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The Office is Dead -
Long Live the Office?

Just as the future of offices is hard to define, the history of offices and office work is also improperly understood. Analysts anxious to promote or predict radical change argue that offices are a modern and unnatural invention, that will wax and wane with industrial society.

But office work and workers have been around pretty much since the beginning of civilisation, accounting for, organising and writing about the property and transactions of the rich, of governments, and of religious cults. Theirs are many of the earliest written artefacts, whether in Sumer, Egypt or China. 

Office functionaries - scribes, accountants, etc - are frequently mentioned in the Bible. They probably wrote most of it during the course of a thousand years of ancient near eastern history. Temples are amongst the earliest offices, with rooms for writing, for record keeping, for accounting, for staff training/team-building, for customer service etc. The physical concentration of skills and resources was both efficient and powerful. (Arguably organised religion was also the first "knowledge industry" - but that's another issue!)

And there is no reason to suppose, as is so often repeated now (e.g. as argued by the oft-quoted William Bridges, in Jobshift) that until 200 years ago people did not have jobs, they did jobs. That view is not historically sustainable.

People have always been pooled together to undertake work. This can involve more or less personal freedom, and more or less formal contractual relationships. The range of boss-worker relationships runs from slavery and serfdom through direct employment, indirect employment and self-employment. Retinues, offices, armies, labour gangs, workshops: all these collective forms of work organisation have been with us since time immemorial. 

The individual craftsman or farmer in control of his own labour is only one model of economic activity. That he/she was "doing a job" rather than "having a job" is in many ways a romantic construct of late 20th century futurists - a myth underpinning the concept of "portfolio man". 

Historical bureaucrats

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The growth of employed, salaried officials (clerks) in a recognisably modern sense can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages in both the private and public sectors. The growth of banking in the later Middle Ages and early modern times led to the establishment of international organisations with offices in important commercial centres.

Probably the most successful office-building organisation was the Roman Catholic Church, which established a highly effective, and expensive, international infrastructure servicing its needs and aspirations which was to be widely imitated. Many of its functionaries were indeed hired by others to bridge a skills gap.

Early modern "new monarchies" built palaces and offices to house their growing retinue of professional advisers, clerks and secretaries. The expense of transporting such huge retinues was one factor in the decline of peripatetic monarchy in favour of having a settled capital.

Perhaps the prime example of the centralising bureaucrat as King was Philip II of Spain, who ruled a worldwide empire from his new capital in Madrid. He personally dealt with a huge amount of administrative detail on memos drawn up by an ever expanding army of salaried clerks. Francis Drake and John Knox may have called him other things, but the Spaniards refer to him as "Il Prudente".

The most famous contemporary office building is perhaps the Uffizi ("offices") in Florence built (1571) for Cosimo de Medici - an architectural glorification of administrative power. Modern times have seen numerous examples of this!

Offices, then, have developed over the centuries not as an aberrant imitation of the factory system - although factory methods have undoubtedly influenced the organisation of workers in offices. Offices developed because they have been almost universally recognised as the most effective way of organising information workers. Until now.

New trends

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Centuries-old traditions of accommodating information workers are being challenged by a number of new factors. One is the democratisation of organisations, even if sometimes more apparent than real. The challenging of hierarchy is expressed both in "delayering" and in the physical location of managers, who are more likely to have smaller officers or have to share space.

A renewed emphasis on the bottom line also informs decisions to restructure and relocate office functions: the costs involved in high rents for central office property and avoidable travel through congested traffic networks are provoking some radical rethinking.

There is thus a general trend towards new-built offices, better connected to the roads network (usually edge-of-town), with built-in flexibility for both internal office design and wiring. But there is also a  trend towards a virtual or teleworking office environment.

New information and communication technology (ICT) challenges the necessity of concentrating large groups of information workers together. With its need for modern wiring it also imposes new demands buildings. The costs of refurbishing old offices often acts as a spur to radical thinking about the location of the organisation.

Use of the new ICT does not spell the end of offices. Instead, it challenges spatial preconceptions about offices. The office, in terms of its personnel, systems and information resources, can disperse and regroup at will. Maybe even that is more traditional than we think: the office of a medieval bank or monarch could travel en masse, or in part, maintaining cohesion between fixed and temporary bases via an infrastructure of clerks and couriers.

So do these trends spell the end of offices? Most probably not. The physical boundaries of offices may change, and the extent to which people need to be physically concentrated in the same place at the same time. But structures/infrastructures for collective work and collaboration, for both physical and virtual meeting, are still required.

Even homeworking networked professionals need a "home office" to work in. Perhaps it is true to say that wherever two people are gathered together to work with information, there is an office. The question may be more about the nature, location, design and mobility or fluidity of offices, than whether they will continue to exist. History may be on their side.

A modern myth has developed that offices are a recent invention, born in the Industrial Era, and that they will fade away in the Information Age.

In this brief historical tour Andy Lake challenges some of the unhistorical assumptions of the gurus about the origins of office jobs, and questions the premature obituaries of the office.

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