How Did We Get Here? A History of the Modern Office


We can be inspired by the modern office or take it for granted, but how exactly did it become what it is today?


In his new book, “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace,” Nikil Saval interweaves history and personal experience to share the story of office evolution. Specifically, Saval details the impacts of workplace visionaries as well as their ideas and inventions. He then goes on to explain how these concepts shaped the workplace we know today.

“Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” –Robert Propst, 1960.

In response to this conclusion, Propst launched his concept of the Action Office system in 1964. This system opened the workplace by transforming permanent or fixed structures into configurable furniture options. Propst wanted to change the way people worked for the better. Needless to say, many copycats distorted his plan and now we are blessed with the cubicle.

In an NPR interview with Rachel Martin, Saval reveals his personal experience with limiting workspaces. Specifically, he mentions that although he was moving throughout different companies and gaining experience, his cubicle always seemed to be closing in.

Saval’s experience mirrors how many people feel about cubicles or closed off workspaces. Of course privacy is great sometimes, but studies have shown that open concept environments inspire greater efficiency and increased happiness at work. In reference to his career journey, Saval concludes, “And finally I was actually a freelancer, and that meant the cubicle had been squeezed out of existence.”

Moreover, the ever-increasing demand for coworking spaces stems from society’s urge to break free from the traditional workplace. Many corporations are falling in line as well and redesigning not only their offices, but also their company policies. Another important point that Saval makes is that it’s not just the aesthetics; it’s the culture too.

If you’re interested in learning more about modern workplaces that are beginning to break the mold, check out our Workplace Wednesday features.