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  • Writer's pictureZiggurat Realestatecorp

The office: its meaning, history and future

“I haven’t been to my office now for several months.” “When I go to my office it’s only for a meeting.” “My office is my dining table.” Are the offices so many of us worked in for decades becoming an extinct space? Will we still need office buildings? What offices will be around after covid-19 has been conquered? The Economist recently said “many offices were being run as relics of the 20th century […] the covid calamity will prompt a long-overdue phase of technological and social experimentation, neither business as usual nor a fatal blow to the office.”

The word office comes to us from the Latin word officium which means ‘performance of a task’. Etymology says the Latin word was contracted from opificium, literally ‘work-doing’. A person holding on office, an officer, has a responsibility, a duty to perform. The Uffizi Gallery was initially built in 1560 for Cosimo I de’ Medici to house Florence’s administrative and legal offices (uffizi in old Italian). The tasks in the Uffizi involved intellectual labour, white-collar work.

Offices in both senses of this word are side effects of organisations. The spatial sense of office that eventually evolved to uffizi probably began with the invention of writing over 5,000 years ago as high priests of early empires organised and accounted for the production of wealth.

In Organizations, published in 1958, James March and Nobelist Herbert Simon say the set of rules for performing a task is a programme. Two conditions underly and are implicit in the idea of office: 1) how firmly or strongly tasks can be differentiated and classified; 2) how thoroughly a task can be programmed and communicated.

What will be gained are efficiency and effectiveness. Lost will be the social functions of the office

Two generations ago, it became apparent that the hierarchical integration of the previous generation’s organisation had to loosen up. And it did. Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch in their classic Organization and Environment five decades ago addressed the problem of differentiating and integrating an organisation’s elements to make it successful. They showed horizontal integration was as important as its vertical counterpart. It was about then that the open office plan (Burolandschaft, i.e. office landscape) came into being in Germany and the Herman Miller Company began creating furniture for the more flexibly arranged open office. It didn’t hurt that the cost of this movable furniture could be amortised faster than traditional fixed office walls and doors.

Programmes have long been and still are communicated face-to-face in real space. The great benefit of spatial offices is that it enables face-to-face communication and transactions when subjective intent must be verbally elaborated and made explicit. The Coase Theorem says that firms, work organisations, exist to reduce transaction costs which would be higher and require legal apparatus when outside an organisation’s boundaries. Spatial offices integrating an organisation’s parts reduce mutual uncertainties and the transaction costs of intellectual exchange. As writing shifted from cuneiform to sheepskin, papyrus, paper and eventually to digital electronic media, many programmes could become more accurate, elaborated, finely differentiated, explicit, efficiently coded and communicated.

It’s undeniable that the programming of tasks has improved geometrically over recent decades while at the same time task classifications have had to become much looser. Two reasons: one, a constantly shifting competitive environment; two, we individually have more say in where we fit in the division of labour. Almost every layer of a hierarchy can be deconstructed into parts located almost anywhere.

The quantitative contraction of traditional office space is long overdue, happening and will continue. What will be gained are efficiency and effectiveness. Lost will be the social functions of the office as many office workers, excepting those in high managerial positions of large organisations, start-ups and professional firms, will be spatially segregated from each other. Tall office buildings will likely be places reserved for those in high managerial positions. Others may be converted to residential use or places where interior spaces need interconnection, like museums.

The processes of spatial redistribution won’t take place overnight. The big unknown is how they will affect metropolitan life. It will be a mistake for developers and designers to act on and affect spatial patterns based only on anticipations of market behaviour. Technological and social experimentation using the vehicle of real estate could easily and misguidedly fix what’s not broke. A period of benign neglect is necessary.

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