The Office Renaissance: Part 1

October 11, 2016 | | View Comments

A Rebirth. And, Why It Matters.

By Christine Congdon

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to partner with Christine Congdon, Director of Global Research Communications at Steelcase, for this four-part series on why and how the workplace is changing and the impact it’s having on the people who work there. Christine will share her team’s research as a keynote speaker at our Workplace Innovation Summit, November 3rd in Boston. Here’s Part 1, enjoy!



Somewhere between Dilbertville and The Jetsons, our workplace changed. We went from private executive office suites and rows of cubicles to open floor plans and a mobile workforce. New technologies allow people to work anywhere and, workplace pundits began to speculate, the office may no longer be needed.

But, it turns out, those people were wrong because work, at its core, is a social endeavor. Even given ever-expanding technology people are still coming to the office for two key reasons: to connect with other people and to access the tools they need to do their jobs that aren’t mobile-friendly. The office is more relevant than ever, but it’s evolving into something fundamentally different.  


“People are rebelling against offices that are focused on uniformity and standards,” says James Ludwig, Steelcase’s global head of design. “They’re looking for inspiration and creativity at work, as well as human-centered technology that makes life easier instead of more complicated. Designers saw this shift starting years ago, but now we’re in an accelerated evolution and those ideas are being embraced and adopted at a rapid pace.”

People are rebelling against offices that are focused on uniformity and standards.

A Global Rebellion

“They can make me work in a little box, but they can’t crush my spirit.” This speech bubble referencing the ubiquitous office cubicle came from Dilbert, Scott Adams’ North American cartoon strip. It perfectly illustrates the lampooning of the workplace that emerged in the 1990s.  Later, the 1999 movie “The Office,” declared, “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day!” People around the world cheered. Shortly after, a mockumentary television series, also called “The Office” launched in the UK in 2001, and was reproduced in the United States, France, Germany, Canada, Israel, Chile, Sweden and China, signaling a growing global frustration with what the typical office had become. The office became the poster-child for bland, boring, uninspired places where people waste away.

Then, radical change began to pop up in tech startups circa the early 2000s. Workplaces began to look radically different. Game tables, slides and train cars brought fun back to some offices. The rise of some of these businesses showed vibrancy and playfulness could exist in harmony with economic success.

Workers outside the tech industry took notice and craved a more informal, creative and genuine office environment. People sought greater autonomy, self-expression and the freedom to choose where and how they work. Smart phones, Wi-Fi and mobile communication apps offered an escape route and many people voted with their feet, leaving the office whenever possible to work other places.


Coffee shops, libraries and home offices seemed like a good idea, but it wasn’t long before people discovered a coffee shop might have the right vibe, but spreading out work materials is difficult. A library may offer solitude, but holding a conference call requires walking outside. And, the home office may be convenient, but getting ahold of co-workers is challenging and remote technology doesn’t always work as planned. People realized mobile solutions work some of the time, but not all of the time. In fact, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report found that people who worked remotely 20 percent of the time or less were the most engaged. But the study also revealed that higher levels of remote work (more than 20 percent) correlated with higher levels of disengagement.

People realized mobile solutions work some of the time, but not all of the time.

Initial excitement for working off-site seems to have been tempered by people’s need to seek places that offer emotional, as well as physical comfort — where it was easy to get work done. These gaps continue to push people to seek something more.


A Cultural Movement

And so began the office renaissance. Like any cultural movement, whether it was the17th century “age of enlightenment” in Europe, or the current maker and farm-to-table movements, most people don’t always recognize they are in the middle of it when it happens. Things begin to change around us – gradually at first — and then suddenly it seems like everything is different than it was before.    

Read Part 2: The Key Forces Behind the Movementshort_divider