Glass box: Citigroup offices in Canary Wharf, September 2013. Photo: Getty
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Is the office about to become redundant?

In 2014, the distinction between work and life, office and home, is poised to collapse. Members of “Generation Y” desire greater flexibility, with the ability to work where and when they want.

Does the office have a future? With the fall in stable, nine-to-five jobs, will we lose our water coolers, filing cabinets and pot plants? Does Silicon Valley, with its in-house doctors, resistance swimming pools and “nap pods”, represent an alternative model for corporate life, or does the advent of “the cloud” signify the end of office spaces as a whole?

Over the past century, workplaces have evolved to meet the needs of businesses (and, in rare circumstances, those of workers). The term “white collar” was coined in 1919 by the novelist Upton Sinclair, and has carried uneasy connotations ever since. “[They are] the worst exploited of the proletarians,” he wrote, “who, because they are allowed to wear a white collar . . . regard themselves as members of the capitalist class.”

The first decades of the 20th century saw the transition from small numbers of highly-skilled clerks working in corner offices, to armies of copyists and stenographers, lined up in the style of a factory floor. Taylorism – the paper-pushing counterpart to Fordism, named for the “efficiency expert” Frederick Winslow Taylor – demanded maximum utility and a radical division of labour. It was the first step on the road to today’s call centres, in which operatives neither have the power, nor the expertise, to assist their customers.

In 1915, the US Equitable Life Assurance Society introduced the “modern efficiency desk”: a suspended metal slab with drawers beneath. By the 1950s, the office had moved upwards into multiple-storey buildings made of glass and steel. But the “open-plan” approach, popular since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906, seemed to be harming productivity. Worker esprit de corps fell to an all-time low.

In 1951, the American sociologist C Wright Mills decried what he saw as an ideological division between life and work. “Each day men sell little pieces of themselves in order to try to buy them back each night and weekend,” he wrote. Personality and meaning were drained from office life, a problem the furniture company Herman Miller set out to rectify. In 1958, the firm hired the inventor Robert Propst to develop a species of office furniture inspired by the German concept of Bürolandschaft, or “office landscaping”. Propst designed the Action Office, a modular system with pinboards, a standing desk, a table, colourful storage and movable walls. Against his wishes, businesses tightened the angles to 90 degrees to save space – and thus the “cubicle” was born.

According to Nikil Saval, the author of a new book, Cubed: a Secret History of the Workplace, as high a proportion as 60 per cent of American workers inhabits cubicles today – 93 per cent of whom say they would “prefer a different workspace”. In the end Propst swore off his creation, calling cubicles “hellholes” born of “monolithic insanity”.

In 2014, the distinction between work and life, office and home, is poised to collapse. The number of self-employed people in the UK has risen by 650,000 since 2008 to 4.5 million, or 15 per cent of all employment (the figure is twice that in the US). This is not necessarily bad news. While job security, benefits and wages (the self-employed earn 40 per cent less on average than employees) have suffered, members of “Generation Y” nevertheless desire greater flexibility, with the ability to work where and when they want.

Less time at the office could also improve your health. Research by the Danish ministry of employment suggests that workers in open-plan offices take 62 per cent more sick days than those in private offices. The American Cancer Society claims women who sit for six or more hours a day are 37 per cent more likely to die prematurely than those who sit for less than three.

However, the “flexible working” revolution has yet to take hold. We still need offices. Silicon Valley is asking the right questions, attempting to please both shareholders and employees. But, for all the media exposure the Google campus has received, the changes elsewhere have been more sinister. Working patterns in Britain increasingly resemble those of the 19th century – short-term contracts, no benefits, longer hours. How all this will change the office remains to be seen.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism