It’s the end of the office as we know it and we feel fine: A brief history of the U.S. office—and where it’s headed next
We all know the stereotype about the office.
There was even a long-running sitcom about it, featuring a “will they/won’t they” romance between two office workers: America’s sweethearts, Jim and Pam. But most white-collar employees don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about their office environment with its rows and rows of open desks and watercooler chitchat. It’s more love/hate or love to hate.
Pandemic-era TV is now filled with dark and bleak depictions of offices, like Severance or WeCrashed. That’s saying a lot, since The Office was an ode to the crushing boredom and inanity of many white-collar workplaces. The big difference now: Work doesn’t automatically mean commuting to an office anymore, and when the office comes back into the picture, it doesn’t look like it used to.
“I don’t think most people even questioned what an office should be until they were denied access to them for a year,” says Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights at MillerKnoll, a maker of office furniture.
“It’s a really pivotal moment,” agrees Meena Krenek, design director and principal at Perkins & Will, a global design firm. “Employees have such a voice in this—more so than ever. Why do you think the Great Resignation happened? Employers weren’t supporting the lifestyle of the employees.”
So if no one liked the office before the pandemic and no one but executives (who, let’s be honest, have the best setup) want to return, what happens to office space? Is it possible to reinvent it once again so people actually want to work there?
To get a feel for where office culture is headed, Fortune took a look back at just how we got here, and where we might want to go next. To understand what follows the cubicle, you have to understand how the cubicle came to be.
The double-edged sword of Wi-Fi and Big Tech’s big perks
While rows and rows of desk seemed radical when companies started ripping out cubicles to increase collaboration (and save money), Anderson says that the open floor plan actually came before the cubicles.
A German design movement in the 1950s known as Bürolandschaft rejected the idea that the office must be uniform and prioritized comfort instead. Directly translating to “office landscape,” this era of the open floor plan was defined by its focus on creating a more natural layout, breaking up space with plants or screens.
But the office layout changed dramatically with the introduction of the desktop computer in the late 1960s. Over the next 30 years, computers and phones were central to office work, and so the space was designed around the needs of this stationary technology, Anderson explains.
“Our modern assumptions about work—that you need to be in the office to do knowledge work, that you need to do your individual work at a desk—that all pretty much happened in that era.” Anderson says, pointing out that technology outgrew this physical setup around 15 years ago, especially when Wi-Fi arrived in 2004 and 2005, “but the assumptions lingered.”
It was tech companies that finally pushed offices into a new era. “In many ways, we have Silicon Valley to thank for the healthy workplaces and people-first spaces movement, because they started to outfit their office with the napping pods, scooters, rock-climbing walls, and unlimited food in the dining room,” says Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of International WELL Building Institute.
But this was a double-edged sword: With these fancy office spaces came “a latent expectation that people spent huge amounts of time there,” Anderson argues.
And then there were the annoying things that came with a wide-open floor plan. Workers sitting practically on top of one another, the struggle to find personal space for a phone call or a sensitive meeting, and so many distractions. Suddenly, people missed the cubicle.
Before COVID, company executives were struggling to figure out how to strike the balance between cubicle culture and an open floor plan. The return to work push coupled with the Great Resignation has finally put the pressure on employers to develop an office layout the employees actually like.
How the office has changed: more flexibility, de-densification, and neighborhood-based planning
Two years into the pandemic, companies are looking to reconfigure their office space in ways that will encourage employees to return. And many are directly asking their workforce what they need and want.
Darby Gracey, director of work/life and workplace strategy at commercial-flooring firm Interface, was surprised by the results of the survey conducted at Interface at the start of 2021.
“They missed the people the most, but the thing they were most worried about was people,” says Gracey.
A solution is emerging—a concept known as “neighborhood-based planning layouts.” With this design, offices provide room where colleagues can socialize but also the flexibility to retreat when they need to do more focused work. The office becomes a mix of shared desks, cubicles, and phone booths that help to strike a balance between an open floor plan and the need for individual space, Anderson explains. They are meant to feel less sterile and more like home.
At first Interface adapted these neighborhood layouts to de-densify in response to COVID protocols, but they quickly realized it was a good way to make sure people connected within the office, Gracey says.
“The future of the office is about having that flexibility,” says Ebbie Wisecarver, head of global design at WeWork. And it’s up to companies to determine what layouts work best for their specific workforce.
“I don’t think gimmicky perks will have any staying power to entice people to spend time in the office,” says Gracey. Instead, Interface added in-office benefits that its staff reported enjoying while working at home. For instance, workers liked being able to squeeze in a workout at home, so Interface brought Pelotons to the office.
Employers are also figuring out ways to utilize spaces to meet the diverse needs of multiple staffers. Anderson has seen companies, for example, adapting wellness spaces so they can be used for a wide array of needs: a new mother who needs to pump, a neurodivergent staffer who needs a quiet space, or a person of color who would like a break from code-switching.
“We have to think about how to make design equitable,” says Hodgdon. “This is where you don’t design for the median, you design for the extremes.”
Modern offices are expected to be beautiful and functional
“The question that everybody is facing” is simple, Hodgdon says. “How will asking people to return to the office make them more engaged, more productive, more healthy, and more happy.”
Krenek likens this new era of office layout to hospitality, where the “employer is hosting the employee.”
“The office really does matter. But it doesn’t look like the traditional office anymore. It looks like a hotel lobby—it looks like something to brag about,” says Krenek.
The combination of flexibility and beautiful spaces is important, says Wisecarver. Design is about to become more human-centric, and companies will start to want designs that encourage collaboration and engage workers while supplying them with the tools they need, explains Wisecarver. This creates a challenge for generations of offices that were built around durable but uninspiring prefab furniture and require immense investments to overhaul, Wisecarver says.
Krenek says clients are no longer coming to her and asking to look like Google; they’re trying to understand what employees need and want. Human resource representatives are now included in office layout discussions. There is no one-size-fits-all for office renovations, and companies that look just like their competitors will fall behind.
“It’s simple: Offices that are not creative will not attract people who are,” argues Kim Colin, a designer for Industrial Facility.
The office is also becoming a place for practical amenities as companies leverage tech and all the tools that staff members don’t have in their homes like printers and good Wi-Fi. “I really see the office becoming this resource center for people to do their best work,” says Krenek.
Anderson compares the differences between the office and home to that of a restaurant versus cooking in your kitchen. The two don’t necessarily compete, but ideally they complement each other. The office must become an “on-demand resource that complements the home,” he says.
The break from the office has given employees the clarity to understand what they want, and the tight labor market is giving them to power to push employers to listen to their needs. In a time when the office is on the verge of extinction, there is a possibility for greater innovation.
“Freeing people to not have to work in the office allows the office to become something way more desirable because it can stop the sea of desks and start being something that people really love,” adds Anderson.
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