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.