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The Workplace Evolution’s Trending Concepts Explained

This is part one of a series that explores the pre-pandemic workplace evolution through the trendiest workplace terms and concepts.  We’re starting with the concepts we were all most familiar with because reviewing where we’ve been will best help us to know where we’re going and how to navigate the future.  In part two of this blog series, we’ll explain the hybrid era workplace terms getting the most buzz and hype post-pandemic and discover their impact on our forever altered ways of working.


Read on or download the extensive guide – part 1 of 3



Workplace Terminology Covered:


Closed-Plan Layout 

Open-Plan Layout

Assigned Seating

Unassigned Seating

Shared Workplaces



Offices have existed in some way, shape or form throughout history as a means of a person, or body of people, to conduct official administrative business. They are based on the Roman Latin officium, a term loosely meaning ‘bureau.”


The Office-Centric Workplace

The Office-Centric workplace is the status quo work arrangement we were all accustomed to until the pandemic.  Work was performed in the traditional company office space regardless of layout.  Generally, all employees were required to work synchronously i.e. Monday through Friday during the same hours unlike asynchronous work (defined later in this blog series).  


The History of the Modern Office

How did commuting to the office become the standard?  The recently disrupted modern-day office became popular in response to the British Empire having mounds of paperwork that were most efficiently completed when every worker was in the same central space.  This space for clerical work was positioned next door to the factory where the mechanical work was done until the disruption of widespread telecommunications allowed the office to separate from the factory and move to other desirable locations.  Another feature of this centralized office work model was that it was like a factory.  Employees were down below in rows while managers were above in private offices able to look down and monitor their staff.  

First Modern Office Building, London Admiralty Office 1720

Over the years, the office has changed its layout to accommodate the times, and it has gone back and forth with whether to be more productive and efficient like a well-oiled machine or more human-centric.  But the one thing that remained the same, until recently, is that all employees would commute from their various homes to perform work in a single location at roughly the same schedule.  


Recent Disruption of the Central Office

Prior to the pandemic, there had been a gradual shift away from this workplace model due to technology and cloud productivity tools that liberate employees from needing to commute to a single, central office in order to collaborate and be productive.  Despite the capabilities of these workplace technologies, the general consensus remained skeptical that productivity could remain high anywhere outside of the central office.  However, as we all experienced, the 2020 lockdowns across the globe changed that mindset almost instantly.  

#Office-Based #Fully Office-Centered

Source(s):, K2Space




The Closed-Plan Office Layout

This is a traditional type of workplace design characterized by walls, partitions, and closed rooms.  The closed-plan layout actually came after the open-plan layout to enable office privacy and safety.  When women entered the workforce in the 1960s in droves, there was an increase in workplace harassment and office design went from open to closed in response.  Additional benefits are increased quiet for focused work and a greater sense of ownership and ability to personalize one’s workspace.


Although this design layout has lost favor with a majority of industries (see the list of advantages and disadvantages below) the closed plan has not been forgotten and has been incorporated into activity-based work design for its enduring benefits.


Advantages Disadvantages

  • Privacy of the employees
  • Distraction-free / Increases concentration
  • Increases creativity of the employees
  • The hierarchical order is sorted out
  • Healthy competition
  • Lesser gossip in the office premises
  • Healthier for the employees
  • More security for the employees
  • Employee productivity also increased
  • Increased income of the company
  • Less noise in the workplace
  • Employees can work according to their own style
  • A healthy working environment in the office
  • Problems supervising the employees
  • Less communication amongst the employees
  • Expensive to build
  • Might lead to lower employee productivity
  • Huge space consumer
  • Employees can engage in negative behavior
  • The flow of work might not be there
  • Information might not be available to all employees
  • Less unity amongst the workers
  • Laziness in the employees might increase
  • No emotional attachment amongst the employees


#CellularPlan #ClosedFloorPlan #ClosedOfficeLayout





The Open-Plan Office Layout

This workspace layout is devoid of walls, partitions, and closed rooms.  Preceding the closed-plan office, the open-plan layout dominated the 1900s and emerged during the era of Taylorism office design.  This first iteration of the open plan had a focus on factory-like efficiency from desk workers.  


The Taylorist Open-Plan Office

1910 TaylorismOne of the earliest office design concepts focused entirely on employee productivity. Created by mechanical engineer, Frederick Taylor, who sought to maximise industrial efficiency. Taylorism was known for its surprisingly scientific approach to boost employee productivity. Generally, the workers sat in endless rows and managers were in encircled offices so they could keep a watchful eye on their employees. While this particular design emphasised productivity, it didn’t take into consideration any kind of social interaction.”

–Navarre London


Total Open Plan vs Mixed Open Plan

There are two types of open-space workplace designs–total open plan and the mixed open plan.  The total open plan is the Taylorist office just described.  In the 1940’s, total open plan layouts were most commonly populated by secretaries in expansive, centralized spaces.  In the 1950’s, the Bürolandschaft total open plan emerged out of Germany.  The German term ‘Bürolandschaft’ roughly translates to “office landscape” and describes the concept of a company’s leaders being ‘just one of the gang’, sitting amongst their employees sharing information, resources, and experience.  This caught on in the 1960’s U.S. and the open plan became a means of showcasing, at least symbolically, the democratic, and egalitarian ethos of a company’s culture.


The Pros and Cons of the Total Open Plan

Today, consensus is that the disadvantages of the total open plan usually outweigh the positive intentions.  See the table below. 

Pros Cons 

  • Companies can save millions of dollars or reallocate space to more productive uses as space per employee ratios drop.  
  • Decrease of privacy in the form of freedom from harassment or ability to make private phone calls.  

  • Well-designed open space can boost company culture and inspire cohesive & efficient collaboration.  A boon for innovation.
  • Interruption during focus work from neighboring coworkers that are not performing focus work at the same time and other distractions.  Noisy. Loud.  
  • One Harvard Business Review said “open-spaces do the exact opposite of what they’re intended to do, reducing face-to-face interaction by about 70% and increasing email and messaging by roughly 50% [lowering productivity.]”


Mixed open plans, with their enclosed or semi-enclosed workstations, were a response to criticisms of the total open plan and led to the closed office plan.  The first example of the mixed open plan was the Action Office.  Each employee would get an office with three moveable walls and various stations that allowed them to move around, stand or sit based on the type of work that needed to be done.  Desks came with “modesty boards” to cover the front of females’ desks.  Each employee could customize their own workspace layout and walls based on their individual needs.  The Action Office was a popular design concept, but it didn’t sell to mainstream office managers until it became the cubicle we now loathe.  Today, we see the original concepts of the action office and a modern, mixed open plan in activity-based work design.

“Action Office II was Propst’s attempt to give form to the office worker’s desire. A “workstation” for the “human performer,” it consisted of three walls, obtusely angled and movable, which an office worker could arrange to create whatever workspace he or she wanted.

The usual desk was accompanied by shelves of varied heights and variable placement, which required constant vertical movement on the part of the worker. Tackboards and pushpin walls allowed for individuation. Intentionally depersonalized, the new Action Office would be a template for any individual to create his or her own ideal work space.”

–Wired Magazine


Sources:,,,, Wired Magazine



Assigned seating

The assigned seating workplace strategy allocates one dedicated workstation (usually a desk, chair, computer, and phone) to each employee that they come to everyday.  It sits empty when that person is away at a meeting or out of the office.  This workplace seating arrangement was desirable for its predictability.  Managers and other staff knew where to find employees at all times.  Employees were able to take some sort of ownership over their workstations and decorate or personalize them with personal effects because no one else would be sitting there.  


The First Assigned Seating in History

The first workstation can be traced back to the 15th century when medieval monks created the “Scriptorium”, a cubicle-esque desk designed for copying manuscripts. Its name literally translates to ‘a place for writing’.  Assigned seating at workstations is at least as old as the first purpose-built office in 1720’s London.  Allowing employees to personalize their workstations distracted them from feelings of being chained to a prison of work and boosted employee satisfaction.  


The Benefits of Assigned Seating

Some modern benefits of assigned seating are that employees do not waste time, negatively impacting productivity, or feel anxiety, negatively impacting employee satisfaction, trying to find a workstation.  Problems arise when employees share desks and one doesn’t leave it as clean as the next employee using the desk would’ve hoped.  When thinking about the global pandemic, along with cold and flu season, assigned seating is arguably more sanitary than desk sharing.

Source(s): KnightFrank, BBC, Quartz




Unassigned Seating

With the unassigned seating workplace strategy employees do not have a specified desk in the office.  Employees will be able to secure working desks in one of two ways determined by the method the company adopts.  A first come, first served option allows the first employees to arrive and choose their preferred seating.  Remaining employees have to choose workstations based on what’s left when they arrive.  The other option is a reservation system where employees reserve their desired desk or workstation in advance of arrival via a booking system. The reservation system is a response to the concern that the first come, first served unassigned seating option leads to lower productivity and employee satisfaction.  


The Rise of Unassigned Seating

In recent decades, the office has moved to unassigned seating as the office once again began to change.  Employees were processing paperwork and focused on the computer less (desk-based work).  Meanwhile, they were collaborating more in the form of meetings and visits to clients, internal customers, or projects at other locations.  Research into the workings of today’s high-functioning workplaces shows that employees are spending significantly more time on “collaborative activities”, 50% or more time to be exact, as reported in the paper ‘Collaborative Overload’. This left the typical office in the U.S. with [only] 55% occupancy prior to the pandemic.  [This resulted in] desks being underutilized and expensive real estate costs being higher than necessary.  


The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  With the 2020 lockdowns, everyone was working from home and planning for hybrid work schedules upon return-to-office.  It was clear that not everyone would be in the office at the same time, so there was even less of a need for maintaining assigned seating schemes and opportunity to increase utilization metrics and optimize office space.  




Desk Sharing

When an unassigned seating workplace strategy is in place, the resulting option for employees to use any and all available desks or workstations to complete individual work at the company office is called desk sharing.  The two desk-sharing methods were just described in the previous paragraph.  But these desk sharing methods also go by two other names–hot desking and hoteling.


Hot Desking

Hot desking is a type of desk-sharing arrangement with unassigned seating where employees do not make reservations before using a workstation.  Like a restaurant, people come in and look for space that accommodates their wants and needs (group size) on a first come, first served basis.  


“In hot desking, workspaces are allocated or occupied on a first-come, first-served basis. Desks, tables, and chairs have no permanent “owner,” and workers use whatever is available that fits their needs.  These arrangements can change at a moment’s notice — and tend to do so several times a day — as people come and go. Hot desking is very similar to the way many restaurants operate.   Customers arrive at whatever time suits them in the hopes of finding a seat to accommodate the size of their group.”

Bond Collective



When employees reserve their workstations before use.  Reservations are typically for longer duration–several days, a week, a month–via booking app or service.  These arrangements are much more static and don’t change as often as hot-desking arrangements.  Therefore, the concept is named for the fact that it feels more like booking and staying at a hotel more than walking up to and being seated at a restaurant.

Source(s): Visix, Bond Collective




The Shared Office Workplace

Shared office space refers to the practice of two or more businesses sharing a commercially leased office.  One tenant of privately leased office space will sublease their unused space to another business. This means that both parties benefit from sharing the cost of the rent, bills, and overheads.  It’s like getting a roommate to sublease a spare room in your residential housing.


The two parties who plan to share the office decide the rental terms and inclusions. Typically, the host will offer the space fully furnished and equipped with everything the incoming business might need like furniture, internet, phone lines, and printers. Most hosts use license agreements, which grant the use of the space without providing the tenant protections that a lease does; they also allow for the flexibility of a short-term agreement rather than the typical multi-year lease. Using a license, the host can bundle in the cost of the extras to create a simple, flexible, and cost-effective package for the new tenant. 




The Coworking Workplace

Coworking space is an office space concept that has only been around in the U.S. since 2005.  Its characterized by easily accessible office space open to the public as a service with by far the most flexible lease terms in the real estate market.  A single employee, independent contractor, or business owner can drop-in for the day and pay by the hour.  Or a company could rent out this type of space long-term for multiple employees. 

The biggest benefit of coworking spaces is that they are walk-in, ready-to-go office spaces.  They have many of the amenities without any of the major downsides of a traditional office lease.  No long-term commitment, fit-out process, or associated costs.  Coworking spaces also have their own culture exhibited in their office design, location, amenities, services and hired staff.  


Coworking Space vs Shared Space

A coworking space is technically a type of shared office, but unlike a shared office, a coworking company is in the business of renting out office space.  Think AirBnB for offices.  Whereas, shared offices are a single company, leasing part of their office space is to recoup profit on underutilized space.  These companies are not looking to be in the business of shared office space to customers.


Coworking Space vs Flex(ible) Space

There are two primary definitions for flex space.  Previously we said innovation in telecommunications allowed the office to separate from the factory.  The first definition of flex space is about bringing those two workspaces back together again.  This type of flex space describes a multi-use space with a combination of warehouse and office/retail space.  The second definition of flex space is a collection of separated office space units with shared conference rooms and kitchens.  This second type of flex spaces allows users to create their own company culture in a way that is not possible in a coworking space.

Source: DavinciMeetingRooms, BondCollective


That concludes part one of the trendiest workplace buzzwords explained from the pre-pandemic era. Click here for a breakdown of the trendiest workplace concepts defining the new, hybrid era of work. Additionally, listen to our podcast The Workplace Leader where we interview industry leaders and discuss how to best navigate these evolving times.


Get the Definitive Guide to Workplace Analytics


About the author

Lauren Dreifuss

Lauren Dreifuss

Research Analyst & Trend Scout

Lauren is our Research Analyst & Trend Scout at Locatee. She holds an MSRE from the University of San Diego, is a published author on office space trends in the ICSC Journal, and a former student journalist for MIPIM.

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