The progression of office culture from the 50s to today

George Marks / Retrofile / Getty ImagesTake a look back in time.
  • Office life has undergone a number of major changes since the 1950s.
  • Of course, workplaces have always varied in terms of look and culture, oftentimes based on regional, industry-wide, or organizational norms.
  • But there have also been a number of widespread changes over time.
  • These shifts include increased workforce diversity, widespread bans on smoking, and changing trends regarding popular workplace layouts.

Office culture has changed quite a bit over the years.

Some of those shifts were actually reflected in workplace design trends.

Corner offices were meant to convey hierarchical prestige and status. The cubicle was intended to improve employees’ lives, but ultimately became a symbol of corporate drudgery. And the currently-popular open office layout was introduced as a more egalitarian approach, but has received quite a backlash, as well.

In his 2014 book “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” Ron Friedman concludes that the jury’s still out on which style is the least terrible option.

“Cubicles are depressing. Private offices are isolating. Open spaces are distracting,” he writes.

But the big changes to US work culture haven’t just been all about appearances.

Teamwork is ostensibly in, while hierarchy is out. Typewriters got the boot with the advent of faster, user-friendly computers. Corporate jargon and ideas about job security have gone through major fluxes, as well.

Racial diversity in the workforce has increased over time – although many fields still have quite a way to go.

And workplace sexual harassment has gone from being a pervasive and widely-accepted phenomenon to a pervasive but somewhat less widely-accepted phenomenon.

Let’s take a look back in time at how office culture has changed over the years:


In the years following World War II, Friedman wrote that most offices “… consisted of a vast open space, with rows and rows of identical desks crammed tightly together.”

George Konig / Keystone / Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace


This “bullpen office” had blue-collar roots, according to Friedman. The open design hearkened back to the factory floor, and was meant to foster productivity by keeping everyone visible.

Russell Knight / BIPS / Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace


Of course, not everyone would have been stuck in the bullpen. At some companies, high-ranking employees might receive their own office.

Fred Ramage / Keystone Features / Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” Herman Miller


The most desirable type of private office was traditionally the corner office, which boasted more windows and served as a status symbol.

George Marks / Retrofile / Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” Herman Miller


Like today, the work cultures of different companies tended to vary based on factors like region and industry.

Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” “The Cornell School of Hotel Administration on Hospitality: Cutting Edge Thinking and Practice


But, generally speaking, work cultures tended to be more overtly hierarchical and formal in the 1950s. At the same time, the atmosphere around smoking and drinking at work was significantly more lax.

George Marks / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” “The Cornell School of Hotel Administration on Hospitality: Cutting Edge Thinking and Practice


Thanks to pop culture trends dating back to WWII, smoking was largely acceptable in most offices by the 1950s. But, in her 1958 etiquette book, Amy Vanderbilt wrote that, while supervisors can smoke in their employees’ presence without asking, “an outsider may not smoke in the office of someone else unless he is asked to do so.”

George Marks / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: “Clearing the Air: The Rise and Fall of Smoking in the Workplace,” “Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette: The Guide to Gracious Living


For working women, the 1950s proved to be a turbulent decade. The end of WWII saw the American workforce swell with veterans, and many women found themselves forced out of traditionally male-dominated jobs they had held during the war.

Fred Morley / Fox Photos / Getty Images

Source: “Working in America: Continuity, Conflict, and Change,” Business Insider


But more and more mothers began entering the workplace throughout the decade, despite personal concerns — and the popular criticism — that working women were “shortchanging” their families, according to historian Catherine Reef.

George Marks / Retrofile / Getty Images

Source: “Working in America: Continuity, Conflict, and Change


Many women found jobs thanks to the massive boom in clerical and service roles that emerged during the decade. The workforce participation of American women ages 25 to 45 would ultimately swing from 15% to 71% between 1890 and 1985, according to the Atlantic.

Evening Standard / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: “Working in America: Continuity, Conflict, and Change,” The Atlantic


African American women also entered the office in droves in the 1950s, and between 1940 and 1960, African American men “cut the income gap by about a third,” according to Brookings.

Kheel Center/Flickr

Source: “Working in America: Continuity, Conflict, and Change,” Brookings


But many opportunities were still closed to women. From the 1940s to the 1970s, numerous surveys indicated that both men and women “expressed strong disinclinations to work for women bosses,” according to “No Seat at the Table” by Douglas M. Branson.

Chris Ware / Getty Images

Source: “No Seat at the Table: How Corporate Governance and Law Keep Women Out of the Boardroom


Sexist attitudes also continued to influence popular ideas about working women. Vanderbilt wrote that women who managed to achieve executive status should avoid becoming “irritatingly important” and “dictatorial at home, as well as in the office.”

Evening Standard / Getty Images

Source: “Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette: The Guide to Gracious Living


In the US, discrimination based on sex wasn’t illegal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the term “sexual harassment” wasn’t even coined until 1975. But, of course, the sexual harassment of women in the workplace far predates such legal distinctions. The issue simply wasn’t as widely talked about until the latter half of the 20th century.

John Pratt / Keystone Features / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Source: Vox, The Week, “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace


Meanwhile, Vanderbilt recommended that male employees strive to get ahead by adopting formal social conduct. “They must learn how to dress, how to conduct themselves on various social and business occasions, how to communicate their ideas to others in concise, well-chosen language,” she wrote.

Express / Getty Images

Source: “Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette: The Guide to Gracious Living


But not all aspects of 1960s work culture were so rigid. Lola Cherson, who worked in advertising throughout the decade, told the Atlantic that the occasional three martini lunch was an accepted part of her company’s work culture, but added that most of her coworkers weren’t getting “loaded in the office.”

Peter Ruck / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: The Atlantic, Smoker History, “Dying for a Cigarette: Who’s to Blame?


And while smoking at work still endured in the 1960s, the decade also saw a growing backlash against the deadly habit, amongst organisations like the American Cancer Society.

Ronald Dumont / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: The Atlantic, Smoker History, “Dying for a Cigarette: Who’s to Blame?


Meanwhile, office tech began to change, as well. The popularity of the home computer didn’t surge until the 1980s and 1990s, but computers had been an integral part of some workplaces long before that. Starting in the 1950s, many data workers relied on early computers. Their popularity increased in the 1960s, and continued to skyrocket as the models grew smaller and more user-friendly.

Evening Standard / Getty Images


Source: Bizfluent


The late 1960s also saw the rise of the cubicle. Ex-art professor Robert Propst was the inventor behind the “action office,” which evolved into the cubicle system. According to Friedman, Propst hoped his invention would boost employee happiness and allow for increased privacy. But Propst’s first model, introduced in 1964, failed to catch on with employers.

Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace


He launched a second, cheaper model in 1968, and it was a massive hit. But as the trend caught on and employers began to cram more and more workers into cubicles, Propst spoke out against how companies were using his invention.

William Thomas Cain / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace


The 1970s saw the bust of America’s thriving postwar economy, and job security began to decline in many sectors.

Evening Standard / Getty Images

Source: Not Even Past


Meanwhile, America’s changing culture allowed for less formal fashions to begin to seep into some workplaces in certain industries. “Little by little, often-ignored infractions eroded the sanctity of any top-down policy: hose-free legs when the weather permitted, a tweed blazer for a day with no client meetings, loafers instead of dress shoes,” Deirdre Clemente wrote in The Atlantic.

Getty Images

Source: Not Even Past, The Atlantic


The tradition of smoking in the office took a hit, too. A series of state-issued bans began curtailing the habit in the US. This crackdown would ultimately spread to workplaces, too.

Sydney O’Meara / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: The National Academies Press


By the 1980s, some companies became more intentional about their work cultures, according to a 1996 paper by Iowa State University’s Taysir M. Khatib. He wrote that “organizational culture became a hot topic for research in the 1980s,” owing to “the notion that culture has a powerful impact on the organisation’s outcomes and its success.”

Source: “Organizational culture, subcultures, and organizational commitment


The Washington Post characterised the corporate world of the 1980s and early 1990s as “one of corporate raiders, massive layoffs, and cost-cutting trends.”

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Source: The Washington Post


“Cubed” author Nikil Saval told the Washington Post that, as a result, the ever-popular cubicle “… became seen as the symbol of a more precarious, more oppressive work environment.”

Source: The Washington Post


The diminishing size of the cubicle didn’t help its plummeting popularity. The average cubicle shrank between 25% and 50% in size between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, according to The Washington Post.

Source: The Washington Post


Saval wrote that in 1997, Steelcase survey found 93% of participants who worked in cubicles wanted to switch workspaces.

William Thomas Cain / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace


Today, the open office has overthrown the cubicle in terms of the reigning office layout of the moment.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Source: The Guardian


Friedman described the open office as more “egalitarian,” in theory, but also rife with problems. “While open office designs may increase communication between colleagues, they often do so at a cost to individual work,” he wrote.

Source: “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace


And, while office designs may have undergone quite a lot of change over the decades, the #MeToo movement has highlighted one area in which not enough progress has made in the workplace. Harassment scandals at Uber, NBC, and Fox News have highlighted how predatory behaviour is still able to thrive within some company cultures.

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider, Business Insider, Business Insider


As for overall office culture, maintaining an overt and strict office hierarchy may no longer be the fashionable way of running a company that it was in the 1950s.

Keystone / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: “The Cornell School of Hotel Administration on Hospitality: Cutting Edge Thinking and Practice


But, as most modern day employees know, it’s one thing for an organisation in 2018 to slap buzzwords like collaboration, egalitarianism, and teamwork on its office walls and website. It’s another thing entirely to run a business based on such principles.

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider

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