History of Communal Workspaces

An Essay by Libby Sellers

How do we work together, what are the spaces that connect us and what does the future of communal work hold? This essay by Libby Sellers takes a closer look at the fascinating history of communal workspaces.

In Playtime, Jacques Tati’s 1976 satire about the absurdities of modern city life, his bumbling alter ego Monsieur Hulot strides through a fictional office on his way to an appointment. Lost in a maze of metal cubes and reflective surfaces, Hulot hilariously tries in vain to navigate an incomprehensible space governed by order and optimisation. As chaos ensues, the technological and bureaucratic parody escalates. Yet like many of Tati’s visual elements, the work cubes and technocratic planning that bamboozled Hulot had only a decade earlier been hailed as the solution to communal office life. Their descent from design remedy to derision seems to follow the pattern of communal workspaces in general. Much like the revolving doors that kept Hulot in a perpetual spin, the history of office design has gone round in circles since it first emerged.

From the field to the factory floor, the history of work has centred around communal effort, though the origins of the office as we understand it today are inextricably linked to the beginning of paperwork itself. Since the invention of writing and the ability to keep systematic records, there have been office-like spaces to produce and house them. Florence’s Uffizi Gallery originally served as the 16th-century bookkeeping offices of the Medici family’s ground-breaking financial operations. Both a workplace and visible statement of prestige and power, it was one of the first corporate offices. As other service professions grew in prominence, so too did the administrative spaces required to sustain them.

By the mid-19th century, clerks and their counting houses began to appear across capital cities internationally and in the literature of their day. Charles Dickens describes them countless times throughout his collected works, while period illustrations portray vast halls of frock-coated men, hunched over rows of long communal wooden desks. Less salubrious accounts depict clerks disappearing ‘mysteriously down passages or into doorways that lead to narrow staircases, some doubtless to “little tanks” … others into dingy warehouses that look as dreary as prisons.’
Salvation was deftly delivered when architect Frank Lloyd Wright swapped Dickensian gloom for shiny glass and metal. Cited as the first modern office, his Larkin Company Administration Building in Buffalo, New York (1906) emphasised proficiency and congeniality. Skylights brought natural light and an early form of air conditioning cooled the space, while a communal dining facility, classrooms and lounge area with a fireplace promoted a welcoming office culture. His later office building for SC Johnson Wax (1939) – with its harmonised muted colours and uniform modular furnishings – went even further in creating a positive, open-plan environment.

Productivity and efficiency became buzzwords and workspaces changed to capitalise on these goals. As land prices escalated, so too did the construction industry’s embrace of steel frames and elevators. Skyscrapers swept across the urban landscape, shoehorning vast workforces into ever smaller footprints. Much like their Victorian counterparts, workers sat in regimented rows while managers supervised from their surrounding offices. Air conditioning and fluorescent lighting reduced the need for natural ventilation and light, ultimately cutting workers off from the outside world. The effects were dehumanising and discouraging.

The revolving doors spun again in the 1960s when a new ‘socially democratic’ workplace was ushered in by workers’ unions championing healthier working conditions for employees. The regimented approach was replaced with the development of the Bürolandschaft, or office landscaping. With the goal of reviving communication, interaction and cooperation, solid barriers were removed, and staff were staggered in more organic patterns, loosely divided by plants and furniture. Seemingly random, these patterns and clusters had been calculated around work paths and roles within the company.
Round and round it went between closed and open spaces, mobile or static furniture systems and staff. The late 1960s saw the introduction of Herman Miller’s Action Office series of ‘systems furniture’ allowing for privacy and personalisation amid the hubbub of the generic office floor. Made of flexible, semi-enclosed workspaces, the Action Office cubicle and its many imitations became the foundation for the global office, holding sway for decades to come. Yet even its inventor, Robert Propst, was later to decry their omnipresence, and the way these ‘little tanks’ were obsessively imposed on workers.

The 1980s brought ‘hot-desking’, borrowed from ‘hot bunking’ where submariners had no designated bed. With the personal computer, mobile phone, then online connectivity, the next cycle introduced the idea of the ‘office hotel’ or ‘multi-spaces’, in which a wider range of pre-determined environments were offered depending on the task at hand. With the pandemic came enforced distancing, the return of desk dividers and the great WFH movement. For all the benefits this brought amidst the trauma and turmoil, studies now highlight how this too has resulted in alienation and demotivation, prompting new buzzwords like ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘the great resignation’.
As employers seek to encourage a return to the office, they have been presented with a unique opportunity to rethink the status quo through group- or system-wide transitions that offer a flexible balance between the virtual and the real, the remote and on-site. The resulting hybrid scenarios oscillate between home, third space and office for concentrated tasks, teamwork and face-to-face communication are required. Perhaps the real lesson here is the need for hybrid thinking – a flexible and agile approach to the office space that enables and activates all the same benefits and liberties of remote working while acknowledging that everyone’s needs are equally hybrid and diverse.

Publication Date: 21.4.2023
Author: Libby Sellers (Libby Sellers is an independent design curator, historian and author based in London)
Images: 1. © 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich; 2. © Courtesy Herman Miller Archives; 3. Vitra;

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