How the Modern Office Influences 2020's Biggest Office Trends
The modern office exists in a vast array of different layouts, each designed to improve the workflow of today’s hyper-connected industries. From accounting firms to corporations, office design changes with the times, optimizing the necessary elements to conduct business in the global economy. Amid these changes, a few trends have emerged.
The biggest office trends of 2020 reflect a dynamic and changing office landscape. Consider what drives 2020’s biggest office trends and how they affect modern business. You may be surprised at just how early some of these trends started.
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The Beginning of Office Trends
The concept of an office space designed specifically for workers is far from a new one. In fact, archaeological evidence points to the origination of the dedicated office during ancient Rome
. Since then, the concept of what truly makes an office a productive workplace has changed several times over, and the design of the office space itself has adapted right along with it.
With each change in decade and need, a series of trends in office design, office furniture, and even the office buildings changed, too. Sometimes adhering to an employer’s desire to increase employee productivity, sometimes in response to the necessities of the times, and in accordance with employee needs and the way in which humans work best, office trends have undergone drastic fluctuations over the years. First, we’ll explore how time, productivity, and employee wishes have influenced trends over the years. Then, we’ll examine how the modern workplace does more to facilitate the creative process than ever before. Along the way, our experts will weigh in with their observations of the biggest office trends of 2020.
The First Office Buildings – a Study in Office Class Structure
Generally, most experts agree that the world’s first defined “office buildings” were constructed in London in the early to mid-1700s. The Old Admiralty Office and the East India House were built in 1726 and 1729, respectively
, and housed the Royal Navy and the East India Company – two of England’s most prominent entities. Both were designed to provide spaces for a large number of workers to complete their daily tasks in a centralized environment, rather than in several smaller buildings strewn about the city.
The inaugural “office trend” popularized by these two early structures was one of promoting a separation between the classes. Reports from the time praised the way in which both buildings provided individual spaces for intellectual work by superior officers and company officials, as well as large spaces where hundreds of people could perform lower, mechanical tasks with the need for only a few supervisors.
Taylorism – the Trend of the Early 20th Century
By the arrival of the 20th century, not much had changed in office design; however, the trend begun by the very first office building designers two centuries prior had gained a major proponent. Mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor
believed the primary responsibility of factory management was to pinpoint the exact environment necessary for workers to do their job. In the industrial sector, Taylor’s methodology included timing every last factory worker’s movements to the millisecond, analyzing each procedure, and eliminating superfluous activities in favor of machine-like production for maximum efficiency.
Office managers in other sectors adopted Taylor’s strategies, particularly focusing on the concept of grouping workers together in large, regimented rows in a large space. Many offices had a raised platform or office window from which the manager could oversee workers, as well as circulating supervisors walking the floor below. Taylorism valued productivity, at the expense of the social nature of the human workers involved.
The trend of open-plan office spaces continued. High rise office buildings began to arise throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the need for more efficient space rose with them. However, as time went on, many managers and corporate officers began to realize the need for employee comfort. As a result, many of the newer office buildings housed employee kitchens as well as essential utilities like brighter lighting and heated spaces.
Burolandschaft: the 1950s and 60s
As corporations began to realize that comfortable, happy employees were also productive employees, the more authoritarian design of highly regimented workspaces overseen by a watchful manager’s eye from above gave way to a more democratic approach to office design. The 1950s brought the German and northern European concept of Burolandschaft
– literally translated as “office landscape” to office buildings in the US and around the world. The idea of the office landscape transformed modern offices into more creative places.
Burolandschaft kept the open spaces of Taylorism but stressed a more free-flowing, creative placement of the work areas within. Management and workers alike were able to move more freely and choose from different work areas. Perhaps most famously, the concept allowed groups and teams to work alongside one another, promoting collaboration and prohibiting physical barriers between desks; this concept continues to inspire today’s modern office.
The Rise of the Cubicle
Late in the 1960s, the increasing number of women entering the formerly male-dominated workplaces led to the promotion of a
concept known at the time as the “Action Office.” Partitions between individual workspaces were instituted to allow women to keep the modesty the culture insisted on them having, which was often thwarted by open design. These also served as a functional solution for individual storage and workspace. These individual spaces began as a large enough area, complete with two work surfaces, shelving, and a fairly large opening to the larger office beyond.
As the 80s approached, bringing with it the rise of office prices and the personal computer for each worker, it became commonplace to buy inexpensive modular walls to build uniform cubicles. In this way, each worker had plenty of space for unfettered access to the computer system with minimal distractions from the hundreds of other workers in the same room. Designer Robert Prost – originator of the Action Office – was highly disappointed that his concept had evolved into the cubicle farm, nearly devoid of any respect whatsoever for what makes an individual a happy, effective employee.
With the rise of personal computers came the need for employee comfort, especially for those who needed to sit for long periods of time. Developed in 1976
as an accession to the increased amount of time workers were expected to remain in one place, the Ergon chair provided adjustable height as well as back support. Ergonomic furniture
remains a crucial component of office spaces, as it ensures happier, more productive employees.
Thus began an over twenty year span of what’s become the stereotypical workplace. With the advent of middle management – an influx of workers not high-ranking enough to warrant their own offices, but slightly above the paygrade of the average task-worker – came an increased need for individual spaces on the office floor. As the 1980s welcomed a technical revolution, cubicles shrunk in size to make way for yet more cubicles in the same amount of space.
A Bridge to the Modern Office
Cubicles are still a part of many modern offices, but the advent of the digital age has led to the untethering of many modern workers. Today’s cubicles, however, fit many more needs than that of a simple home for a computer; in the past, it was necessary to remain at one’s workstation with constant access to a large computer and landline phone. However, just as the advent of the digital age and the computerized office contributed to keeping workers in place, the eventual coming of the mid-digital age allowed more freedoms.
Once digital technology became slimmer, more portable, and ubiquitous in the office setting beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the need for workers to stay firmly planted at a single workstation decreased. Instead, workers could move about the office setting as needed, utilizing dual monitors and collaborative workspaces in larger modular office settings. As a result of the influx of digital technology, workers enjoyed the security of knowing that projects, information, and files housed within the digital mainframe of the company were accessible from any device.
More and more, managers saw the value in allowing teams to collaborate within their respective departments. However, this setup was merely a bridge to today’s supremely versatile office design, which allows collaboration between practically anyone in the office with the backing of full digital access to projects.
The Mid-Digital Age Office – a Study in Lessons Learned
Over the past three hundred years or so since the dawning of the first true office building, multiple major trends in office design have come and gone. Today’s office design is charged with picking the best from the trends of the past, leaving the rest, and incorporating each into the mid-digital and information ages. As such, you can see many of the best elements of historical office design trends in modern offices around the world.
While some of the more severe ideology behind Taylorism has been relegated to the manufacturing industry it serves best, the idea of adjusting the office setting to promote increased productivity endures to this day. Fortunately, we’ve now embraced the fact that recognizing the comfort of the worker is just as important as improving individual workflow, and it’s an easy way to improve efficiency in the workplace.
Similarly, Burolandschaft’s recognition of the importance of collaboration among teams within the larger setting of the office carries over into today’s modern office design. The modern take on Burolandschaft incorporates the convenience of today’s cloud-based information storage and the unparalleled project access workers enjoy. Its goal is to design offices with minimal disruption for employees who need to work in pairs or teams. In fact, many of the most popular office trends for 2020 involve ways in which we can nurture collaboration and creativity.
Finally, the cubicle and other forms of modular, compartmentalized workspaces have found their place in the modern office. We’ve found workers still value individualized spaces when they’re necessary for focus and concentration or as an escape from the social setting of the office at large. The key, it turns out, is choice.
The Biggest Office Trends For 2020
Choice is king for 2020, regardless of which category of office design interests you. In fact, most of the trends featured for the upcoming year incorporate some synonym of the word. From flexible seating to varied workspaces and adjustable desks to multiple monitor setups, 2020’s trends highlight the ability of the modern office to incorporate many styles of work and optimize productivity for different types of workers.
Further, as we outline 2020’s trends, it’s interesting to note the parallels of many of what are considered “up and coming” trends with the efforts of Fred Taylor and the open office, Robert Prost and Action Office, Burolandschaft and more. Consider that although plenty of fresh, modern office buildings have been erected in the past few decades, many of today’s offices exist within the bones of Taylor-era buildings. As such, new innovations on these older concepts have lent themselves to providing us with the true variety of office configurations.
Here are a few of these trends:
1. Activity-Based Workplaces
To some extent, activity-based workplaces
aren’t really a single idea at all so much as a representation of much of what a creatively designed modern office stands for. Still, we felt it important to include activity-based workplaces at the beginning of any discussion about trends in modern office design. Why? All the other trends listed here are practices aimed at providing choice, as mentioned earlier, and it is that choice that is the goal of the activity-based
and agile workplace.
First conceptualized in the 1970s by American architect Robert Luchetti
, the idea of a workplace that gave employees a choice of several different workspaces, or “activity settings,” each geared towards different work types and working styles truly came to fruition in the early 80s. Before long, the concept spread to the Netherlands and beyond.
For some, an activity-based workplace can inspire increased productivity, and many feel more creatively stimulated by the same work in an activity-based environment. Increased productivity and worker investment aren’t the only positive benefits – British National Grid cited a multi-million dollar reduction
in operational costs after implementing an activity-based setting.
Today, the purpose behind expanding individualized workstations for each employee is to provide space for a number of different workstations of differing types. Workers wishing to work on a monitor in a quiet space may do so, while others wishing to collaborate
are given multiple open areas to share ideas. The ability to choose which space best serves the type of work taking place is the key to the activity based workplace, and the other trends on this list mostly serve to expand access to other types of workspaces.
2. Flexible Seating
One of the most immediately noticeable of the 2020 trends when you walk into an activity-based office setting is the variety of seating
offered for each type of work station. In the information age, even the most digitally-based work has become supremely portable, and offices across the country are working hard to provide a variety of workspaces to allow for collaboration and solo work alike. To that end, we’re seeing coffee bars, cozy lounge areas, clusters of desks, and even corners filled with bean bags in addition to the more traditional work areas.
Providing workers with the ability to gather together to collaborate, and do so in a comfortable setting, is one of the key reasons flexible seating is on-trend this year. Whether it’s a series of stools at a bar-height table, a lounge area featuring a sofa and soft side chairs, or the aforementioned bean bag chairs
, varied seating not only allows for multiple workstations but gets workers up and moving – a concept 81%
of workers say is important to company culture.
Consider what one of our experts has to say. Raquel Rodriguez discusses collaboration.
Raquel Rodriguez: Office Manager and Management Assistant, Phonexa
“I think having the ability to easily collaborate is the biggest trend in 2020. Standing desks are a huge part of that because they get people up on their feet and walking around but having couches and comfortable chairs
in offices are great for impromptu meetings. Plus, getting tables
and other furniture for multi-use spaces like huddle rooms or having a tall kitchen table that can also be a meeting space when the conference room is taken can really help keep your company connected and on the move. Really anything that lets workers be agile and meet whenever they want is going to be useful for offices next year!”
3. A Home-Like Environment
In keeping with the concept of flexible seating is the idea that workers simply prefer to be in a home-like environment. Think of the stereotypical office setting. While white walls, neutrally patterned carpeting, and fabric-covered cubicles are what many people imagine, many offices are shifting out of neutral and into a design that evokes a comfortable living space, complete with more “human-centric” lighting
, which is the kind of lighting that can benefit a person’s well-being. Michael Hennessy, CEO of Wavelength Lighting, explains it further:
Michael Hennessy: CEO, Wavelength Lighting
“Thankfully, employers are realizing that when we're at work, we still want to be treated like humans. ‘Human-centric’ has been a buzz word in the lighting industry for the past year or so. This is because the technology of LEDs make it possible to sync the lighting to circadian rhythm, helping to stabilize our bodies' internal clocks, which can be disrupted by blue light emitted by traditional lighting as well as the computer, tv, and phone screens we stare at all day. By giving individuals power to control light levels and color temperature, the full range of daylight can be mimicked indoors.
Lighting matters when it comes to productivity and employee wellness. With the use of lighting controls and tunable LED lights, light can be programmed to emit a bright, energizing white light in the morning, and shift to an orange, mellow light in the afternoon, creating a more natural environment for employees that complements the work they'll be doing at different points throughout the day.”
For some offices, this home-like environment extends to include the addition of social spaces like coffee bars, ping-pong tables, and more. You’ve certainly heard of the massive creative social spaces housed within the corporate headquarters of Google, which features an actual slide, and Facebook, which showcases a DJ booth and several lounge
However, evoking the feeling of home can be much simpler for others, including elements such as warmer lighting, soft seating
, and natural elements.
One way to manage this is through blinds. Fran Moss explains how.
Fran Moss: Office Manager at English Blinds
“The biggest trend I’ve noticed while working on our plans for 2020-2021 is less to do with the logistics of office layouts and innovations, such as treadmill desks and multi-monitor visuals, and more to do with the softer side of things – the mood and ethos that the space creates.
As a retailer of high-end window dressings and blinds, our offices are kept very airy and open-feeling, with large windows showcasing our own product lines and letting in lots of natural light. This lends itself really well to the addition of a lot of foliage, greenery, and a generally very vibrant and alive style that is harmonious with nature and that simply makes people smile and feel good about where they work.
These types of trends can be harder to pinpoint and even harder to predict, but the addition of natural materials, a preference for natural light (or artificial light that emulates natural lighting) and plenty of real live plants – and even water features, in some cases – are what I have been seeing a lot of from the retailers, interior office designers, and consultants I’ve been working with over the course of the last year to plan our own remodel.”
4. Going Green
Much has been made of the shift towards taking a more green approach to conducting business. To that end, companies around the world are promoting recycling, reducing waste, and streamlining manufacturing processes in an effort to minimize impact on the environment. For 2020, two approaches to going green have made waves in very different ways.
The first hearkens back to the last trend on our list, melding the efforts to provide a more home-like environment with one of the key ways office design takes going green to a more aesthetic level. The use of living plants in office design is a key trend for this year.
Megan Meade offers insight into this trend.
Megan Meade: Office Manager, Software Path
“Going green is the next ‘big’ office trend; we're working hard to improve our environment by adding more plant life to our office. Our company was involved in a study by Newcastle University on the impact of plants on office wellbeing, their results indicated a positive effect on wellbeing from the plants. Ever since then, we've encouraged our office garden.
We've found the plants brighten up the office and keep the air a bit cleaner, which is important in a busy city. Plus, our staff can take turns caring for them, which has fostered a positive relationship amongst colleagues communicating about plant care (we have a Slack channel called Plant Chat!). Further, in the interest of going green, we've also taken our commitment to the next level and partnered up with Tree Aid to plant trees in areas that need it, which is something all our staff are really passionate about.”
Shane Pliska feels just as strongly about this.
Shane Pliska: President, Planterra Corporation
“Office plants are trending big for 2020. So big that there are now shortages of foliage from growers. We see the demand in plants increasing from workplaces which cater to millennials, especially co-working spaces. We are also seeing traditional offices take design clues from these co-working spaces, which are heavy on plants, living walls and greenery overall.
In addition, many businesses have found that allowing remote work has made for both cost-saving and environmentally-friendly benefits.”
In addition, workers enjoy having the option to travel to work or remain at home, or even work from home full-time. This second green endeavor aims to reduce a company’s carbon footprint by minimizing employee travel as well as reducing the size of the actual office space necessary for business.
Carsten Schaefer explains the second part of this green initiative.
Carsten Schaefer: Crowdy.ai
“The biggest trend we’re going to have in our office in 2020 will be downsizing. Many employees have requested to work remotely, and, at first, we were hesitant. However, it turned out that they were actually more productive, and they now work remotely full time. For those of us who want to stay in the office, that’s good news, actually. Since we have to rent less space, we’ve moved on to a smaller office in the best part of the city, for the same price. There is now less commute for everyone involved, and we are generally happier at work. It’s a win-win situation for all.”
5. Building Community
Today, many companies are choosing to incorporate team-building activities to promote collaboration and increase workplace satisfaction. For some larger corporations that already house dedicated areas built exclusively for such processes – such as the Lego Headquarters in Denmark, with its shared Lego-building rooms – team building has been built in. Other companies, however, are having to add as they go.
Consider these bold ideas from Igor Mitic.
Igor Mitic: Cofounder, Fortunly.com
“I think offices in the future should explore the idea of adding community garden plots on the roof or any open areas. This trend is already ongoing in major cities, and I think adding it to the office environment is a great idea. It allows employees to de-stress and encourages team-building as an office-wide effort.
“A well-maintained community garden could lead to employees using fresh fruits and veggies in their meals, promoting a healthier and more eco-friendly lifestyle. Even better, you could then have pot-luck days where everyone gets together to cook the fruits of their labor.
“Overall, I think it's a great way to encourage employees to cooperate and get to know each other in a stress-free environment. So, I think it would be great for any office of the future, and I hope to implement this in my own office in 2020.”
Another approach to community building involves the use of functional furniture that can be easily moved to host any number of employee-appreciation or regularly-scheduled morale-boosting activities. Alex Tran has implemented this already.
Alex Tran: Hollingsworth
“We have adopted an annual facilities survey. The data enables our operations team to make changes that benefit employee well-being. We tested and purchased ergonomic chairs and even started a wellness program that includes fitness classes and free health trackers.
“In terms of furniture, we sought out modular furniture for our break rooms and common areas. We are able to easily move the furniture aside to conduct team meetings and fitness classes onsite. Having health/fitness and volunteer activities has really boosted employee morale. Overall, it's been a great improvement for working satisfaction and our organization!”
6. Standing and Adjustable Desks
While standing desks are certainly not a new phenomenon in office design, we’ve chosen to include the standing desk
on this list of 2020 office trends for multiple reasons. First, the standing desk continues to be “cool,” allowing everyone in the office the chance to try something a little different. Better yet, the ability to stand while working can keep employees energized and engaged in the task at hand or provide a well-earned contrast to other seated options.
The biggest reason we’re including standing desks as a 2020 office trend, however, is the truly flexible nature of the newest products on the market right now. These products allow offices to utilize desking already in place, or provide new desking that can be quickly adjusted to fit the needs of any worker in minutes. Crimson Allen discusses how this works.
Crimson Allen: Digital Marketing Manager, Worthington Direct
are still a great option for those not able to purchase all new desking, but they are giving way to complete desks
that rise and lower either electronically or by crank. We are in the process of adding products from a brand called RightAngle
, which have some ergonomic office desks. They even have a NewHeights mobile app
that you can use to voice control your desk
7. Individual Workspaces and Free Addressing
While we’ve certainly promoted the concept of activity-based workplace, the quiet, individual workspace is far from obsolete. On the contrary – 80%
of workers feel more productive with access to a quiet room or workspace within which they can focus on a task at hand. This 2020 trend takes individualized, private workspaces above and beyond the typical cubicle.
Cubicles in their simplest form provide the individual worker with a space to work quietly, with the convenience of having everything needed within reach. Upgraded, many of today’s cubicles have seen an expansion of space, additional, modular shelving, and even the option to become portable work pods
. The incorporation of a variety of individual workspaces
– including quiet rooms, individual cubicles, team cubicles, and workstations
that can be adapted to include multiple arrangements of desks, shelving, flexible seating and seemingly endless modifications – means that offices can accommodate all sorts of projects and workers with a large variety of styles.
Thus, the individual workspace and an activity-based workplace need not be mutually exclusive. Continued attention to the various working styles of the employees in a particular company can provide key insights into the types of workspaces that fit each the best. Then, access to multiple workspaces within the office setting can optimize the creativity, comfort, and productivity of as many workers as possible.
Mark Camner explains how this is an important aspect of privacy as well.
Mark Camner: Regional Manager, Crown Workspace North America
“Privacy is also another factor to consider for 2020. When it comes to the open workspace, its benefits depend on who you talk to. In today’s workplace environment, you could potentially have up to five generations working under one roof, and they all have a different sense of the value of an open workspace. As an example, I go to a workplace location in Connecticut where there’s a combination of both private areas as well as these big open tables. Depending on what I am doing, this can be a good environment to work in.
“If collaboration is a focus, an open workspace environment will foster that. If there’s a need for more private conversations, a private space is more suitable. I would suggest that the broader part of this trend is having flexibility to meet the demands of different generations that are under the same roof. Also adding in that a level or privacy and consideration for others around needs to be weighed in on.
“Another big trend is free addressing. This is where nobody has their name attached to any desk – you come in, you sit down at any desk, do your work, leave and then the next person comes in. Part of that is being driven by this idea of remote work being different from working at home.
“Working remotely means you're not going to the office, but free addressing is a way for people to address both of those particular work styles. While companies want to increase collaboration, organizations are also reducing the footprint of the necessary office space. By lowering the office space footprint, you are also lowering the cost of the real estate you need to operate your business.”
Choice Is Key in 2020
The mid-digital age we find ourselves in has allowed and outright promotes attention to the workers themselves – a stark difference from the past. With so many companies transitioning to activity-based workplaces within the last several years, it's no surprise that so many of the trends we’ve just listed focus on providing workers with freedom of choice. Whether that choice exists within the types of workspaces workers can use, the various activities provided, or the very office furniture itself, choice is king.
Fortunately, freedom of choice positively affects managers, executives, and office designers as well. If your company is involved in an industry where quiet, individual work is best, trends in individual workspaces that hearken back to the days of Prost’s Action Office have their own benefits. Similarly, you can find value in many of the various flexible seating, standing desk, and other trends geared towards promoting happy, healthy workers.
Whether you have a cutting-edge new facility or are adapting an office building from a bygone era, these trends have the potential to increase employee productivity and satisfaction alike. We hope you’ve found value in both the expert advice and the multiple ideas included here and can implement some of the hottest 2020 trends in your own workplace.