The evolution of office design: past, present and future

Drawing from their 43 year-long experience in the workplace sector, our member Cador based in Madrid and Barcelona analyzes the history of office design and the evolution and future of the office market.

In the last 40-odd years spanning from the mid-1980s to now, everything we know has undergone a significant change – industries, business models, people, and workplaces. The evolution of the office has been taking place.

Our perspective on life has evolved in both professional and personal settings. This includes a shift from prioritizing individual work to valuing teamwork, and moving away from pyramid-style decision-making in companies towards a more cross-functional approach that values relationships with people and considers business decisions holistically.

In the eighties, office design and construction largely favored enclosed spaces with workstations determined by the company's available space rather than the needs of individual employees to effectively perform their work, often prioritizing compliance with regulations over practicality.

Back then, office design was relatively uniform, with the only distinguishing features being the quality of furniture used and the materials deployed for partitioning and flooring. Two primary considerations were acoustic and visual privacy, typically achieved through opaque partitions that signaled the status of the office's occupant and separated them from other workers. The use of different partition finishes, furniture styles, and office sizes helped to differentiate the design of offices among both large multinational corporations and SMEs.

Over time, office design gradually shifted towards interdepartmental collaboration and open spaces, with individual offices reserved only to managers, promoting greater camaraderie and communication among coworkers. Companies began to adopt use the internet: multinationals began implementing it as early as 1985, while smaller businesses took longer to adopt due to the associated costs.

As such, it wasn't until the 1990s that the internet began to become commonplace, with Spanish homes not seeing widespread adoption until 1998, thanks to the efforts of various operators. This revolutionized not only people's personal lives but also the way work was conducted up until that point.

Meadows, unassigned workstations, and ecology

Subsequently, a new trend towards less compartmentalized office spaces emerged. This concept, known as "meadow" or open areas, originated in New York and was attributed to the Italian architect Gaetano Pesce, who first designed an office with this new concept for an advertising company in the mid-1990s.

Towards the end of the 1990s, new office concepts such as "unassigned workstations," concentration spaces, and collaboration spaces began to emerge, leading to further changes in office design. Spaces became increasingly open, with designated areas for teams to interact, as well as areas for individual concentration.

Technological advancements have played a crucial role in these office design changes. Cell phones have increased mobility, while the Internet allows for quick access to information. Video calls have also reduced the need for travel, enabling people in different locations to connect, resulting in cost savings for companies. These technologies have led to a growing awareness of ecological concerns, with many companies emphasizing economic and environmental sustainability.

However, some sectors and traditional companies did not adopt these concepts until much later due to the 2008 crisis, with implementation only becoming widespread in 2014. As a result, both new and previously established concepts such as ergonomics and flexibility are once again being emphasized in the early 21st century.

Transversal companies, multidisciplinary teams

Access to information and fast communication has revolutionized office design concepts and finishes. With increased globalization, companies have shifted towards a more transversal approach, requiring spaces where teams can collaborate on various projects without being located in the same building or city. Video calls and digital communication have replaced the need for travel and in-person meetings.

Offices now need to provide spaces for multidisciplinary teams to work together, and for individuals to think and collaborate. Flexible and open office spaces with diverse furniture options are becoming more common, as companies prioritize talent attraction and global project work over individuality. Transparency and flexibility are key values driving this new era - and office design needs to reflect this.

Wellness, biophilia and collaboration

Today, companies seek maximum flexibility to adapt to changing times. New concepts such as "neuroarchitecture" demonstrate the influence of spaces on mental well-being, while natural light has a direct impact on our mood and wellness. When designing spaces, we must prioritize coherence, simplicity, and environmental sustainability. The concept of "biophilia" aims to bring nature into office spaces.

In recent years, companies value not only internal collaboration between areas but also interaction with the surrounding business environment, leading to a trend of transparency and flexibility in the creation of shared spaces such as coworking spaces. These spaces allow different companies to work together, collaborate, and form a community based on shared affinities and synergies.

Overall, the world of office spaces has undergone significant changes over the past 40 years, and this evolution is ongoing. The work of the future will be characterized by digital ecosystems, multidisciplinary talent management, and new operating models that prioritize technology and flexibility, as seen in the emerging "gig economy" concept.

To find out more about Grupo Cador, please visit: Grupo Cador | Design and Build. Specialized in workplaces