Is there a distinction between the misery of work, and the misery of the physical workplace? Photo: Getty
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Why do our offices make us so miserable?

The unhappy history of the workplace.

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
Nikil Saval
Doubleday, 2014

Five days a week I commute to a skyscraper in the main business district of a large city and sit at a desk within whispering distance of another desk. Whatever the word “work” used to conjure, my version is now quite standard. About 40 million Americans make a living in some sort of cubicle. 

Are we happy about that? The likelihood that we are not is central to Nikil Saval’s impressive debut, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. He begins with a description of a viral video purporting to show a spontaneous case of cubicle rage – “purporting” because it may have been a hoax – and lingers on the famous scene from Office Space in which three frustrated employees destroy a fax machine. Having proven his cultural bona fides, Saval explicitly positions Cubed as a pop-modern version of C Wright Mills’s 1951 White Collar: The American Middle Classes, a sociological text that took a dim view of non-manual labor as tedious and isolating.

Strictly speaking, Cubed is a history of the office, not office-worker unhappiness. Saval assumes, probably correctly, that offices are ubiquitous to the point of invisibility. Like the young fish in David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech – the one who asks: “what the hell is water?” – we are too familiar with our surroundings to bother wondering about them.

Yet as Saval bothers, situating the office in historical perspective, he emphasises the experience of average workers over those who have ascended to management, and returns again and again to the theme of disgruntlement.

At times he does so out of a descriptive impulse to tell it like it is. On other occasions he plays the role of an activist, prodding us to wake up to our malaise so that we might finally do something about it. He ultimately welcomes the technological and macro-economic changes that could make traditional offices unnecessary because he holds, a little too strongly, to the notion that the white-collar work environment is itself to blame for white-collar dissatisfaction.

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The modern office emerged from the “counting houses” of the mid-nineteenth century, and white-collar workers emerged as a class along with it. Back then we called ourselves “clerks” rather than “knowledge workers” and spent our time keeping books for merchants, lawyers, or bankers.

Counting houses were cramped: one typical New York establishment was only 25 square feet yet accommodated four partners and six clerical workers. They were also hopeful. In part because we were so physically close to our employers, we were convinced that we would eventually take their places. For this reason, we thought we were exempt from the Marxist principle that capital and labor are locked in an intractable conflict. Less clinically: We felt justified in rooting for our employers’ success. We saw ourselves “shaking hands” with our bosses instead of shaking fists.

Perhaps fellowship really did exist in the counting-house era. But as time went on, employers took more interest in making us more productive than in bringing us along. Of course we weren’t necessarily cognisant of that fact.

In the early twentieth century, the Larkin Company, a soap manufacturer turned mail-order operation, hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a state-of-the-art headquarters in Buffalo, New York. Its most distinctive feature was a central court with a metal-and-glass roof that let in natural light for the whole building, and which doubled as an administrative space.

Although the Larkin building was, in a sense, an upgrade over the dingy warrens where we’d toiled before, it was also sinister. In the central court sat rows “of identically attired and coiffured women together in a visual line, guarded at the desk corners by four male executives.” These execs were watching us. The building was “designed for easy supervision and surveillance.”

All that light made us think the company wanted to “take care” of us, as one Larkin secretary put it. Hidden by the glare was the reality that “the numbing work remained the same,” and that managers were constantly spying to make sure the numbing work was completed as efficiently as possible.

Designers have since attempted to make work environments less oppressive, but have generally succeeded only in making things worse. In 1964, the manufacturer Herman Miller unveiled Robert Propst’s Action Office, a “proposition for an altogether new kind of space” that was “about movement” rather than “keeping people in place.” Propst imagined us in “work stations” with two different desks – one for standing, one for sitting – a mobile table for meetings and an acoustically insulated telephone dock (something like a three-sided telephone booth).

When these didn’t sell, Propst tried again with Action Office II. He shrank our stations and surrounded them with three walls made of disposable materials, which we could theoretically arrange to create whatever kind of space we wanted. He gave us tackboards for “individuation”. Sound familiar? He’d invented the cubicle.

Employers loved Propst’s invention, which was cheaper than more traditional furniture. But George Nelson, who had worked with Propst on Action Office I, anticipated their dehumanizing effect. Action Office II “is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general,” he wrote. “It is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for ‘employees’ (as against individuals), for ‘personnel,’ corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority.”

In the era of the cubicle, the hope of the counting house days felt distant indeed. Not only were we confined in disposable pens, but we were overeducated, and our “expectations were gradually running up against [our] actual possibilities for advancement.” At least we had job security—until of course we didn’t. By the 1980s we were targets for downsizing. “Between 1990 and 1991, 1.1 million office workers would be laid off, exceeding blue-collar layoffs for the first time.” The modern office “asked for dedication and commitment,” but we were offered “none in return”.

Our bosses weren’t blind to our unhappiness and tried, as Propst had tried, to shake things up. There were stunts: Andrew Grove, the Intel C.E.O., played at nurturing an egalitarian culture by sitting at a cubicle. This was “a gesture of pure irony” because “you could hardly be said to occupy a cubicle if you could leave whenever you pleased, probably spent most of your working hours flying around the country in the company jet, and earned $200m a year.”

And there were earnest attempts at improvement that felt like stunts. In 1993, Jay Chiat of the advertising agency Chiat/Day resolved to “de-territorialise” the office by getting rid of the “walls, desks, and cubicles,” the “desktop computers and the phones”. He thought this would help us focus on work rather than office politics, but it only caused confusion. “People arrived and had no idea where to go, so they left. If they stayed, they found there was nowhere to sit; there were too many people.” We “began playing hooky” and managers couldn’t find us. “No work was getting done.”

In the twenty-first century, tech companies shower us with perks. At Google's Mountain View campus we get free food, a gym, day care, health and dental services, and a resistance pool. Less naïve than in the Larkin days, it’s not lost on us that as companies cater to our needs, they’re trying to do more than make us happy: they’re trying to keep us at work as long as possible, and away from their rivals.

Which isn’t to say that we’ve evolved into a different species since the Larkin building, or even the counting house. Saval emphasises certain traits that tie together office-workers past and present: Simultaneous frustration with and devotion to our employers; an aptitude for ignoring mistreatment; an inability to impress upon our bosses that they should probably consult us when making design and human resources decisions that affect our daily lives.

***

Saval is of course aware that he’s telling the story of the office at a moment when it’s in flux. Personal computing and the internet have made telecommuting feasible and the freelance economy is growing, so that many people who would have labored in a cubicle a generation ago now do their jobs at home or in coffee shops. Careful not to glorify contract labor, Saval concedes that many freelancers have not chosen to leave the permanent workforce: they’ve been pushed out. They don’t have benefits and may struggle for cash.

Still he accepts the precarious life of the freelancer as preferable to that of the old-fashioned cube-dweller. He criticises “organisations that insist on hierarchy” and praises “the willingness of workers to discard status privileges like desks and offices”.

In predicting that the old career path “from the cubicle to the corner office” is “coming to a close, and that a new sort of work, as yet unformed, is taking its place,” he finally allows himself to sound less like an impartial chronicler than a revolutionary. “It remains for office workers to make this freedom meaningful,” he writes, “to make the ‘autonomy’ promised by the fraying of the labor contract a real one, to make workplaces truly their own”.

Notice the way Saval balances the visual metaphor of the cube-to-corner career path against the abstract notion of new sort of career? In both descriptive and exhortative passages, he muddies the distinction between the misery of work, and the misery of the physical workplace, investing the latter with so much power that it overtakes the former as the true cause of white-collar distress. That’s why Saval finds restorative potential in the office-less future – and why I doubt it will live up to his expectations.

In his introduction, Saval cites a survey by the furniture company Steelcase, which found that 93 per cent of people who work in cubicles “would prefer a different workspace”. That’s not terribly surprising but also not terribly enlightening. Would a comparable percentage of people who work in retail, or in factories, or auto dealerships, or industrial farms prefer a different workspace? More pertinent: would we prefer different work – an entirely different job?

As mentioned, Saval smartly observes that after Larkin moved its employees into its state-of-the-art headquarters, “the numbing work remained the same.” And he suggests that white-collar laborers have often failed to acknowledge the fact of our exploitation. If we leave the cubicle only to bore ourselves at the coffee shop, we will still face exploitation, and dissatisfaction, too.

Juliet Lapidos is an editor at The New York Times. Follow her @julietlapidos.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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The New Statesman 2016 local and devolved elections liveblog

Results and analysis from elections across the United Kingdom. 

Welcome to the New Statesman's elections liveblog. Results will be coming in from the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, local elections in England, and the mayoral contests in London, Salford, Bristol and Liverpool. Hit refresh for updates!

01:23: Labour are pretty confident that they will win Edinburgh Southern from the SNP - most of which mirrors Ian Murray's Edinburgh South seat. If you've never been, it is basically the plushest part of Edinburgh. It's as if Labour had been reduced to just one seat in London - and that seat was Kensington. 

01:21: Results from Glasgow and Fife indicate a third-placed finish is on the cards for Labour. 

01:18: Ukip look likely to be the largest party in Thurrock, and are making gains in Basildon too. 

01:15: You'll be shocked to hear that Labour's Joe Anderson is on course to be re-elected as Mayor in Liverpool. In Edinburgh, Edinburgh Western remains a good chance for the Liberal Democrats while Edinburgh Southern remains hopeful for Labour. (I'd like to apologise in advance for getting these two seats mixed up at some point around 4am.) 

01:10: A word from the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) who are kindly assisting me with keeping track of the results.  Their Chief Executive, Jonathan Carr-West, has this to say about the results so far:

“The main focus so far tonight continues to be the Labour vote and what it tells us about Corbyn’s leadership. Many Labour councils who have very different political outlooks from the national leadership may feel aggrieved by this relentless focus on the national: especially if, as is likely, it is costing them votes. This will exacerbate the rift that already exists between a radical leadership and a pragmatic local government base.
So far, Labour are holding safe councils (Newcastle, Liverpool, Sunderland and Halton) - but we expect to see them losing significant numbers of seats as the night progresses. To put this in context, the last time these councils were contested Labour gained 823 seats.

We’re also looking at a Labour wipe out in Scotland and losses in the Welsh Assembly. While a Khan victory will be spun as the story of the night, the reality is that no opposition has lost councils seats in this way for thirty years.”

01:04: For those of you just joining us. In Wales, Labour is set to remain the largest party though the Conservatives are rumoured to make gains in the constituencies. In Scotland, the SNP will not win every seat after failing to displace the Liberal Democrats in Orkney. They are confident in Motherwell and Glasgow, but Edinburgh is anyone's game.  In England, Labour are on course to do worse than their first year under Ed Miliband and fall back on 2012 (it was 2012 when these seats were last contested). 

01:01: In terms of the battle for second place, there was also a 7.5 per cent swing from Labour to the Conservatives in Rutherglen. If that keeps up, the Tories will beat Labour to second-place - but only just. 

00:59: The SNP have taken Rutherglen with a nine point swing, putting them on course to take all of Labour's seats. 

00:56: Labour have been whomped by the SNP in Rutherglen, with James Kelly losing his seat by close to 4,000 votes (that's a lot in a Holyrood constituency). 

00:51: That is really a thumping win for the Liberal Democrats. Elsewhere, I am hearing bad news for Labour in Portsmouth, good news in Norwich, where they believe they may have taken three seats off the Greens, and that the Tories have made gains in Nuneaton, which is Labour-dominated at a local level but has sent a Conservative to Westminster since 2010. 

00:48: Rats! The Liberal Democrats have held Orkney, and I am down £20. They are up 32 per cent of the vote there. 

00:45: Turnout from Ogmore, where Labour are fighting both an Assembly seat and a by-election to, is above 40 per cent. Labour are confident of holding it. 

00:42: Labour have gained a seat from the Conservatives in Birmingham and are doing real damage to the Liberal Democrats in Newcastle. My comment about the Liberal Democrat revival is aging really, really well. 

00:40: Scotland incoming! Rutherglen result imminent! Scotpocalypse! Scotpocalypse! 

00:38: McDonnell is beasting Nicky Morgan on BBC doing a very good "more in sorrow than in anger" routine. 

00:34: For an alternative view on Zac Goldsmith, Andrew Boff, a Conservative member of the London Assembly, said this earlier today on Newsnight:

"I don't think it was dog whistle because you can't hear a dog whistle. Everyone could hear this"

00:31: Duncan Smith droning on about how Zac Goldsmith's campaign is not at all racist, oh no. I'm not getting paid enough for this. 

00:29: Iain Duncan Smith has appeared on screen. He says he is "hopeful" that Zac Goldsmith will be elected tonight. In Wales, the Conservatives have walked out of the count in marginal Delyn. Labour are sounding fairly pleased about that, as you'd expect.

00:27: I have made two discoveries. The firsts is that the lights in the New Statesman offices are motion-sensitive. The second is that sitting and typing is not quite enough motion. (It's just me here tonight.)

00:26: Council seats so far: Labour have 59, the Liberal Democrats have four, Ukip have none, the Greens have none. The SNP are hopeful of picking up all the Scottish Parliament seats in Motherwell and Glasgow, but Edinburgh is trickier territory. 

00:25: Speaking of bets...I look likely to owe Wings Over Scotland £20 (I bet on a clean sweep for the SNP in the constituencies), as Labour are buoyant about Edinburgh Southern and the Liberal Democrats are hopeful in Edinburgh Western.

00:19: John McDonnell doing a good job putting a brave face on some grim early numbers for Labour. This line about needing only do better than a general election is nonsense, psephologically speaking but he's making it sound like good sense. A validation of Jeremy Corbyn's decison to ignore even some of his closest allies and put him in as shadow chancellor. And still only 9 to 1 on Betfair as Labour's next leader. 

00:10: People on the BBC and keep talking about 2012 as a "high point for Labour". Is this true? Well, sort of. It was Ed Miliband's best year. However, that doesn't mean that Labour doesn't still have room to gain seats tonight - governments tend to lose seats in opposition and Labour lost seats pretty consistently in the areas up for election tonight throughout their 13-year-stay in government. So they still can and should make gains. And bear in mind, even Ed's good years were padded out with gains in safe Labour seats, which went from Labour strongholds with say, 40 Labour councillors and 20 Liberal Democrats to 58 Labour councilors and three Greens. In the places Labour needs to win at Westminster to get back into government, there is real room for growth. Which is why I wouldn't worry overmuch about losing some* seats in safe seats if when the marginals report Labour is making headway there. 

*Some is key. Going from a majority of 10,000 to 5,000 in Labour heartlands is fine if Corbyn is putting on 5,000 votes in seats Labour lost by that kind of margin. Going from a majority of 10,000 to -1,000 in Labour heartlands, less so. 

00:06: Labour look likely to lose Crawley

00:02: Labour have kept control of Newcastle Council, taking a seat from the Liberal Democrats. (I knew that would happen the second I typed the words "Liberal Democrat revival"). 

00:00: For those of you just joining us: welcome. Labour is projected to lose seats but remain the largest party in Wales, where the Conservatives seem to be gaining ground. In England, the Liberal Democrat revival appears to be a thing and not just a Twitter meme. In Scotland, the SNP are sounding buoyant while the Conservatives believe they may beat Labour into third. London won't count until tomorrow but everyone - Labour, Tory, Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol - is getting jittery over low turnout. 

23:55: That early worry I heard from Wales has vanished completely from the Tory side. Vale of Glamorgan is rumoured to be close - a close to six point swing to the Conservatives. So we have biggish swings away from Labour so far tonight. 

23:52: Labour are down 17 per cent in the six seats we've had so far (from 2012 when last contested). Still not very much data, but that would put the party in the mid to low 20s in terms of nationwide share. Personally I think it's unlikely to be that bad when all the results have rolled in. 

23:48: How about that Liberal Democrat fightback, huh? The Liberal Democrats have won a seat in Sunderland from Labour. 

23:47: The knives are already out for Kezia Dugdale in Scotland, where Labour may come third. 

23:42: Bad news for Labour from Wales. Clywd South is in play and the Tories may well win it. Cardiff North, which is Conservative-held at Westminster, looks likely to go the same way in the Assembly having been Labour-held since 2011. Newport West and Llanelli are worth looking out for too. 

23:39: Good news for Labour - they've held the first seat to declare out of Newcastle, and the Liberal Democrats, their main opposition, have privately conceded that Labour will remain large and in charge in Newcastle. 

23:35: Speaking of the Liberal Democrats, they are feeling cautiously optimistic about winning a seat in Edinburgh Western from the SNP, while they expect to recover a bit from 2015. (Things could hardly get worse, I suppose.)

23:32: The first Labour gain of the night, as a Liberal Democrat councilor in Stockport defects. 

23:30: Labour sources are gloomy about their chances of holding onto Exeter Council, where Ben Bradshaw is the party's only remaining MP in the South West. Looks like it will slip into no overall control. Party is also nervous about holding Derby. 

23:25: Tory mole in Wales tells me that things look bad for them - potentially worse than the losses shown in YouGov's poll. The election has become "a referendum on steel", apparently. 

23:20: Early results from Sunderland show Labour doing fairly badly (you know, for Sunderland) and Ukip doing very well. But one swallow doesn't make a summer and we need more data before we know anything. 

23:15: We should get our first result from Scotland in 45 minutes or so. Rutherglen, Labour-held since the Scottish Parliament's creation in 1999, and highly likely to go to the SNP. 

23:13: And what the results mean so far, according to ace numbercruncher Matt Singh:

23:07: Those numbers from Sunderland, where Labour have held in St Anne's ward. Labour down 15 points on 2012, when these seats were last fought, Tories down 3. It's Ukip who are making the headway (they didn't stand last time and expect them do post performances like this throughout the United Kingdom tonight and as results roll in over the weekend). 

23:04: Back to Wales - YouGov's poll "looks about right" according to my Plaid Cymru source. What does that mean? Labour could go it alone and do deals on a vote-by-vote basis - they govern alone now with just 30 seats. If the poll is even a little out - let's say either Labour or the Liberal Democrats get one more seat - they might do a deal if they can get a majority with the Welsh Liberal Democrats. 

23:01: Pallion Ward in Sunderland is the first to declare, and it's a Labour hold! More on percentages as I get them. 

22:58: Why isn't it an exit poll, I hear you ask? Well, an exit poll measures swing - not vote share, but the change from one election to the next. People are asked how they've voted as they leave polling stations. This is then projected to form a national picture. Tonight's two polls are just regular polls taken on the day of the election. 

22:57: The Sun's poll - again, not an exit poll, I'm not kidding around here - of Scotland has the SNP winning by a landslide. (I know, I'm as shocked as all of you) But more importantly, it shows the Conservatives beating Labour into second place. The Tories believe they may hold onto Ettrick as well. 

22:55: What news from Scotland? Labour looks to have been wiped out in Glasgow. Liberal Democrats think they might hold at least one of Orkney or Shetland, while the seats in Edinburgh are anyone's game. 

22:52: Hearing that turnout is low in Waltham Forest, Lewisham, Hackney and my birthplace of Tower Hamlets (the borough's best export unless you count Dizzie Rascal, Tinchy Stryder or Harry Redknapp, that's me). Bad news for Labour unless turnout is similarly low in the Tory-friendly outer boroughs. 

22:47: YouGov have done a poll (note: not an exit poll, it should not be taken as seriously as an exit poll and if you call it an exit poll I swear to god I will find you and kill you) of the Welsh Assembly. Scores on the door:

Labour 27

Plaid Cymru 12 

Conservatives 11

Ukip 8

Liberal Democrat 2

There are 60 seats in the Assembly, so you need 30 seats for a majority of one. 

22:40: In case you're wondering, how would closing a seven point deficit to say, six, compare to previous Labour oppositions, I've done some number-crunching. In 1984, Neil Kinnock's Labour turned a Tory lead of 15 per cent at the general election to a Conservative lead of just one per cent. In 1988, one of 12 per cent went down to one per cent. (He did, of course, go on to lose in both the 1987 and 1992 elections). In 1993, John Smith's Labour party turned a deficit of eight points at the general to a Labour lead of eight points in the local elections. William Hague turned a Labour lead of 13 points to one of just six in 1998, while Iain Duncan Smith got a Tory lead of just one point - from a Labour lead of nine. In 2006, new Tory leader David Cameron turned a 3 point Labour lead to a 13 point Tory one. Ed Miliband - remember him? - got from a Tory lead of seven points to a two point Labour one. 

22:35: John McDonnell is setting out what would be a good night as far as the party leadership is concerned - any improvement on the 2015 defeat, when the party trailed by close to seven points. Corbyn's critics say he needs to make around 400 gains.

I've written about what would be good at length before, but here's an extract:

"Instead of worrying overmuch about numbers, worry about places. Although winning seats and taking control of councils is not a guarantee of winning control of the parliamentary seat – look at Harlow, Nuneaton, and Ipswich, all of which have Labour representation at a local level but send a Conservative MP to Westminster – good performances, both in terms of increasing votes and seats, are a positive sign. So look at how Labour does in its own marginals and in places that are Conservative at a Westminster level, rather than worrying about an exact figure either way."

22:31: Oh god, the BBC's election night music is starting. Getting trauma flashbacks to the general election. 

22:22: A few of you have been in touch about our exit poll. Most of you have been wondering about that one vote for George Galloway but the rest are wondering what happens - under the rules of the London mayoral race (and indeed the contests in Salford, Bristol and Liverpool), 2 votes would not be enough for Sadiq. (He needs 2.5). However, all the other candidates are tied - which makes it through to the second round. What happens then is the second preferences are used as a tie-break. Of the tied candidates, Sian Berry has the most second preferences so she goes through to face Sadiq Khan in the final round. Final round is as follows:

Sadiq Khan: 3

Sian Berry: 2

3 votes is above the quota so he is duly elected. An early omen? 

22:19: Burnham latest. A spokesperson for Andy Burnham says:

"Approaches have been made to Andy Burnham to give consideration to this role. It is early days and no decision as been taken. Whatever the decision, he will continue to serve the leader of the party and stay in the shadow cabinet."

22:17: Anyway, exit poll of the office. We've got:

Sadiq Khan: 2

George Galloway: 1

Caroline Pidgeon: 1

Sian Berry: 1

22:15: Update on Andy Burnham. He has been asked to consider running. More as we get it. 

22:13: People are asking if there's an exit poll tonight. Afraid not (you can't really do an exit poll in elections without national swing). But there is a YouGov poll from Wales and I am conducting an exit poll of the four remaining members of staff in the NS building. 

22:11: It's true! Andy Burnham is considering running for Greater Manchester mayor. Right, that's it, I'm quitting the liveblog. Nothing I say tonight can top that. 

22:09: Rumours that professional Scouser Andy Burnham is considering a bid for Greater Manchester mayor according to Sky News. Not sure if this is a) a typo for Merseyside or b) a rumour or c) honestly I don't know. More as I find out. 

22:06: Conservatives are feeling good about Trafford, one of the few councils they run in the North West.

22:03: Polls have closed. Turnout looks to be low in London. What that means is anyone's guess to be honest. There isn't really a particular benefit to Labour if turnout is high although that is a well-worn myth. In the capital in particular, turnout isn't quite as simple a zero-sum game as all that. Labour are buoyant, but so are the Tories. In Scotland, well, the only questions are whether or not the SNP will win every single first past the post seat or just the overwhelming majority. Both Labour and Tory sources are downplaying their chances of prevailing in the battle for second place at Holyrood, so make of that what you will. And in Wales, Labour look certain to lose seats but remain in power in some kind of coalition deal. 

22:00: Good evening. I'm your host, Stephen Bush, and I'll be with you throughout the night as results come in from throughout the country. The TV screens are on, I've just eaten, and now it's time to get cracking. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.