has created communal co-working, where experts from different fields and organisations work under the same roof in hubs. Freelancers work in temporary hoffices, which are offices spontaneously set up in someone’s home.
The space required in offices is getting even smaller – at the office premises managed by Senate Properties this is already nearing 12–15 m2 per employee, whereas at the beginning of the 2000s the figure was, on average, over 30 m2.
“The office is no longer just a place to do work. At best, it is a physical, virtual and social work environment that supports the success of the organisation and its employees.”