office workplace

Is There Life Beyond the Wall of Your Cubicle?

Is There Life Beyond the Wall of Your Cubicle?

How did Bartleby the Scrivener spawn office live cartoon Dilbert? Why does their “unnatural” office space compel over 60 percent of Americans to labor there, often in tasks divorced from farm or field so much that the work seems invisible, and its productions intangible? One wonders, if in a “cubicle farm”, why employees in an electronic era must be corralled in this interior labyrinth. Despite networks and smartphones, many must commute. Offices these days may enter open-form layouts, thus replacing flimsy grey partitions, but this raises volumes of chatter. We see headphones advertised now not for jet flights, but for the 9-to-5 work day when one must work in a small space next to ten others.

Nikil Saval asks many of the same questions I’ve had since my workplace — that term itself telling of the collective nature of the setting, separated from the factory floor, unions, and solidarity to foster office politics, surveillance, and self-improvement — “rightsized” a few years ago to half of its former layout. Once I shared an office with a colleague behind a wooden door; now, we sit in cubicles. While our supervisors kept their doors, our employer mandates, all the same, an “open door policy”.

Given such scenarios repeat for hundreds of millions, it sparked my curiosity. The same day I mulled over that policy, I learned about Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, by this Philadelphia-based editor of n+1. The book began as a 2006 article in that publication on the origins of the office. Saval expands this topic by synthesizing sociology, literature, architecture, and cinema.

I remain unconvinced by that come-hither subtitle. This secret history lacks the salacious rumors of Procopius’ Byzantine courtiers or the gothic menace of Donna Tartt‘s novel, The Secret History. Less gripping than efficiently told, as may be expected from its subject matter, Saval’s history credits a more stolid literary forebear. For, clerks marked the arrival of a new type of mass-employed common man.

Bartleby’s odd situation, when offices themselves seemed a novelty in mid-19th century Manhattan, transformed tedious if cleaner manual labor for clerks, who, at first like Melville’s protagonist and his colleagues remained largely male, and often derided for their foppish fashion and snobbery. They fought back against the system once in old Manhattan, so as to purportedly get off at 8PM, to attend debating societies or to frequent the lending library before it closed. Saval notes how their status, as salaried, meant that they spent long hours (if often with not much to do) earning their keep, and how this cut them off from the laboring masses, resigned to hourly wages or piecework.

By the ’20s, time management had long put paid to the leisurely pace of Bartleby. Adding machines, typewriters, bells, and bosses accelerated the working day. Railroad dispersion necessitated the division of corporations into stratified departments. The “company ladder” loomed. Specialization required that tasks were aided by telecommunication and divided into vast spaces filled with desks, similar to the factory floors, for both demanded “labor-saving” machinery, which led only to more products and then more memos, more invoices, more letters, and more calls for harried salaried staff.

“Taylorism” dominated as rational, “scientific management”. Bureaucracy enabled women, who by 1920 comprised half of the ranks under the hierarchy Taylorism required, to take on the perceived or practical advantages of clerical work. This led to many disadvantages of disparity, as when male bosses took advantage by their own office politics, and the scheming secretary on the rise led to a provocative archetype promoted in Depression-era stories and films. Predictably, “white-collar” wages stagnated once “unskilled” jobs were associated with “white-blouse” stereotypes.

Meanwhile, regimentation for all meant that desks lined up, bosses carried stopwatches, and the sole “restroom” might be a few flights up, near executives who sat in their suites behind doors, glass or wooden. On the open floor, as supervisors scanned the ranked as they filed, “Time would not be given, but stolen.”

Air conditioning, skyscrapers, file cabinets, Dictaphones, stenography, skylights, adjustable chairs: the innovations applied to this workplace may endure or fade, but as Saval narrates, “What passed for workers’ welfare could with a little imagination be seen as social control.” The words “system”, “order”, and “efficiency” proved to managers that the monotony of office work preserved its appeal. The less that salaried staff had to worry about on the job, went the rationale, the less fuss they made.

The “office zombies” of King Vidor‘s film The Crowd (1928) in its splendid opening scene characterize the postwar predicament for many in New York City or Chicago by then. The camera directs one’s gaze up the side of the Art Deco exterior, with column after column of windows. It enters one, hovers above “a waste and empty sea of desks”, and then lowers itself among countless clerks all filling in ledgers. Down below, more leave the farms, to join the commuting, urban herd.

Social backlash then, as Saval notes, would return against the “hard-hat” workers in the ’70s. It urged many to deride the white-collar man as a not only a conformist but a racist drone. But in the ’20s as later, unions could not gain traction within most office ranks. Pink or white collar, the salaried employees refused to see their plight as akin to that of their waged, blue-collar neighbors. Distancing by class, if not always economic differences in salaried income, ensured that solidarity did not supplant supposed self-improvement.

Saval applies German sociological theory, drawn upon for C. Wright Mills’ 1951 study White Collar, to critique what turned out for many leftists a persistent but in Saval’s opinion too facile a link between lower-middle-class clerical workers and reactionary politics. The switchboard operators, message boys, and the typing pools became scapegoats for lack of ambition, and their cadre represented to the elite a shorthand for stagnation and subordination.

Could paper pushers or the steno staff revolt? It seemed doubtful, but fearing unions and Marxists, a “pop Freudianism” soothed managers. Their staffs feared not losing their jobs, as blue-collar workers did, but not getting credit for a job well done. “The way to counter the threat, the managers decided, was to design better offices.” These “human relations” specialists favored environments conducive to cooperation rather than competition, to advance harmony. This led to more glass, alongside the steel. We see its results in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and in Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper advertising agency.

These postwar paeans to Cold War affluence, however, lord over cities. These towers and the cold, empty (or packed) streets below, for many postwar aspirants discouraged rather than encouraged affection. Suburban office parks answered the need for more space, and more of a lateral rather than vertical presence as corporations led or followed the flight from the skyscraper. AT&T’s Bell Labs in New Jersey pioneered the long corridor: this is where, subsequent management gurus suggested, ideas might be generated as colleagues passed each other many times daily.

Yet, the totality of the corporate presence, epitomized even in the better-designed structures that sprawled, discouraged others in the ’50s. Lonely crowds, power elites, hidden persuaders, and organization men in gray flannel suits (to combine a few popular works of that era’s social criticism), connoted a “soft totalitarianism” as advertisers and bosses colluded to lock up Americans in conforming cages.

A generation after The Crowd, The Apartment (1960) depicts the power of “gigantism”. Consolidation eliminated small business and the individual’s ambitions, unless to score a coveted bathroom key. IBM’s dress code matched its punch-card mentality, and its uniformity that it trumpeted as the future. Such firms countered with a PR (propaganda?) campaign assuring “more opportunities for better work”. As always, many welcomed the security of the corporation, the amenities of the office, and the steady salary. Justifying itself to the public, free enterprise generated a bland, safe jargon.

Safety might spawn seduction, if not secure secrets. Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Sex and the Office (1964) beckoned working-class secretaries to snatch small joys during or after work, “through strategies of small subversion”. Marriage need not be the goal, and staying single did not condemn a gal from climbing up the ladder at work in her own way, on her own time.

But closed doors and executive suites remained the domain of few in the office space. Jacques Tati‘s Playtime (1967) portrays in a futuristic but ramshackle Paris the cubes in which many of us now work. In 1958, furniture maker Herman Miller furthered through ergonomics Robert Propst’s Action Office, defined as “a mind-oriented living space” functioning as “a place for transacting abstractions”. Theory-Y, advanced by Douglas McKenzie in 1960, pushed the ideal of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization into the realm of desks and chairs: by propelling bodies eager for direction, individual and corporate needs were better met.

Peter Drucker appealed as a management guru, reaching out to anxious if compliant “knowledge workers”. “For businessmen who read no philosophy, Drucker was their philosopher.” Such theorists, for a restless generation of managers seeking to boost productivity while streamlining movement, spurred the open-plan. Workstations fostered innovation, but installation led to cubicles, perpetuating what were invented as temporary partitions. Saval confirms the trade-off: the sounds of typing and phones could never be silenced by carpeting or sound screens. Introspection and concentration capitulated to interactive communication.

Two decades after Propst’s proposals, his humanistic vision of a flexible set-up at work had led to its opposite, as Tati had envisioned. By the end of the ’70s, “that beige, dishonest decade”, conversion to cubicles and open-space confined as many workers as feasible in as small a blueprint as possible. While not mentioned by Saval, “positive” psychologist Martin Seligman has diagnosed “learned helplessness” as a symptom of this human filing system. Voice mail spews and depression deepens as “technical support” on hold wears customers down, as corporate environments brutalize.

Those staffing such situations suffer, too. Diversifying workers did not lead to diversifying workplaces. Office work was rationalized, requiring fewer specialized skills. But higher levels of education were required. Those frustrated as their ambitions met with drudgery blamed themselves (and the system) for their stagnation. They may have escaped the factories and farms, but similar tedium awaited them.

The trend exalting whimsical post-modern rather than glass-and-steel modernism for the skyscrapers of the ’80s mattered little to those who rode the elevators. Corporations increasingly did not need so many cubicles. Worried executives and pressured middle managers made bestsellers out of business books. But Japanese Theory-Z failed. Manufacturing was automated or offshored. White-collar “post-industrial” work, promised as security by Drucker, faltered. Meaner, leaner downsizing followed.

Even the cubicles shrank, between a fourth and half, between the mid-’80s and the ’90s. Some were built by prisoners, who at night might return to their own fabricated stalls. Apple’s workers refused them, and they were removed. IBM kept reducing them; employees reasoned this was meant to increase their miserable conditions such that nobody would want to show up anymore, and thus the savings on office space would reward their employer. Saval observes how cubicles make workers close enough to “create serious social annoyances, but divid[e] them so they didn’t actually feel that they were working together.” No wonder satire rebounded with Dilbert and Office Space.

Did the PC advance the liberation that the Action Office predicted? Keystrokes monitored, errors subtracted, talking tallied: this depersonalized routine deadened many who sought to save their clerical jobs as automation created fewer positions but more apathy along the digitized assembly-line. Administrative assistants, renamed, arguably enjoyed less status than secretaries, who by their relationships with their bosses might gain some autonomy and respect. By contrast, the predictable data entry into electronic devices allowed supervisors to monitor this labor by a detached process.

9-to-5 (1980), produced by Jane Fonda, took much of its farcical plot from real testimony, although Saval avers it may not have helped advance the battle against sex discrimination. Eight years later, anticipating a move away from the typing pool, Working Girl shows a young woman scheming to replace her female banker-manager, using the “knowledge worker” skills that reward her “gumption”.

Neither film revolts against the system. One suggests ending sexism might lead to a happy workplace; the other replaces one ambitious, conniving woman with another in a coveted position.

Before the start-up crash, fantasies continued. The paperless office and the non-territorial workspace emerged as paradigms sought by disgruntled designers. Telecommuting met with skepticism as managers feared losing control over their workers. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, since the ’80s issues “utopian prognostications” about the workplace of the libertarian, decentralized future. Their cubicles, started in the ’60s, stood for a rebellion against hierarchy and an installation of equality. But soon, as IBM epitomized, this structure embedded conformity. Apple and Microsoft turned to more closed offices, as workers opted to stay home to work as the noise interfered in their cubicles.

The mid-’90s embodied the as counterculture, one praising the company as the place to be, not only to work. The New Economy, as Chiat Day’s giddy Frank Gehry-designed but confusingly paperless (for an advertising agency, after all) building boasted, generated for Type-A types a “simultaneously lackadaisical and profoundly intense pace, which kept people essentially confined to one place for hours on end”. Mobility or freedom, on the other hand, diminish, despite Aeron chairs. The appeal of an airy domain where one can flee, free of the hubbub, no matter the job or site layout, persists. Lately, I pass on my way home from work a freeway billboard depicting a woman who celebrates her promotion by shopping for a new dress: “I got an office with a door!”, she exclaims.

Timed for the stock market’s fall, 1999’s Office Space sends up the dead-end jobs at “a grey tech company”. The series The Office and novels by Ed Park (Personal Days) and Joshua Ferris (And Then We Came to the End) sustain this dark vision since that cult film appeared. Saval explains that these targeted “the unholy expectation of the modern workplace, which asked for dedication and commitment, offering none in return”.

Beyond the cubicle, ubiquitous big-box retailers and chain diners betray the same homogenized failure. For a few, Saval shows, disenchantment with corporate life led to another go around. TBWA/Chiat Day redesigned a bold campus for its staff after 1997. Their virtual office failed. They replaced it, but to Saval that still feels like Disneyland. The “cheerful haphazardness” of Google’s headquarters perplexes him, but at least you can take your dog to work.

As the 2012 decision at Yahoo ordering workers to come to the office rather than work at home has demonstrated, the changing technologies that energize Silicon Valleys and Alleys alter the workplace. The “cloud” may puff up the temp economy even more; the Dutch insurance firm Interpolis models a second option, which gives employees more power over whether they want to come to an office to work at a variety of spaces (they only have a locker), or stay at home for part of their workweek.

Mobile phones connect employees, no matter where they choose to work. Still, as Saval listens to a Marx-quoting manager, he realizes what one may call “trust” based on “activity-based working” may for workers translate as tacit “consent” to what a boss intends to implement to get all of the jobs done: the way the supervisor wants them to happen, regardless of the preferences of those assigned to tasks.

Saval’s skepticism serves his investigation well. He keeps a wary eye on boosters from the business bestseller shelf, and he looks around where he is guided to check out the claims by managers and designers as tested against his own experience. He visits with Professor Richard Greenwald in Brooklyn, who champions the freedom while admitting the worry in contract work by freelancers. Fewer companies take on more workers, but a “frayed safety net” extends where no stability endures.

Open-source firm GitHub claims to be a non-managed, bossless office; like Interpolis, it breaks up its space into many configurations. Yet over seven out of every ten of its employees work at home. Many may come to the place once or twice a month, so the “serendipitous encounters” the designers hope to encourage by its innovative architecture may not happen much at all. Co-working shared spaces suggest another alternative, not beholden or built for one company, and this may lead, Saval reasons, to more rewarding “creative collisions” with other workers outside one’s firm or field.

Autonomy persists as the worker’s ideal. Promised by many managers and parroted by many gurus, its actual presence appears to diminish from a typical, however high-tech, work site. Freelancers and contingent laborers, after all, may possess a degree of freedom not given to the salaried permanent staffer, but the uncertainty of living from one elusive paycheck to the next creates its own confines. One may long to leave the cubicle as once one escaped the typing pool, but a corner office may not reward today’s toiler who wants to make his or her workplace more than a location to log in or sit at.