Is there a distinction between the misery of work, and the misery of the physical workplace? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

***

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.