The Evolution of Workplace Productivity

The Evolution of Workplace Productivity

When you think about workplace productivity, you probably think of modern inventions like email, the cloud, and mobile technology. This century has exploded with transformative tools, automated processes, and inventive technology that has completely changed the way people work. Our ancestors couldn’t even dream about the tools we have at our fingertips today.

But we owe all the progress we’ve made in this century to those who came before us. The history of productivity is long, rich, and robust, with each moment in time forging the way for what we have now, and what is to come later.

The modern marvels we use to power our businesses and accomplish our work are all here thanks to the moments below. Take a journey through time to learn more about the evolution of workplace productivity with this interactive timeline.

3.3 million years ago

The first tools are created, launching millions of years of innovation.

Technically speaking, humans weren’t even the first to invent tools. Researchers believe more ancient species, like Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops, were the first forgers of tools to make work more efficient.

6000 B.C.

Animals are used on farms to relieve farmers of time-consuming tasks.

The ox was the first animal to be utilized on farms to improve efficiency and automate work. Farmers realized this animal’s strength and endurance helped get work done much quicker than using just their own two hands. Oxen were later joined by horses and donkeys, all of which helped til fields using an early version of the plow.

Did you know?

Because donkeys are the pinnacle of efficiency and prove to be incredibly productive animals, we adopted our own donkey named Walter to be our mascot!

3500 B.C.

The first known wheel is used to spin pottery.

Touted as one of the most important inventions of all time, the wheel was used for pottery before it ever found itself on a chariot. Nowadays, wheels run the world—from bicycles and cars to the inner workings of watches and computers.

700 A.D.

Someone has the idea to taste hot bean water, changing mornings forever.

For most of us, it’s hard to be productive without a cup of coffee to start the morning. Each day, around 2.25 billion cups of coffee are downed, often on the way to or at the office.

Although hard to confirm, many sources say we can thank an Ethiopian goat farmer for unlocking the magic that is coffee. He noticed his goats acting ecstatic after chomping on some coffee beans and decided to try them out himself.

868 A.D.

The oldest known printed book is published in Dunhuang, China.

Communication is key to productivity, and the world made huge strides forward when the first known book to be published, The Diamond Sutra, was created using block printing.


Pigeons are used as a communication tool.

We have instant communication tools like email and Slack now, but pigeons were the communication tool of choice in the 12th century. Sultan Nur ad-Din used pigeons to streamline communication between Baghdad and Syria.


The first fountain pen is designed, increasing handwriting speed and efficiency.

By the 18th century, people no longer had to waste time filling a quill in an inkwell and being painstakingly careful when writing. Imagine how much this boosted words written per minute!


Pencils provide a more cost-effective way to write.

The inexpensive, grab-and-go writing solution was invented by a scientist in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army named Nicholas-Jacques Conte.


The Pony Express transforms the speed of communication.

It’s hard to believe now, but at this point in time, getting mail from Missouri to California within 10 to 13 days was considered incredibly fast. Using horses was an efficient way to get the job done—that is, until the Pacific Telegraph line made the Pony Express obsolete in 1861.


The first typewriter with uppercase and lowercase letters hits the market.

Although patented on June 23,1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes, this incredibly impactful workplace productivity machine did not take off until the 1880s. Beyond creating a more efficient way to communicate, the typewriter brought forth jobs for women, as well as the QWERTY keyboard used throughout offices today.

Fun Fact:

Mark Twain was the first author to submit a manuscript written on a typewriter, which he purchased in 1874.


The Edison Electric Light Company begins illuminating workspaces.

Although the first person to create a lightbulb was actually Humphry Davy in 1802, Thomas Edison had the bright idea to use a carbonized bamboo filament. This helped the bulb last more than 1,200 hours, making it a smarter investment than past lightbulbs that burned out much quicker.


Henry Ford launches his first moving assembly line and massively improves productivity.

Ford was a known lover of efficiency and had been working on improving the outputs of his factories for years. He finally hit the jackpot when he began his first moving assembly line, which took the production time of a Model T from 12 hours to 2.5.


AT&T invents the telephotography machine, an early version of the fax machine.

Before the recognizable dial-tone scream of a fax machine was ripping through offices everywhere, the telephotography machine was used to send photos across phone lines.

Did you know?

The acronym AT&T stands for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.


The first computer, ENIAC, boots up and launches us into the digital age.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (say that five times fast!)—considered the world’s first digital, general-purpose computer—was built at the University of Pennsylvania.

The predecessor of modern computers looked nothing like the technology that runs offices today. The ENIAC weighed 30 tons, filled up a 1,500-square-foot room, and used 18,000 vacuum tubes. As the Smithsonian stated, “it changed the course of civilization.”


Floppy discs, the original file transfer method, hit the market.

Computer software and data used to be uploaded to computers using paper punched cards. Invented in 1967 by IBM, the floppy disc revolutionized the transfer of data and computer programs. One floppy disc could hold the data equivalent to 3,000 punched cards, quickly making data, software, and computer programs more accessible to the masses.


Work lives will never be the same, as Ray Tomlinson sends out the first email.

The ability to transmit messages electronically through email has truly revolutionized how we share information and data. It’s become one of the most-used forms of digital communication, with an estimated 2.9 billion email users worldwide—more than one-third of the world’s population.


The IBM 5100 is the first “portable” computer, weighing in at a whopping 55 pounds.

The grandfather of today’s sleek laptops had a 5-inch display and only 64 KB of RAM. Modern laptops average around a 13-inch display and 8 GB of RAM. For mind-blowing reference, a gigabyte contains 1,048,576 kilobytes.


Microsoft launches its first version of Word, which doesn’t have spell check.

Originally titled Multi-Tool Word, version 1.0 was void of the tools we rely on every day to perfect our documents, such as spell check and word count. Those features were added to Word 2.0 in 1985.


The world’s first browser, website, and server go live, revolutionizing the World Wide Web.

Although the origins of the internet stem from ARPANET work that began in 1983, the World Wide Web as we know it was created by Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN.

Transformative Tech:

In 1994, the Web had 10 million users. Today, there are more than 4.3 billion active internet users.


Version 1.0 of Adobe Acrobat is released to the public, along with the new file format PDF.

Sharing data across operating systems and machines was a nightmare before the Portable Document Format (PDF) was developed in 1991. Released with Adobe Acrobat two years later, the PDF gave companies across the world better access to data and documents.


A trademark application is submitted for the term cloud computing.

In 1997, “The Cloud” was a radical idea that would eventually change the way we store and share data. The term was first cited in a business plan by NetCentric and Compaq. Their idea was to build a software platform to sell “cloud computing-enabled applications,” but the idea was a bust.

“The Cloud” would have its first big moment in the spotlight in 2006, when Google CEO Eric Schmidt discussed the idea during the Search Engine Strategies Conference.


Google changes the way people use the internet.

Move over libraries, Google is here, forever changing the way we search for answers. When the search engine giant launched, there were around 10,000 queries a day. Now, there are more than 3.5 billion Google searches per day, equaling roughly 40,000 per second.

Fun Fact:

Google was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a transitive verb in 2006.


The rise of SaaS begins with Salesforce’s “The End of Software” campaign.

It may be one of the dominant CRMs in the world now, but in 2000, Salesforce was a small startup trying to compete against billion-dollar brands that only sold expensive enterprise software. Salesforce came out swinging, providing businesses with a low-cost, web-based SaaS solution that would revolutionize how businesses buy software.


Cell phones turn into productivity machines, thanks to BlackBerry.

Four years before the iPhone hit the scene in 2007, the high-functioning BlackBerry phone took the market by storm. It was mind-blowing at the time to have such easy access to email—and a full keyboard!—on a phone.


The “Golden Age of SaaS” launches several companies that will each eventually earn $1B.

Some of the most well-known and used SaaS products launched between 2006 and 2007. Zendesk, HubSpot, Dropbox, Spotify, Zero, and Marketo were all part of the tech innovations founded within this two-year span.

Fun Fact:

Formstack was founded on February 28, 2006!


The iPad is introduced, ushering in a new era of tech mobility.

“Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” was a fitting theme song for the iPad, which released 10 years after the first Microsoft tablet hit the market. The sleek design and touchscreen brought in sales, which topped one million within two months of its release.


Slack enables workers everywhere to communicate and connect in an easier way.

AOL instant messenger might have put chat on the map way back in 1997, but Slack revolutionized the instant message industry in the workplace. It truly changed the game for remote workers, giving employees spread across the world a better way to communicate across time zones.


Amazon Echo launches, bringing forth a new age of voice search.

Digital speech recognition technology began in 1961 thanks to IBM, but it didn’t become mainstream until Siri was introduced in 2011. The launch of Alexa, Amazon Echo’s voice assistant, changed everything.

The focus on voice-activated search has rapidly changed how businesses market themselves and how consumers discover information. There are now an estimated 10 million Amazon Echo devices in the world.


Formstack transforms into a productivity platform, changing how people collect data and put it to work.

We believe our announcement about becoming a platform for workplace productivity was historic! We’re on a mission to revolutionize how organizations capture and share data through forms, surveys, workflows, document generation, and much more.

Workplace productivity has come a long way since the creation of the first tools.

Yet the productivity evolution is far from over. If you want to learn more about what productivity looks like for businesses today, check out our Workplace Productivity Report.

View the report