When most people think about work, they think about an office. Much of the world’s work gets done in an office, and many of us spend a third of our lives in one. When we’re not at the office, we’re laughing at office life in the comic Dilbert or on shows like The Office, or remembering glamorous 1960s Madison Avenue offices on reruns of Mad Men.
But the office wasn’t always a big part of Americans’ lives. In the 1800s, most Americans worked on farms or in factories. In 1880, less than 5% of the workforce worked in offices. But that changed during the next hundred years. By the mid-1980s, more than two-thirds of jobs were office jobs.
Why did office work become the norm for Americans? For starters, business boomed in the banking, rail, insurance, retail, petroleum, and telecommunication sectors between 1860 and 1920. And when companies prosper, paperwork flourishes and businesses needed office workers to manage it. Keep reading to find out how office workspaces, technology, lunch breaks, and diversity have evolved over the past century, and discover what may come next.
In the early 1900s, most offices were open plan. Similar to factories, managers sat in suites at the top overlooking workers. Offices were relatively silent, and workers sat in vertical columns to minimize distractions. Chairs were sturdy and wooden and desks had mammoth hutch cabinets on top lined with shelves and drawers.
The modern desk with a flat top and three lower drawers was introduced in 1915 to give managers a better view of what employees were up to. Workers soon began sitting side-by-side or across from each other to allow some conversation, and fabric and leather chairs made office work more comfortable.
A German open-office plan called Bürolandschaft (meaning office landscape) swept across Europe and the United States in the 1960s. Desks were grouped together to allow workers more interaction, and ferns and sound screens created some privacy.
With the 1970s came cubicles, which allowed employees to work alone to minimize distractions. Computers replaced typewriters, IT infrastructure became commonplace, and bulk-purchased standardized furniture became the norm.
During much of the twentieth century, offices were smoky places. In 1965, 42% of adults smoked cigarettes, and smoking was allowed nearly everywhere, including hospitals and schools. The public understood the dangers of second-hand smoke by the late 1980s. More than a third (38%) of employers banned smoking in their offices between 1985 and 1987. California banned smoking in most enclosed workspaces in 1995, and many states have since followed.
Cubicles came under attack in the 2000s. Not only had they shrunk over the years, but they offered workers neither the benefit of privacy nor sociability. Open office plans made a comeback and are still popular today, although they face ample criticism as well. Now that wireless technology allows work to happen away from desks, many companies have transitioned to flexible office design, which combines open-plan seating, cubicles, sound-proof rooms, collaboration areas, and coffee shops.
Office work was done by hand for most of history. Then in 1867, Christopher Latham Sholes patented the typewriter, which revolutionized office work. “An operator can accomplish more correspondence in a day than a half dozen clerks can with the pen, and do better work,” P.G. Hubert, Jr. wrote in 1888.
Carbon paper was the go-to technology for copying documents until Xerox released the first convenient copy machine in 1959. Information moved around more quickly and freely than ever before, and the use of paper exploded. Xerox expected customers to make about 2,000 copies a month, but they made more like 10,000.
The typewriter reigned supreme until the 1970s and 1980s when personal computers transformed office work once again. For the first time, text could be copied and pasted, and documents could be saved. Then in the 1990s, the internet changed everything. Email became the go-to communication tool in offices, and information moved online.
Laptop sales exceeded desktop sales for the first time in 2005. In 2007, the release of the first iPhone brought offices into the mobile age. Laptops, smartphones, and improvements in internet speed made it easier for people to take the office with them and blurred the line between work and home. Today, 43% of employees work remotely sometimes, and 70% of workers check their work email at home in the evenings.
The Lunch Break Evolution
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner didn’t exist until modern times. Before that, people got up early, worked in the fields, and usually only ate one large meal midday. The industrial revolution and the invention of electricity moved dinner later and created the need for sustenance in the morning and afternoon. Thus, the modern lunch break was born.
By 1900, most people ate lunch between 12 and 2. Office workers in cities crowded into counter-service restaurants. They were called “one-arm joints” because they were so packed that diners only had one arm available for eating. Americans earned a reputation for having the shortest lunch breaks in the industrialized world. Many workers avoided the lunchtime restaurant hustle by packing their own bagged lunches, a trend that continues today. Some companies built on-site cafeterias or canteens to feed their employees. Kansas City-based Hallmark established theirs in 1923.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many companies moved from high rises in urban centers to sprawling campuses in suburban locations. Because suburbs offered fewer restaurants for lunchtime dining, more companies built on-site cafeterias to feed their workers. Free food became a competitive work perk in many industries and was used to attract the best talent.
in 1999, Google hired a private chef and started its first café. Since then, tech companies have competed with ambitious and creative in-house cuisine. Facebook, Dropbox, Airbnb, and Etsy are all known for having generous gourmet in-house dining programs. Today, 18% of companies have their own cafeterias, and 13% subsidize food costs for their employees.
But recently, some California municipalities are banning on-site corporate cafeterias because they hurt local restaurants. Catered meals, already a favored work perk at many companies, may become even more popular in the future since they allow employers to provide free food while supporting local eateries.
More than 60% of the American workforce consisted of white males in the 1950s. But today, offices are more diverse. Women now make up 47% of the paid workforce. At the end of World War II, only 10% of married mothers worked but today 70% of mothers with children under 18 work outside of the house.
The invention of the typewriter turned out to be a boon for women, who were entering the clerical workforce at the time. They were paid more for typing than for teaching, the only other profession available to them. Women filled 96% of secretary and administrative assistant jobs by 1950, and they still do today.
Women now outnumber men in many white-collar professions. They dominate social work, pharmacology, human resource management, education, administration, and many other office jobs. But men still outnumber women in many fields. More than half (64%) of lawyers and nearly three quarters (73%) of chief executives are male. Plus, a gender wage gap persists, with women still making only 80.5 cents for every dollar men make.
Offices have become more racially diverse since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Black people make up 12% of the paid workforce today and hold 14% of office and administrative support positions and 7% of management positions. Hispanics make up 16% of the paid workforce, and hold 15% of office and administrative support positions and 9% of management positions.
Unfortunately, diversity hasn’t made its way to the highest executive suites yet. There have only been 64 female CEOs and 16 black CEOs in the entire history of the Fortune 500. The majority of Fortune 500 are male (95%) and white (96%). But that may change as the American workforce becomes even more diverse. By 2050, women will hold nearly half of positions (48%) and people of color are expected to make up 47% of the U.S. workforce.
Long Live the Office
Some people have predicted the demise of brick-and-mortar offices now that technology allows people to work anywhere. But don’t count out the traditional office yet. Yahoo, Bank of America, IBM, and other companies are reducing or eliminating their telecommuting programs to try to increase interaction and collaboration between employees. That means offices may be here to stay—at least for now. And if history’s any indication, office life will continue to evolve in surprising ways.