How the Office Has Changed: Comparing Office Design Trends of the 1990s With Today



In the span of just three decades, office design has changed dramatically. While many of these developments can be attributed to advancements in technology and culture in general, COVID-19 has played one of the largest roles in our shifting workplace setup.

From cubicles and utilitarian design to open-plan layouts and biophilic elements, let's explore the key ways the office has changed from the 1990s to today.


The 1990s: An Era of Functional, Utilitarian Office Design

The 1990s was the era of the floppy disk, bulky computer monitors, and brick-sized mobile phones. What this decade will most be remembered for, however, is the introduction of the World Wide Web. This invention signaled the beginning of our digital era and played an important role in the changing office layout. Online methods of communication (such as email) first began to reign supreme, cutting down on the amount of paper and storage required in previous decades.


As a result, offices took on a lighter feel in terms of office decor and adhered to the concept, 'form follows function.' Cubicle-clad floor plans were all the rage, and this utilitarian design was a far cry from the office we know today.


Then and Now: The Changing Office of 2022 and Beyond

In the space of just three decades, so much has changed in terms of office design and decor. Technology, in particular, has come leaps and bounds, not to mention our knowledge of health, happiness, and habits within the workplace. Let’s take a closer look at the many ways the office has transformed in the last 30 years.


Open Floor Plans

Perhaps the most noticeable change in the office between the two eras is the shift from cubicle workspaces to a single, open-plan layout. During (and leading up to) the 1990s, cubicles were popular due to their supposed ability to minimize distracting sights and sounds.

As time progressed, however, the once-innovative cubicle was deemed to be uninspiring, isolating, and a means of “cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for corporate zombies,” according to designer George Nelson.


Instead, the desire to increase collaboration and communication among employees led to the open-plan office layout. Eradicating cubicle walls and allowing a single, free-flowing space is believed to encourage a greater sense of community among workers.


Research attributes several positive aspects to open-plan office environments, including their cost-effective design, equal space for all employees, enhanced communication, increased collaboration, flexibility to work in different areas, accommodation of more employees, and increased energy efficiency. Within the past decade alone, it was estimated that more than 70% of office workers in the U.S. worked in an open-plan workplace design.


Breakout Zones, Lounges, and Hubs

In recent years, the popular open-plan office layout has undergone further change, with different ‘zones’ now proving beneficial for workers. These include everything from games lounges and casual meeting hubs to private pods and breakout zones designed purely for relaxation, meals, or creative endeavors.


This is far removed from the utilitarian, “form follows function” concept of offices during the 1990s, which left little consideration for time spent away from a desk.


The reason for creating several different zones within an open-plan office is based on research regarding the changing work habits of employees since the onset of the pandemic. As a large percentage of employees were forced to work remotely, they began to change the way they worked throughout the day. Some would start their day at their desk, before moving to the couch or a local café, for example.


This newfound flexibility demonstrates the changing needs and moods of an employee throughout the day. Sometimes, a worker will crave social interaction with their peers, while more stressful tasks might require the silence that a private pod offers.


A Greater Focus on Workplace Wellbeing

Perhaps one of the most significant developments to come out of the 2020 global pandemic is a greater focus on wellbeing within the workplace. According to research by Deloitte, organizations are tailoring their wellbeing efforts to individual workers’ needs instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. They’re finding new ways to let workers disconnect and recharge, along with supplying workers with the mental, emotional, and social skills needed to thrive.


This concentration on employee wellbeing is also manifesting itself through recent office design trends. Yoga rooms, gyms, on-site massages, and ergonomic support are no longer just perks of large companies such as Google. Recently, companies of all sizes are focusing on how their workspace can help employees achieve a better work-life balance.


The Rise of Biophilic Design

Another significant change in the traditional office over the past three decades is the rise of biophilic design. The term biophilic is derived from the Greek words “bios” and “philia," meaning love of life or living things.


In architecture, biophilic design is a sustainable strategy that incorporates aspects of the natural world to contribute positively to human health and wellbeing. Biophilic design elements include sustainable materials, natural light, water features, plants, and living walls.

Although biophilic design isn’t a new concept, it’s certainly one that’s risen to prominence since the onset of COVID-19. This popularity can be attributed to recent research on the effects it can have on employee morale and productivity.


Take living walls, for example, which are a simple yet stunning way to incorporate more plants into any space. By implementing living walls into an office’s design, a company can reap benefits such as attracting and retaining staff, boosting mood, improved physical health, enhanced focus, and increased productivity.


The modern-day office is utilizing living walls in creative ways, whether for floor-to-ceiling greenery, natural air purification in a poorly ventilated space, or to add aesthetic soundproofing to conference rooms.


The Future of Work

Design trends in the workplace come and go, but one thing’s for certain: the office of today is more flexible, inspiring, and wellbeing-focused than ever before. Gone are the days of cubicle-filled spaces and “all work, no play." The office of 2022 and beyond is proving that the future of work is certainly an exciting one.


Do you want to embrace biophilic design and integrate a beautiful living wall into your office design? Talk to the living wall experts at Zauben today to learn more about how our Model Z Living Wall can enhance your office space!