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
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.
- 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
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.
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".
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
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.
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.