Staying Connected at Work: 1900s to Now

Since the world’s first skyscraper went up in Chicago in 1885, people have converged to work together for a common goal. Companies and how people work together have changed dramatically since then and, in recent years, these changes have come fast and furious.

Phones, dictation machines, personal computers — over time, the ways people stay connected to get work done has evolved in parallel with the cost, size and distribution of technology. The workplace has also adapted to accommodate communication tools as they became more prevalent and bigger and, then again, as they shrank in size.

Archive photos reveal how designers have created work environments since the first high rise to bring people, place and technology together to help people work better. And, now, for the first time, Microsoft and Steelcase are coming together to develop new spaces designed to unlock creativity at work.

1900-1950: Limited Technology

In the early 1900s as organizations grew, more and more people began working together. Businesses transitioned from a craft economy to a capital economy, and we began to see new philosophies around organizational structure. The efficiency of Taylorism in the early 1900s gave way to more creative work in the 1920s and ‘30s. Communication tools advanced as well. Phones and dictation machines were all dedicated to the most powerful people within the organization.


This 1907 office was likely used by an organization’s leader. At this time, only the people with the most seniority had access to a telephone. The office also includes a letter tray and a place for an assistant to sit and take dictation.


George Davis, owner of Stow & Davis Furniture Company, sits at his executive desk in 1912. His secretary is likely writing shorthand. Their desks are in close proximity to facilitate dictation. Steelcase later acquired Stow & Davis.


Larger desks, like this one in the 1920s, helped to accommodate a telephone and an increasing amount of paperwork.


As the cost of the telephone dropped, organizations were able to add more of these tools into the office. As organizations focused on efficiency, some rooms were designed for people to sit closely together and move paperwork from their in-box to their out-box.


The Ediphone, a dictation machine, was used in offices in the early 1900s.

1950-1980: Democratized Technology

During World War II, the government developed systems to process reams of information quickly and efficiently. Following the war, business leaders adopted these efficiencies to speed up repetitive work, like sorting punch cards and data entry.

At same time, the distribution of technology became further democratized. More people had access to phones and multi-line phones became commonplace. Additional technology meant added connections and wires that all needed space within the office. In the mid-to-late 1970s, panels and moveable walls changed the way work environments were designed to accommodate the wires and allow for easy reconfiguration.


In the 1950s, Steelcase employees had phones and typewriters at their desks. Desks were set up with efficiency in mind.


This photo from 1956 shows a desk for a middle range manager. A side chair is in place to accommodate quick collaborative conversations.


Working from home isn’t a new concept. This 1959 office blurred the lines between work and home -- created in someone’s living room.


This photo from the 1950s illustrates the overload of paper in offices at the time. Desks were set up with in-boxes and out-boxes to move paper from one to the other throughout the day.


This 1958 Swingstallation desk was designed to integrate a phone. At this time, companies began to move away from switchboards and start installing phones at individual desks.


In this 1958 photo from Steelcase’s 36th Street headquarters, phones were installed before the furniture.


Big computers handled punch cards and other large amounts of data in the late ‘60s. This Datacase Computer Console desk and chair dates back to 1968.


Punch cards ran mainframes like this one from 1965. Big batch data processing stayed in place until the mid-’80s.


This workspace from 1970 was designed to accommodate a typewriter, desk calendar, phone and storage unit.


Workplace furniture became more mobile in the 1970s. This desk from 1972 incorporates file storage, a typewriter and a phone.


This wood desk from 1977 was designed to conceal phone wires.


Moveable walls like those seen in this 1977 photo helped conceal wires and create privacy without requiring architectural changes.


Organizing vast amounts of paperwork was a challenge before the digital age. This Paperflo system from the late 1970s included six trays to help with organization and productivity.

1980-1990: The Personal Computer

In the 1980s, advancements in technology were paralleled by improvements to the work environment. More people had access to computers as the decades progressed and furniture helped support the modern worker — designed to allow people to connect to power right at their desks. The rise of the personal computer coincided with a shift in the workforce. It diversified the kinds of roles available, including a dramatic influx of white collar workers.


A major advancement in the mid-1980s introduced power into workspace panels. This removed the technology from the architecture. Now, people didn’t have to drill holes in walls to reach a power source. (1985)


Computer support furniture in the mid-1980s created more access and mobility for computer equipment.


By 1986, the entire design of the workplace had changed. Wires under the floor allowed power to be accessed from anywhere.

1990-2015: Embracing Networks

In the 1990s, the flow of information accelerated and the speed of business sped up as well. Organizations began to see themselves in terms of social networks and cultures, as much as structures. The world was introduced to the internet, while collaboration around technology became an important part of the workplace.


This wood-paneled private office included Stow Davis furniture designed to support a personal computer, phone and storage for a busy executive. (1990)


This Smart Stuff furniture from Steelcase allowed people to work next to one another while still having their own computer, phone and storage. (1995)


The Avenir furniture line from Steelcase enhanced personal privacy. At the same time, a technology wall and ports gave people access to power and data almost anywhere. (1998)


The Kick Freestanding desk and chair allowed people to work on their individual tasks and then turn around within the same space to collaborate with colleagues. (2002)


By 2010, the internet and laptops were common threads throughout businesses worldwide and people were connecting across geographic boundaries instead of within a single office.


The 2010 FrameOne Bench was designed for sleeker devices, smaller power cords and greater collaboration.

Now: Smart + Connected

In today’s workplaces, thresholds to and from space are being minimized. Smart + Connected Spaces are connecting distributed global teams no matter where they are working. People, place and technology are intricately linked. At the same time, technology is poised to take on repetitive tasks, leaving people to create and problem solve driving growth and innovation within organizations.

Until now, many organizations haven’t thought about their investments in space and technology holistically. In order to help people reach their creative potential at work, Steelcase and Microsoft have introduced Creative Spaces, a jointly developed range of technology-enabled work spaces designed to foster creative thinking at work.

Ideation Hub

The Ideation Hub is a high-tech destination that encourages active participation and equal opportunity to contribute as people co-create, refine and share ideas with co-located or distributed teammates.

Focus Studio

The Focus Studio supports individual creative work which requires alone time to focus and get into flow. It also allows for quick shifts to two-person collaboration. This is a place to let ideas incubate before sharing them with a large group.

Duo Studio

Working in pairs is an essential behavior of creativity. The Duo Studio supports trust. Two people can co-create shoulder-to-shoulder, while the space also supports individual work. It includes a lounge area to invite others in for a quick creative review or to put your feet up and get away without going away.

Maker Commons

The Maker Commons is designed for socializing ideas and rapid prototyping -- both essential parts of creativity. This space encourages quick switching between conversation, experimentation and concentration.

Respite Room

Creative work requires the need to balance active group work with solitude and individual think time. The Respite Room is a truly private room allowing relaxed postures to support diffused attention.

Explore Creative Spaces and the Microsoft and Steelcase partnership. Plus, read what Steelcase CEO Jim Keane says about the future of work with Microsoft.

Featured Topic:  Collaboration

Leave a Reply to Tony Grogan Cancel reply

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    Tony Grogan

    My desk today is just like those in the 1950’s photo. Not very pretty, but still usable for a peon.

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