10 INVENTIONS THAT SHAPED THE WORKPLACE
From Hawaiian shirts to comfy
chairs, these innovations had
a lasting impact on office life.
By Kim Lightbody
The Otis Elevator Company installed the first
public version of its newfangled invention inside
New York department store E.V. Haughwout,
which helped convince people it was safe to use.
The impact: Freed from the tyranny of stairs,
buildings soon shot skyward, enabling the creation of the office tower.
Launched by New Mexico tech company MITS,
the Altair 8800 wasn’t super useful—no keyboard
or monitor—but it’s generally credited with
sparking the PC revolution.
The impact: As desktop computers grew more
sophisticated, they reprogrammed virtually every
aspect of the daily office routine.
The modern weekend was born when a New
England cotton mill with a large Jewish workforce
started to close on Saturdays as well as Sundays
so all employees could observe the Sabbath.
The impact: The practice spread to nearby businesses and then caught on nationwide, especially
after labor unions started pressing for it.
Email was a novelty when MCI debuted this tool
for business use. At the time, workers preferred
low-tech communication methods like interoffice
envelopes (remember those red strings?).
The impact: MCI Mail fizzled out in 1994, but
the underlying technology influenced key email
products from Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google.
In the days when the telephone was the essential
workplace tool, Danish engineer Hildaur Neilsen
invented a clever rotary desktop device that
stores contact information for easy reference.
The impact: The Rolodex proved so useful and
iconic that even in the digital age it’s still available at an office-supply store near you.
Herman Miller hit upon another office-furniture
breakthrough with this transformative desk seat,
which helped popularize ergonomic design and
became a dotcom-boom status symbol.
The impact: The Aeron remains one of the country’s best-selling chairs, though copycats abound
and some experts question its health benefits.
To boost Hawaiian-shirt sales, a Honolulu trade
group cooked up “Aloha Fridays” and encouraged
local workers to wear the shirts to the office at
the end of each week.
The impact: Employees embraced the idea, and
Aloha Fridays eventually hit the mainland, evolving into today’s familiar Dockers-fest.
Just because you’re self-employed doesn’t mean
you have to spend the day alone. That was the
idea behind the first coworking space, created by
a programmer in San Francisco. It had eight desks
and offered group lunches and activities.
The impact: We Work launched five years later
and soon took the concept mainstream.
Herman Miller rolled out its “Action Office” line
of modular components, which let employers
create individual desk spaces with partial walls—
a privacy upgrade for many workers.
The impact: The concept sparked an office-design revolution. Today, cubes remain common,
but many people consider them dehumanizing.
Email-fatigued workers longed for a better way
to talk to each other. Enter this social-media-inspired communication tool, which has made
office chat more effective (and fun).
The impact: To be determined. Slack could
prove revolutionary—or simply give way to the
next short-lived office upgrade.
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Illustration by Peter Oumanski