As the story goes…sometime in the 1990s, a community of techsters called C-Base in Berlin, Germany set up shop in a collaborative environment. This community-run hackerspace soon caught on and by the end of the ’90s grew to other countries.
In 2005, Brad Neuberg was working at a startup in San Francisco and grew tired of the static private office environment. He didn’t want the stuffiness of an office but also didn’t want to work from home. He found a space which he rented twice a week and opened to those with the same mindset. That’s how the first collaborative workspace was born.
From folded card tables and chairs of Neuberg’s San Francisco CoWork Space to chandeliers, gyms, rooftop gardens, yoga lessons, and event space, collaborative spaces have certainly evolved. Along with that evolution has come the transformation of contract furniture to fit this growing industry.
We explore the evolution of the corporate collaborative space (aka, open office floorplan) and the co-work concept and how it inspired and shaped contract furniture to come full circle back to the private space movement with office seating pods.
Believe or not, the open office concept came before the cubical.
We go back to Germany where a space planning consultant firm developed the “office landscape”. This was an early movement in office open space plan. Office landscape consisted of traditional office furniture, large potted plants, curved screens, and natural shapes for large workgroups.
Office furniture companies caught on to this trend and soon saw the need for various furniture schemes such as panel-hung systems to accommodate the office environment, but focused on privacy, storage, and volume.
Soon after, the office landscape concept shifted to the conventional cubicle mid-1970s.
Cubicle: The Birth of the Cube
The word “cubical” derives from the Latin “cubiculum” and was used for small rooms or study spaces with patricians. Prior to the cube, offices had what we now call an open floor plan with desks in rows, right up against each other. Think the classic 1960s movie “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon in a noisy New York insurance company trying to work his way to the top.
By the 60s, Herman Miller started the Herman Miller Research Corporation. Its focus was to solve problems related to the use of furniture and how it functions in an office environment. This entailed learning how people work; how they receive information; and how the office floorplan affects the way they perform their job. There was an entire science around this study which included behavioral psychologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians.
Although the study showed a substantial increase in the 20th Century of how we work and receive information in an office, little had changed to move with the change in communication for office furniture. Employees were still sitting back-to-back and side-by-side, with little to no privacy or a feeling of one’s personal space. The study also showed that an open office space reduced communication between employees…just the opposite of what you’d think an open floor plan would do.
From these findings, two furniture lines were launched by Herman Miller, Action Office I and Action Office II.
Action Office I had different sizes of desks and workspaces to fit the uniqueness of the people who used them. The downside? The line was expensive, hard to assemble, and not ideal for conglomerates. The upside? It won the Alcoa Award for product design.
The second line was Action Office II. This line was the introduction to what we know as the office cubicle. This mobile wall unit was just the opposite of the first try at contract furniture. The line was interchangeable, easy to install and assemble, most of all, versatile so that a company was able to change its floorplan as needed.
Needless to say, since the second time around was much more successful than the first, Action Office II revolutionized the workplace and other furniture makers soon copied its concept.
Let’s Collaborate: The Co-Work Revolution
The cubical eventually became a little too quiet; a little too drab; a little too close for comfort as companies jammed more and more cubicles into small office spaces, creating cubicle farms.
So back we went to open office space as new tech companies started to hack and disrupt everything, including the office norm. Down came the walls and up came the openness and freshness with cool desks, chairs and other furniture to congregate with your fellow peers and work on cool projects together. The idea was to create an environment to promote conversation, transparency, collaboration, innovation, and where employees and employers could sit side-by-side on the same playing field.
Although it was not technically a new idea, an open office plan was a new concept after years of enclosed cubes. It worked…that is until the distractions increased, the job performance decreased, the sick days became frequent and people began complaining how their chatty co-workers always interrupted them, how their bosses were continuously looking over their shoulder, and how they just couldn’t get a minute alone.
Much like the cubicle was copied, the open office plan has been replicated by much larger companies from their much smaller counterparts because it’s been the trendy thing to do and not because it’s worked for their particular environment. Since every company’s culture, mission, and ethos is different, so should their office space.
Now let’s circle back to the co-work environment we started with. Co-work spaces take a page from the open office plan in private or corporate offices, as they are very similar with their shared goal to collaboration, innovate, give a feeling of belonging, all without the hierarchy.
Let’s take it a step further… since we can set up an office space pretty much anywhere from restaurant/bars to hotel lobbies to YMCAs to “corpoworking”, office furniture design needs to evolve, considering the human factor.
Furniture needs to be welcoming, comfortable, functional and inspiring. It should allow co-workers to collaborate in common areas, work independently in office seating pods, or hold meetings with clients or small groups in “huddle” rooms or spaces. Let’s not forget the areas that allow people to unwind, reflect, and have a minute to themselves before getting down to work.
The idea is to create a versatile environment using contract furniture that moves with not office trends but transcends time and adapts with how people work. Whether it’s a trend or timeless, ask yourself, just because everyone is doing it, is it right for your office?
There’s no cookie-cutter solution to the more than 4,043 co-work spaces in the U.S. alone and the more than 30% of companies who’ve invested in an open-office floorplan.
What’s Next: The Future is Office Seating Pods
The great debate of ditching the open office concept and going back to private spaces still goes on. But why can’t both co-exist? Sometimes you feel like collaborating and being social and sometimes you just want to be left alone to get stuff done in an office seating pod without interruptions. There’s no right or wrong; just personal preference based on the needs of your team. Along with the evolution of the open or private office floorplan comes designing office furniture that speaks volumes.
What’s next in office furniture trends? “Hot” desks, “smart” office furniture, dedicated conference rooms, office seating pods, “botanical” offices, and desk panels. No matter which trend you decide is the best fit for your office space, one thing is certain, it’s moving in the intimate, private, and distraction-free direction of office seating pods.
Before the Beginning: The Private Movement of Office Seating Pods
Before you begin to layout your dream office space, evaluate who you’re designing it for. Are the bulk of your employees millennials and want to feel like they’re surrounded by nature or are they seasoned professionals who don’t like to move from one desk to the another each day? How many employees does your space need to accommodate? Will they need to collaborate or require private areas to take calls, have either virtual or in-person meetings, need time alone to get in their “zone” in office seating pods, or a bit of everything? How many work areas are you designing? Are you considering lighting, plants, accessories, and art for a complete ambiance?
Keep in mind, the better thought-out your workspace plan, the more on point your office furniture design will be, leading to happier employees and a more dynamic workplace.