How the Modern Office Shapes American Life

Posted on April 14, 2014

Each year, the average American spends nearly 2,000 hours working. For many, that time passes inside the three little walls of a modern cubicle.

Writer Nikil Saval explores these odd spaces—how they came to be, how they make us feel—in his new book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. I spoke to Saval about the modern office, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Your book is, as I see it, about twin themes: the spaces we work in, and the quality or character of the work itself. Can you talk, just briefly, about the relationship between those two ideas?

I’ve found that space in an office often reflects the way power operates in a workplace: design expresses (though not in a simple way) relationships of hierarchy, control, and authority.

The idea that they were related at all came to me when I was first doing the research for this book, which coalesced into an article for n+1 (where I’m an editor), called “Birth of the Office” (winter 2007). I was working in my second cubicle, much smaller than my first, and looking into the history of it: Where did it come from? Was it always a symbol of the worst of office life? Maybe predictably—though to me it was a surprise—it wasn’t.

The original designs for the cubicle came out of a very 1960s-moment; the intention was to free office workers from uninspired, even domineering workplace settings. The designer, Robert Propst, was a kind of manically inventive figure—really brilliant in many ways—with no particular training in design, but an intense interest in how people work. His original concept was called the Action Office, and it was meant to be a flexible three-walled structure that could accommodate a variety of ways of working—his idea was that people were increasingly performing “knowledge work” (a new term in the 1960s), and that they needed autonomy and independence in order to perform it.

In other words, the original cubicle was about liberation. His concept proved enormously successful, and resulted in several copies—chiefly because businesses found it incredibly useful for cramming people into smaller spaces, while upper-level management still enjoyed windowed offices on the perimeter of the building. In that sense, the design was intended to increase the power of ordinary workers; in practice it came to do something quite different, or at least that’s how it felt to many people.

You see this relationship between power and design throughout the history of the office: in the early clerical offices (think Bartleby, the Scrivener or Scrooge’s office in A Christmas Carol), the spaces were small, intimate; even though a vast distance in power separated a partner in a firm from his bookkeeper, the fact that they worked close together made both feel like they were in a father-son sort of relationship (the offices were all male at the time), and there was every expectation that a junior clerk would eventually rise and take over the firm.

Later, an increased division of labor and enormously expanded hierarchy led to the offices that we more or less recognize today: large floors, filled with desks, where lower level employees work; offices along the side of the building for middle management (each of these with slight gradations to indicate status or privilege: a nicer desk; carpet on the floor, etc.); and corner offices for executives, or even different floors with different bathrooms. In places like these, space almost directly reflects hierarchy.

As we approach the present, people began to recognize this: things like the open-plan office, invented in Germany in the 1950s (and called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”), attempted to level hierarchies by making everyone work out on the open floor. But even in the earliest versions of the open-plan, small markers of status began to assert themselves: Managers would apportion more plants to themselves, or set up informal private spaces through creative use of more desks and partitions. So design at work often seems to say something about relations of power at work.

In the interwar period, you write, a visitor to Berlin was “astonished by how much the city seemed to be characterized by an ‘employee culture’.” Today, cubicles are so commonplace—accounting for some 60 percent of office workers—they hardly merit notice. But the sad news is, given their ubiquity, how unhappy they seem to be making us: One 1997 survey found that 93 percent of cubicle workers would prefer an alternative, and a 2013 study found that they had “the highest rates of unhappiness with their work setup.”

What is the role of the cubicle in our culture today? And, also, how much of our hostility toward the cubicle is misdirected, and really is a deep frustration/unhappiness with modern work?

The cubicle’s place today is weirdly equivocal. On the one hand, few words so quickly express contemporary workplace frustration and anomie; one hardly goes a week without reading or hearing about someone working in a “faceless cubicle,” or a “cube farm,” or a “cubicle inferno.”  These elicit practically universal understanding, even for people who haven’t worked in an office.

Partly this is the success of things like Dilbert—which is so inextricable a part of office work that Scott Adams actually sells Dilbert-themed cubicle decor—or Office Space, where the cubicle is viewed as a kind of excrescence against human nature: As the main character Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingstone) says, “Human beings weren’t meant to sit in little cubicles, staring at computer screens all day.”

But now, with the contemporary rush to tear down the cubicle walls and put people in low- or no-partitioned offices (“open-plan”), it suddenly seems ridiculous that people have identified the cubicle as the source of the workplace’s ills, rather than a shifting symbol of it. As is becoming increasingly clear (from books like Susan Cain’s Quiet, or Maria Konnikova’s piece for the New Yorker website, “The Open Office Trap,” but also just from our own experience as office workers), open-plan offices diminish very few of the problems associated with cubicle-ridden offices, and in some cases they augment them. Noise, visual and aural, makes concentration difficult, such that headphones become the new walls. And hierarchies don’t disappear when you place everyone at a communal table or “superdesk”; they persist in more subtle modes of workplace interaction.

I suspect that people thrown into open plans might even miss their cubicles. And there are features of cubicles—such as the need to partition wide spaces—that I suspect will continue to be useful and never go away; these needs precede the invention of the cubicle itself. If people weren’t meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens, maybe they weren’t meant to have new open plans foisted on them in the guise of their encouraging “serendipitous encounters,” or whatever new buzzword justifies these often poorly thought-out designs.

The cubicle became a symbol of an oppressive workplace because the years that the cubicle rose to dominance were also years that the workplace, in many ways, became more oppressive. It really took off in the 1980s and 90s, when mergers and buyouts took over the headlines, and layoffs became commonplace (the original meaning of the word “layoff” was just time off from work — not mass, somewhat indiscriminate firing). These were the years when the cubicle began to seem less like a space for exerting autonomy and independence, and more like a flimsy, fabric-wrapped symbol of workplace insecurity. People sometimes experience the buzzy chaos of an open-plan in a similar way.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is that, beyond the notion of the cubicle, it is very difficult to picture, in any visual sense, modern work. George Packer put it really powerfully in a recent essay:

When I wrote about Amazon—which is as emblematic of the American corporation in 2014 as U.S. Steel was in 1914 and Walmart in 1994—for a story in The New Yorker, earlier this month, I began to wonder what a company worker looked like. I found it hard to come up with an image. Amazon’s workforce is made up mainly of computer engineers and warehouse workers, but when you think of Amazon you don’t picture either one (and there aren’t many photographs to help your imagination). What you see, instead, is a Web site with a button that says “ADD TO CART” and a cardboard box with a smile printed on the side. Between clicking “BUY” and answering the door when U.P.S. arrives lies a mystery—a chain of events that only comes to mind if you make a conscious effort. The work is done by people you don’t see and don’t have to think about, which is partly what makes Amazon’s unmatched efficiency seem nearly miraculous.

He contrasted that with 19th century industry, which was physical labor, and visually very apparent. Similarly, Quinn Norton has said that “Right now my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.”

How does this inability to see work stymie our efforts to understand it and think about it? What are we missing?

I’d say industry was always hard to comprehend in the way Packer describes; 19th century thinkers (Marx, especially) made a lot out of the fact that industrial objects appeared in stores or arrived in your hands without a trace of the impressive labor (or the hands of the laborers) that went into them.

But at least on the surface office work is seems to be even more “alienated,” if that’s the right term; it’s not clear what office workers actually “make.” For years, office workers just producedpaper, and the paper they produced was often abstractly related to some kind of manual labor taking place elsewhere.

For this reason early American commentators, for whom office work was not a natural or dominant kind of work (the country was much more agrarian, and nascently industrial), viewed office work as “not real work”—not least because it seemed to require no physical effort. “A slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest,” Walt Whitman called clerks, and he derided their tendency to dress fancily as a kind of compensation: “What wretched, spindling, ‘forked radishes’ would they be, and how ridiculously would their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stript naked!”

I think this unheroic aspect of office work is one reason why it’s so rarely written about. In movies and novels and TV, the work itself gets treated almost invariably as drudgery, from early films like The Crowd through to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and through to The Office. In fact, in a lot of these books and films and shows, you rarely learn what it is people are actually doing, or it becomes impossible to show them doing it—you can only show it as them socializing: Their socializing becomes the way to show them working (or avoiding work). Even the title of a show like The Office suggests that, even when a place has people doing so many different kinds of tasks, ultimately what they do is in the same setting, and is, therefore, basically homogeneous.

But another feature that office work’s relative invisibility, or opacity, helps obscure is the question of class. Since the rise of the ranks of clerical workers in the 19th century, it became a virtually unquestioned assumption that office work was middle class work. Office work was clean, and you didn’t come home smelling of your job; you wore (pretty much) the same clothes to work that you wore on the street; and you got a steady salary as opposed to an hourly wage. And there was the assumption, as I’ve mentioned, that you could rise from the bottom of the ladder to the corner office—something few people assumed about factory work. There was always a high level of prestige to office work that never accrued to industrial labor. In fact, I think that the prestige of office work was pretty much predicated on the denial of the salience of class at all; that, if you worked hard, you were basically always on your way up, and so weren’t really constrained by class.

Still, there were a few times when this correlation between office work and being middle class came to be questioned, and this was when the work itself began to seem less enjoyable, or its connection to steady upward mobility less apparent: in other words, when office workers began to see themselves less as “employees” or “junior businessmen,” and more as, well, workers. By the 1930s, office work really did resemble factory work: if you think of old films, even through the 1960s like The Apartment, you have these cavernous accounting or steno pools, where people clock in and out and have daily, repetitive tasks that form part of this enormous, labyrinthine operation that nobody understands, just like in factories. And the Great Depression put a dent in people’s expectations of a steady career; as a result, office worker unions really began to coalesce in those years.

In the 1970s, organizations like the group 9 to 5 (later the name of a great movie—and even greater Dolly Parton song—based on their work) began to challenge office gender hierarchies. I think that there were probably a high number of white collar workers in the Occupy movement who were doing something similar in our own period of downward mobility and depression. In all this protest, I think you see a recognition that office work doesn’t necessarily promise a steady rise up the ranks; there’s also a high quotient of manipulation, and domination, and if you want equality in the office, you need to fight this in an organized fashion.

I suppose part of the reason I wrote the book was to make this stuff visible, to make this sphere of work that so many people do have some kind of history, and to show how power and class were operating in settings where they seemed to be hidden. It’s hard to do it without homogenizing a very varied and difficult field—without creating and relying on some abstraction called “office work”—but in that sense I was actually responding to the voices and sources that I found, where people did tend to speak of office work in a very abstract, universal way. The title of the show The Office sums up this collective understanding in an instant.

I sometimes wonder if the abstracted nature of our understanding of “office work” leads us to overestimate the banality of other people’s lives—we see a drab, monotonous, corporate environment and just project it onto the individuals who work in those spaces—and perhaps underestimate the meaning they may find in their work or in their lives out of work, through family, friends, religion, whatever. Is there a way, in a sense, that the office environment obscures the individual? I’m not asking whether it snuffs out the individual, but whether it makes it harder for us to see the people in these spaces?

Absolutely. It’s very easy, as an observer, to imagine that the superficial dullness of office work reflects the emptiness of the work and lives of the people who perform it (and it’s just as easy to imagine that a bright, airy, contemporary open-plan space or colorful dot-com playground reflects unbridled creative brilliance). In fact, I think something like this temptation overcame one of the first, and still the only comprehensive, books about white-collar life and work, C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, from 1951. It’s in so many ways a work of genius, even prophecy, and it was a powerful diagnosis of how white collar work had been rationalized and degraded over the course of the early 20th century, many aspects of which still hold true. But it also took a very “objective” viewpoint that took the structural features of white-collar work, and showed how they naturally revealed the vacuousness and bankruptcy of work. Though Mills apparently interviewed lots of actual workers, we pretty much never hear their voices in the book; he hits the note of “massive bureaucracy overtaking everything” relentlessly. He was right in many ways about the larger forces at work, but it can be hard to imagine from his picture how anyone working in an office could possibly endure such a soul-crushing existence.

If you take a different, longer view, and try to look at what it was like to work in offices, you find so many attempts to make work better. Whether Helen Gurley Brown’s peppy advice on how the office offers sexual freedom, or even Propst’s attempt at giving workers autonomy—all of which come out of the hope that work might one day be better, that somehow a realm of freedom might be wrested from a regime of necessity. So you might also see the office as a weirdly utopian space.

While it would be dishonest to discount the genuine expressions of frustration that one finds in the history of office life, it would be equally dishonest to discount the pleasure that many have found, even if only fleetingly or on occasion. How to show this comes down to a question of historical sympathy. For years, historians sought to give voice to faceless and often unnamed factory workers, and they revealed not only the essential humanity of those workers, but often the kind of work that they enjoyed, or wanted to do—or at least control more effectively. I tried in my book to do something similar with office workers, to show not just how people are managed but how they manage themselves, and maybe disclose in the process how we might find a more satisfying, a more humane way of working.