Inventing the office: The digital office of the 21st century

According to the theory of evolution, certain human characteristics are retained, passed on and developed, which explains how mankind is able to retain and develop its culture and cultural aspects, by transferring knowledge and know-how to subsequent generations and by manufacturing objects such as tools and everyday objects.

The concept of the cultural office was created as a means of preserving certain forms of human activity through signs and symbols. Technical and commercial activities such as the processes for manufacturing, marketing and selling goods are recorded and archived in the office.

In fact the first offices consisted of just a few tools and activities centred around a piece of cloth known as a burra. The word "office" actually stems from this burra fabric, the name of which formed the origins of the word "bureau", the table upon which the fabric was placed, which in turn then evolved further to describe the room in which the table is placed. It can be said therefore that there are always two elements that define an office – the space and the tools placed within it. In the modern world, all that is required to constitute an office is a laptop (the core of the modern office) and a mobile phone.

The office as a tool

In the offices of days gone by, commercial processes such as contractual agreements, drawing up a balance sheet and accounting were handwritten using a quill, ink and paper. It was not until later that typewriters and accounting machines were introduced. In 1806 Englishman Ralph Wedgewood patented a duplicating process using carbon paper, which was replaced just three decades ago by the invention of photocopiers and digital technology.

The 1980’s saw a revolution in terms of the tools we use and within two decades "digital" became the standard for office tools around the world. The new tools include photocopiers, fax machines, computers, mobile phones and the Internet. Their potential is huge thanks to their processing speeds, extensive storage capacity, significantly lower requirements in terms of working materials, computation of processes and radical improvements to communication processes. Text, tables, images and video can be easily edited and stored on disc, hard drive and DVD.

And it is also possible to network company PCs locally as well as with external PCs via the Internet. This networking concept means that large quantities of information can be sent around the world "in real time" and many other functions such as communication are also processed immediately.

The amount of furniture and equipment in the office is becoming less and less - although the digital age means that more technical equipment is required – and filing systems, folders, balance sheet books, dictionaries and other printed sources of reference are now less important as all of these can be accessed through a laptop.

The office as a space

As a result of globalisation and digitalisation, new activities have led to a paradigmatic change, with companies seeing a shift from the industrial era and moving more towards an era of service companies, knowledge and information. At a time when particular attention is paid to reducing the amount of materials we use, it is not just office tools that are changing, but spaces too. One of our future tasks is to design tools, spaces and processes that will unleash people’s emotional and intellectual potential on a global scale. Digitialisation is a feature of conventional offices but has also led to the creation of new office concepts such as the open office, which can move around from place to place, as well as the virtual office.

A large percentage of the many different types of office space that emerged in the 20th century, from the open-plan office to the mini office, will continue to exist in the 21st century, and many different types of office will sit alongside each other.

The structure of the digital office

Nowadays all the essential office equipment can be incorporated onto a tiny laptop. It is possible to access up-to-date company data from digital databases and essential work aids come in the form of digital encyclopaedias, electronic dictionaries and the Internet. Using a laptop, mobile phone, fax and mini printer facilitates contact and communication with customers and employees. Such is the potential of the modern office.

Regardless of their layout, digital offices use high-performance tools and are generally structured into areas for work, politics and ecology. They are an excellent means of working both locally and on a global level. Digital offices can function ecologically if they are set up with a view to optimising the energy resources for both the office and the office building, or where paperless environments are created, thereby saving on natural resources. They express advanced globalisation and can contribute towards preparing for a humane future.

As the digital office has developed into a knowledge centre and a hub on the World Wide Web, and since the tools have become extremely small and efficient, a new type of office – the open office – has emerged alongside traditional offices, where both space and time are flexible.

The open office – out and about with the office

Open offices are subordinates of the digital office. They are created by replacing a PC with a laptop, which assimilates the functions of the room. The laptop acts as both a table and a repository, it can be carried around everywhere and can transform a basic space into a complete and remote office.

The open office embodies new tasks as well as new work processes. Digitalisation has freed office work from its fixed office hours, fixed locations and schematic work processes and has had a direct impact upon the structure of the office. Many of the computerised office activities have added impetus to designing office spaces that are both open and mobile.

The open office – laptop, solar panels and mountains

Open offices do not have a fixed spatial design. Most places and types of space can serve as an office. Wherever there is a laptop and mobile phone there can be an office – whether on a park bench, in the desert, in the countryside, on the beach, in a café or in the mountains.

Open offices do not have fixed working hours. In fact they do away with fixed working hours and thanks to their remote set-up and high-speed communication processes they can individually measure and reinvent processes.

Open offices do not have a fixed working structure. The work processes are modified depending on each individual situation. The speed and diversity of digital communications means that the priorities in terms of office processes can be individually defined and adapted according to personal preferences.

Special modern forms of office

Digitalisation means that offices can take on various forms – in virtual, temporary, utopic and austere places.
The virtual office is an online portal where teams meet and carry out different working activities. They enable virtual conferences whereby all the participants are based at different locations. This also includes plug-and-play offices with a website, virtual warehouse and virtual sales team. Some companies offer these types of Internet portal, set them up and run them as though they are real offices.

Another form of office is the temporary office, which is ideal for when different teams meet up regularly at different locations and need to hire rooms for a certain period of time. The office equipment usually only includes the essentials, giving these kind of offices a rather austere character.

Offices with fewer workstations than employees are known as desk-sharing offices where several employees share one workstation. These are practical solutions for companies whose employees are often travelling around, thereby providing them with open offices that offer a flexible approach to working hours and enable them to work from different locations.

Many unused areas both in and in between offices are now more closely integrated into everyday office life, providing space where employees can meet for informal and creative exchange in peaceful surroundings where they can feel inspired and motivated.

Time and time again we hear that "the office of the future is not fixed to one location". These types of office will exist, although they will only account for a small proportion since laptops are restrictive in terms of long-term working and are ergonomically inadequate. There will be no particular office that stands out as the most dominant in the 21st century, although the horizons of what constitutes an office have broadened. Offices have become hubs for social and global working and communication.

The office as a community and living space

While the office has been revolutionised as a tool, the office as a space has become more conservative, taking on a new structure for certain work phases, situations and tasks. One important element for working environments has not changed and that is the need for security, which is only now being expressed. This is where real offices are required, places where people can come into contact with each other. People do not necessarily want to work across many different locations and would rather convene and work together in one place. To work in a team instead of working alone, to exchange ideas instead of working against each other, thereby maintaining a level of personal contact is and shall remain a motivating and stabilising factor of office work.

The more things develop and the smaller and leaner the tools become, the more space shall be left over for personalising the office. More and more people are saying that they want to feel comfortable at work. They are looking for an ambiance that is inspiring, motivating and healthy, in offices that are well designed and are comfortable thanks to climate control technology.

On the other hand the corporate office and its set-up also have an impact upon the individual and his privacy, since he would like a degree of domesticity in the office and at the same time have an office space with office equipment at home. This is why there is little difference in the design and equipment of trend furniture, home furniture and office furniture. The concept of the office is no longer just a matter of organising, calculating and filing, but it is rather a place for living, where communication and learning, conversation, services, responsibility and ambiance are all key.


Hajo Eickhoff