DDBspotlight: The office - of law firms, skyscrapers and unequal pay

By Theresa Rodewald (Online Editor)

The word "Büro" (office in English) is borrowed from the French bureau. Bureau comes from bure, which in turn refers to the coarse cloth fabric that monks use to cover their writing desks. The term changes from "table covered with cloth" to the term for the writing room in general. Even today, bureau in French refers to both a room and a piece of furniture. The word "office" first appears in the English language in the 13th century and describes both an occupation in government or administration and worship. The German, English and French designation for the office thus has its roots in both the Christian monastery and secular administration. Both shape the office not only linguistically, but also shape our modern understanding of work.

"I.G.-Farben, Frankfurt/Main. Administration building: open-plan office" (1928-1931),
Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität Berlin (Architecture Museum of the Technical University of Berlin) (CC0 1.0)

Tabularies, scriptoria and chanceries

The fact that the office is closely linked to the administration and governance is already shown by its history. This begins in the tabularia of the Roman Empire. Laws, treaties, deeds and edicts, in short: the testimonies of the Roman bureaucracy, are kept there. The tabularium is considered the forerunner of the office because it is also the seat of the scribes who first put the treaties and laws into words. However, one cannot yet speak of offices in today's sense.

The Tabularium in Rome is the most famous of its kind today. Tabularia, however, exist everywhere in the Roman Empire. „Rom. Forum Romanum. View of the Tabularium (Senators' Palace)" (1930), Karl Blossfeldt, SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek (German Photographic Library) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

The scriptoria of medieval monasteries come a little closer to the modern bureau. Here, monks copied the Bible by hand or translated ancient writings. Most scriptoria probably resemble modern open-plan offices, because the monks sit together in one room and go about their work at a writing desk. But there are also private writing chambers where the monks could retreat to concentrate on their work.

In the Middle Ages, rulers had their principalities or kingdoms administered in so-called chancelleries. This is where laws are put on paper, official correspondence is written and certificates are issued. The emerging cities of the late Middle Ages also took their cue from this model. The registry here is the seat of the city administration. It is headed by the Chancellor, a post with great political responsibility. As the heart of the administration, the chancellery is the centre of power and decision-making in a dominion and the core of the developing statehood in Europe. This intertwining of politics, power and administration is still reflected today in the fact that in Germany and Austria the head of government is called the chancellor.

From trading companies to skyscrapers

Administrative buildings with individual offices, as we know them today, were first built in the 18th century during the heyday of trading companies. The headquarters of the Royal Navy, now known as the Ripley Building after its architect Thomas Ripley, is the first purpose-built office building in the UK. Incidentally, the poet Alexander Pope finds the building too boring. In his view, both the liveliness of the Baroque and the grandeur of classical architecture are missing.

"Admiralty, London: Views (from: Sketch and Photo Album 26)" (1911), Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität Berlin (Architecture Museum of the Technical University of Berlin) (CC0 1.0)

The fact that merchants and government officials go about their business in their own buildings is also the first step towards the spatial separation of work and private life, even though most people in the 18th century still do their work at home.

With industrialisation, more and more people flock to the cities and work in the new factories, initially under the most degrading conditions. In the administration of the new industries, it is no longer high-ranking government officials or long-established merchants who find employment, but members of the middle classes. Thus, the distinction between blue collar workers - the industrial workers and craftsmen in more or less metaphorical blue overalls - and white collar workers, the office and business people in white shirts, is slowly emerging.

In the 19th century, it slowly became crowded in the cities between factories, tenements and business premises. Buildings therefore grow towards the sky, initially no higher than ten storeys - the building materials do not allow for more. However, this changes at the turn of the century. Innovations in building technology make it possible to build higher and higher with iron, steel and later cement. In 1854, the US American Elisha Graves Otis presents a safety brake for lifts at the World's Fair in New York City. Even if the lift cable breaks, a steel spring now prevents the lift car from falling. A year earlier, Otis had founded the Otis Elevator Company, which is now the world's largest producer of lift equipment.

Montgomery Ward & Co. business building in Chicago (1889), Landesarchiv (State Archive) Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Sigmaringen (CC BY 3.0 DE)

The first skyscraper rises a proud 42 metres into the Chicago sky in 1885. The client is the Home Insurance Company, whose name the building also bears. In the 1880s, Chicago was the centre of early skyscraper architecture, also known asCommercial Style. The numerous windows of the buildings make it difficult to decorate the façade. Ornaments are therefore usually found under the roof on the cornice of the skyscraper. In 1892, things got too colourful for the Chicago city government. It prohibits the construction of buildings higher than 46 metres.

„Flat-Iron“ (vor 1903) Foto: Alfred Stieglitz, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (CC0 1.0)

Daring architects are therefore moving their building projects to New York City without further ado. There are enough companies here that need office space and want to project their newfound influence to the outside world. Iconic buildings such as the Woolworth Building, the Flatiron Building and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower were built.

Travel photos USA. New York. View from the Manhattan Bridge across the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge (1869-1883; J. A. Roebling) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

But in New York, too, criticism will soon be voiced: The skyscrapers steal daylight from the surrounding buildings. The New York Zoning Resolution of 1916 stipulates that tall buildings must become narrower towards the top and thus shapes the characteristic skyline of Manhattan. The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building or the Daily News Building all have so-called setbacks so that they do not cast their surrounding buildings into constant shadow.

From monastic work discipline to modern timekeeping

Even the daily structure of the medieval monasteries, which was oriented towards the church bell, is a form of time management. However, the focus here is less on the control of the workers and more on the ideal of monastic discipline. Things look different with the English East India Company. There, a form of timekeeping already exists in the 18th century, as all employees have to report for duty every day.

With industrialisation, the need for precise time recording also crystallised. The individual production steps are coordinated to the minute. While there has been no talk of occupational health and safety for a long time, time recording systems are commonplace in factories. Being late is punished with a deduction from wages. However, working time recording also has an advantage for the workers: They can check whether their working time has been correctly accounted for.

"Time punch clock, Württemberg watch factory Bürk, Schwenningen, around 1900", Deutsches Uhrenmuseum Furtwangen (German Watch Museum Furtwangen) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

First, employers have the names of the arriving workers written down at the factory gate in the morning. From the middle of the 19th century, working time control is increasingly automated. It is the time of time punch clocks and time cards. With the time clock, workers record the beginning and end of their shift on a separate time card. The punch clock works without cards because it has a wheel with the personnel numbers of the entire workforce. At the beginning and end of work, the workers guide the wheel to their number, which is then printed on a sheet inside the clock along with the time, accurate to the minute.

Interior design, office hierarchies and productivity

But back to the office. Even if industrialisation is seemingly only organised and administered here, the strict, calculated production processes of the factories also have an effect on the understanding of clerical work. In 1917, the US American William Henry Leffingwell published the book Scientific Office Management. Leffingwell is inspired by Frederick Winslow Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor, to whose writings we owe the now negatively connoted term Taylorism, advocated dividing factory work into individual repetitive steps.

Leffingwell wants to restructure the office according to Taylor's standards. Here, too, all work steps are to be standardised in order to increase productivity. Supervisors are supposed to guide and control the work of office workers. For this purpose, desks are arranged, similar to a classroom, facing the manager's desk. The Modern Efficiency Desk, unlike its predecessors, has drawers under the desk top and allows supervisors an unobstructed view of their employees at all times.

"In an open-plan office. Employees work on office machines", SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

The Larkin Building by architect Frank Lloyd Wright from 1903 was one of the most innovative office buildings in the world at the time. It has air conditioning and standardised office furniture. A huge atrium in the centre of the building provides daylight. In the Larkin Building, employees do not sit in locked rooms, but work in an open-plan office.

Buffalo (New York, USA), Administration Building of the Larkin Company, Wright, Frank Lloyd (1904), Institut für Kunstgeschichte und Archäologien Europas, (Institute for the History of Art and Archaeologies of Europe), Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Halle a. d. Saale (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

Not all open-plan offices are designed in such an innovative way. Often employees sit close together in poorly lit, stuffy rooms, while all those with a higher position in the company have the benefit of their own office. In the 1960s, the brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle therefore developed the idea of the office landscape. Here, the focus should once again be on the individual. Open spaces with loosely arranged desks, partitions and office plants replace geometrically arranged rows of desks and corridors. Strict company hierarchies are also to be replaced by egalitarian work structures.

In 1960, the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller commissioned the designer Robert Probst to develop new office furniture. Probst concludes that the open-plan office reduces communication between employees and does not provide enough privacy for efficient work. The Action Office he developed introduces, among other things, folding partitions between desks. Over the years, however, these evolve into the cramped work cubicles that are still standard in some offices today.

Pneumatic tube transport, typewriters and secretaries

The office is not only the crystallisation point of social ideas about work, it is also the place of technical innovations that fundamentally change the way we work. Telegraphy and telephony speed up the exchange of information. Besides administration and organisation, the processing of data becomes the central aspect of office work.

In 1853, the first telegraph line between the stock exchange and the local telegraph office is established in London. Using compressed air, cartridges with documents can be sent from A to B in seconds. "Plan of the pneumatic tube network of Berlin according to official notices...". Julius Straube, Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin (Berlin City Museum Foundation) (CC0 1.0)

In 1893, the German inventor Franz Xaver Wagner, who had emigrated to the USA, patented a typewriter with a special gear. The so-called Wagner mechanism ensures that when the typewriter key is pressed, the type lever with the respective letter swings from the front against the platen. This typewriter spread rapidly in offices all over the world at the end of the 19th century.

Before the typewriter with Wagner gears became established, a wide variety of other models existed. For example, this wooden example by the Tyrolean inventor Peter Mitterhofer, which works with type levers arranged in a circle. „Mitterhofer Mod.1 (replica)", photo: Sergei Magel, Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

At the latest with the triumph of the typewriter, the secretary also made her way into the office. Until the middle of the 19th century, the profession is almost exclusively occupied by men. The word derives from the Latin secretarius, which means a secret advisor or trusted associate. It is no coincidence that secretus is also the root of the English secret. Originally, the secretary was in the service of powerful rulers. He is the scribe, custodian of the princely seal and bearer of secrets. To this day, the term also refers to high offices in politics and administration, such as secretaries of state or trade unions.


"The young Weisskunig dealing with his secretaries", Hans Burgkmai, Photo: Regine Richter SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Over time, the term no longer refers only to the secretaries of influential people, but encompasses general administrative tasks. Secretaries copy business letters, keep the books and write the correspondence of a company. The secretary therefore gets to know the company from the ground up and therefore has excellent opportunities for promotion.

Even before the introduction of the typewriter, women find employment in the offices of large companies. In the USA, the War of Secession in the 1860s leads to a shortage of male labour, which allows women to enter the labour market. With the introduction of the typewriter, the job description was feminised - it was soon considered a "woman's tool". Women, the argument goes, have the dexterity to operate the new technology at lightning speed. Typing is also often compared to playing the piano, which is mainly learned by women from middle-class backgrounds, who also make up the majority of the new office workers.

"Büro" (1932), Willy Hanisch, slub / Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Ultimately however, piano playing and dexterity, are nothing but flimsy explanations. Even then, women receive much lower wages than their male colleagues - in some cases just half of a regular salary - making them a low-cost alternative for fast-growing companies. Women take shorthand or type up business letters and memos.

In some cases, therefore, they no longer do all the secretarial work, but only those tasks that are considered particularly "simple" and supposedly do not require any initiative. The fact that secretaries are indispensable for the organisation of all work processes in the office is often forgotten. William Henry Leffingwell, whom we have already met in the course of the Taylorisation of the office, believes that women are simply less ambitious than men:

„A woman is to be preferred for the secretarial position for she is not averse to doing minor tasks, work involving the handling of petty details, which would irk and irritate ambitious young men, who usually feel that the work they are doing is of no importance if it can be performed by some person with a lower salary.“

Unlike their male predecessors, secretaries have little or no chance of promotion. Employers assume that young, unmarried women are merely bridging the time until marriage with their employment. Many companies have policies that exclude married women from being employed as secretaries until the 1950s.

At the same time, the profession of secretary is one of the few open to women, along with that of teacher or nurse. In contrast to the latter two, training as a secretary can be completed within a few weeks. Numerous schools open in the big cities to teach shorthand and typing skills.

Office of the Dispatch for Foreign Countries and the Army, two women (1914-1918) Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Karlsruhe State Archives (CC BY 3.0 DE))

Already in the late 19th century, secretaries also set up their own interest groups, which campaigned for better working conditions and were often feminist in orientation. Despite poor pay and a lack of career opportunities, the profession of secretary is a step towards emancipation.

The Office of the Present

The story of the office is by no means over here. The office has once again changed fundamentally as a result of the Corona pandemic. At least temporarily, many people have returned to working from home. Even after government home office recommendations were removed, many companies continue to allow their staff to work from their desks at home. Some employers therefore no longer have personalised desks. Instead, employees choose a new workplace in the open-plan office every morning.

The separation between private life and work, between leisure and work has been in flux for some time. Hip start-ups or successful Silicon Valley companies like Meta and Google want their offices to suggest a casual living room atmosphere. In addition to desks and office chairs, there are beanbags and sofas. Some companies have their own fitness centres, relaxation rooms or sports fields. Employees can pursue their leisure activities at work, which means that home and workplace are becoming increasingly intertwined. Here, work not only serves to earn a living, but is also self-realisation.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are calls for an unconditional basic income and a four-day week. The basic income should free people from the necessity of gainful employment and promote self-realisation, care work or social engagement beyond work. So what the office and work of the future will look like, whether we will work more or less, in the home office or in the office, remains unclear.

More offices in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

A collection of time recording systems by TECHNOSEUM Mannheim










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