Making Moves: How Office Culture Has Progressed Over 50 Years

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Office culture has changed significantly in the last decade, but what about the last half a century? Thanks to the rise of technology, the traditional workplace is almost unrecognisable compared with the 1950s and 60s. Smartphones and wireless Internet allow us to remain in almost constant communication with coworkers and employers, dramatically altering the way we work. However, this is not all that’s changed, and there are plenty of other social, political and economic factors to consider.

With this in mind, let’s explore how office culture has progressed over the last fifty years, and what it has to offer us now.

Diversification of the Workplace

Nowadays, we know that the long-term success of any business calls for a diverse pool of talent from all ages, social classes, and racial backgrounds, but it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1950s, more than 60% of the workforce consisted of white males, and women mostly stayed at home. Thankfully, this has changed over time: the percentage of women participating in the labour force increased from 41% in 1967 to 60% in 1999, before dropping slightly in 2011 to 58.1%. Similarly, with the influx of foreign workers over the last three decades, the number of minorities in the workforce was 36% in 2012, whereas figures from 1980 were so low, they were not even recorded.

Office Layout: The Bürolandschaft Movement to the Cube Farm

With so many changes to the way we work, many businesses have chosen to abandon the traditional office setting entirely, either by working remotely or changing the layout of their offices. Many organisations now conduct business solely online, which negates the need for a physical presence, while others allow flexible or homeworking options. So how did we get here?

The 1950s saw the dawn of office collaboration, with groups of desks in patterns designed to encourage conversation and create a happier workforce. This set up was known as The Bürolandschaft movement (the German concept of grouping desks together). The movement was largely politically motivated, with socialist values permeating the workplace. However, businesses soon found that these close interactions between colleagues encouraged distraction, infringed privacy and accelerated the spread of illness.

Cue the invention of the modern cubicle in the 1970s. This movement hit its peak in the 1980s when profit-hungry corporations tried to fit as many workers into one space as possible. However, once computers appeared on the scene, workers could communicate virtually rather than in person and they were no longer safe from distractions. Employers also found that the “cube farm” layout stifled creativity.

Office Evolution: The Next Step

Distinctly different from the office set-up from the 1980’s and 1990’s, coworking spaces are the latest evolution of office culture. In 2005, Brad Neuberg of San Francisco was credited with starting the coworking movement as we know it today, combining the flexibility and the independence of freelancing with the structure and productivity of an office space. In fact, he even invented the word “coworking” (note the lack of a hyphen). Since 2006, the number of coworking locations has doubled each year; the UK is one of the leading countries of coworking, with London especially being a hub of activity. The city leads the market, with a large number of venues available, but also the variety on offer for all the different needs, sectors and industries.

In June 2003, the government in the UK announced that, within 12 local authorities, they would run a pilot scheme of ‘One Public Sector Estate’ strategy, designed to encourage councils to work with different departments to share buildings. The scheme, which today works with over 250 councils, encourages collaboration, along with releasing property and surplus land, to free up land for development.

However, coworking offices aren’t simply about filling the desks or having private office space. Instead, they promote social and collaborative working, along with informal aspects which draws so many young millennials into this community. From freelancers to start up companies, the chance to mix and meet a variety of different businesses and people from all walks of life is a huge benefit of coworking spaces and one which doesn’t look to slow down anytime soon.

Work/Life Balance in the Modern Workplace

The emergence of new technologies has done great things for productivity in the workplace, but it also makes it more difficult for workers to unplug and take a break. With an increased focus on mental health at work, employers are beginning to value staff morale and individuality, and have subsequently lost some of their corporate façades. As the boundaries between work and social life become increasingly blurred and the cubicle walls are broken down, the new wave of corporate office space offers a better work/life balance such as educating staff on workplace wellbeing or implementing new workplace wellness initiatives.