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    Evolution of the Office: 1950-1999

    Posted on 30th Apr 2019 in Office Culture, Open Office Furniture

    Data compiled by MIT at the turn of the 21st century found that the typical tasks in a 1950s 40-hour work week could be completed in 11 hours or less in 2000. Most of this, of course, is due to advances in technology. But its also due to increased worker morale and perks.

    Many companies have incorporated open office workstations, built relaxation rooms, and even have on-site masseuses to keep workers motivated and maximize productivity. Here are some of the most dramatic changes to office settings as the decades passed.


    Heavy metal didn't come along as a musical genre until the late 1970s, but it sure was a common theme in office settings after World War II. Metal desks would be surrounded by numerous metal filing cabinets. Those younger than 30 years old have likely never used a typewriter. Those old Remington typewriters were ever-present throughout the 1950s and 60s, as were very tired fingers. Remember, you had to literally strike the keys to ensure well-printed, in-line letters on the paper.

    The receptionist upfront had a large switchboard near her desk that allowed her to manually route calls to the respective recipient. Dialing someone's phone number could take upwards of 30 seconds, particularly if their number contained a lot of "9's" and "0's." Rotary-dial phones were the norm, as were desktop fans. Air conditioning was too expensive for many small companies to afford, so you were on your own to cool off on a hot summer day.

    Anybody with a private office was at least middle management, while everyone else sat in rows of desks throughout a large room. Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle of Hamburg, Germany, are often credited with breaking down the hierarchical environment in offices with what they called Bürolandschaft, or "office landscaping." This was also the start of what is today called the open office layout. Fluorescent lighting became mainstream in the late 1950s as well.


    Electric and electronic typewriters were now the norm, making offices much quieter and more efficient than they were in previous decades. Electronic calculators with rolls of paper to print records, were also more common, particularly in accounting and banking firms. Top executives and managers also had a new toy that was considered a status symbol: Newton's cradle. We've all seen them: the metal swinging spheres that somehow continually fascinate people with the pendulum movement and ticking sounds. Due to the primary demographics that used them, they also became known as executive ball clickers.

    Dictaphones and cassette tapes were common in 1970s workspaces. Whether used as a means to record meetings or just vocalize information for easy retrieval, these devices greatly reduced the workloads of entry-level employees. Correction fluid and carbon paper also made work days more efficient. Not only could you now correct simple errors without retyping an entire document, but could also type several copies at once.

    The first "mini-computers," like the Data General Nova and DEC-PDP-11, were introduced in the 1970s. But at a cost of around $8,000 each (over $52,000 in today's dollars), it was still unrealistic for computers to be commonplace in offices.


    Offices in the 1980s began to resemble those of today, except of course everyone smoking at their desks still. The IBM PC, Commodore 64 and Macintosh personal computers were getting cheaper and thus more common in everyone's cubicles. Fax machines became mainstream and a primary means of communication to conduct business.

    Executives and upper management also got some new toys, particularly the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the first commercial cellular phone. The bulky, heavy device cost over $4,000 (about $10,000 today), had less than 45 minutes of battery life per charge, and cost upwards of $10 per minute just to call someone across the street.

    Internet, cheap cell phones and affordable laptops were all common by 1999 and were preludes to the 2019 office. Automation and telecommuting have greatly changed the physical makeup of offices from 1999 to today. But its fun to look at what where were and where we're at to potentially predict where we're going from here.

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