Office of the future, offices of the past

An article on the ‘office of the future’ prompts some research on the history of the word office.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Danelle Hutton works on her laptop computer in her open cubicle at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory Research Support Facility in Golden, Colorado in 2013.

Perhaps to inspire Americans to get back to work after Labor Day, the latest Atlantic reports on the “office of the future” in a piece called “Thinking Outside the Cube.”

Olga Khazan writes that offices of the future will look familiar – desks and chairs and coffeemakers – but things will be different. Furniture, for one thing, will be much smarter: “A desk could expand to become a conference table, and walls could descend from the ceiling to create a meeting space.”

Or “the company’s espresso machine might, for example, be programmed to find the two teams that need to collaborate on a project and roll itself into position so that those workers will get up and spitball ideas over cappuccinos.” 

A little timeline (“A Brief Chronicle of Offices”) notes that in the early 1800s “[t]he word countinghouse begins to be replaced by the word office.”

It’s a transition captured in an 1855 reference from the historian Macaulay, quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary: “There were those who still remembered him an apprentice, sweeping one of the counting houses of the City.”

By the mid-19th century, countinghouse looked backward: “He” was presumably “remembered” from years – decades? – before.

Oxford’s first set of definitions for office refers to worship and liturgy: “Divine Office.” Then comes “a position or post to which certain duties are attached, esp. one of a more or less public character.” Then come definitions having to do with the duties of “office.” Then more broadly, and generously, “A service or kindness done, or attention shown or given, towards anyone.” This is the sense in the expression “through (someone’s) good offices.” 

The “professional workspace” sense appears only at Definition 6. But The Atlantic notwithstanding, that sense does go far back into the language. Oxford’s earliest example is from Chaucer, no less, “The Friar’s Tale,” circa 1400. Someone says of a woman, “I wol somne hir vn to our office,” or in modern English, “summon her to our office.” 

The King James Bible (1611) is full of “offices” – mostly priestly, to be sure, but here’s an example (II Chronicles 24:11) of the “workspace” sense: “[T]he chest was brought unto the king’s office ... and when they saw that there was much money, the king’s scribe and the high priest’s officer came and emptied the chest....”

This sounds pretty modern, especially the part about emptying out all the cash.

Oxford also cites a Colonial Boston newspaper’s report (1711) of stolen property and the reward offered if “any Person or Persons in whose Custody the aforesaid things ... are, will return them ... to the said Edward Weaver, at his Office....”

However far back the workspace sense goes, though, before office was a place, it was a service, a role, a function, or an action. Form follows function, even as walls drop from the ceiling.

I’ll leave you with that. My espresso machine wants to set up a meeting for me.

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