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.

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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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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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