Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval

Our episode 9 is dedicated to the “secret” history of the office. Cubed chronicles the evolution of our modern workplace and provides a thrilling analysis of the white-collar world and the way it came to be. Over the course of the 20th century, the transformation of the workplace and the rise of white-collar workers was as much a revolution as the invention of factory work had been during the industrial revolution. It transformed urban life and landscape, culture and social life; office work became the norm and progressively replaced factory work in our reflections on work and identity.

Nikil Saval is an American writer and journalist, co-editor of n+1 magazine. His (so far) only book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, was published in 2014 and received critical acclaim for the depth and richness of its analysis. The book offers a big-picture view of our modern workplace and all the controversies that surround it. It can help HR professionals understand the meaning of work design and space and get some extra perspective on the usual questions about how office organisation impacts work and performance.

Where the office came from has remained a mystery—too banal, perhaps, to be felt worthy of serious inquiry” ;

Transposing the factory model to the office turned white-collar work into numbing, repetitive labor”;

Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day” (a cue from Office Space) - Nikil Saval in Cubed.

Before the office: clerking

Of course the “office” began with paperwork itself. In ancient times, paperwork was a thing for monasteries and libraries—work performed by scholars. The Medici family, like a few other noble families, had their own bookkeeping offices. But overall the office as a workplace was both magnificent and rare.

The story of our modern office began somewhat later, in 19th-century Britain’s “counting houses”, where firms carried their accounting operations. The clerks who toiled in the counting houses—the phrase “white collar” didn’t yet exist—were a rather invisible (and rare) class of workers. They were rarely represented in literature: their unused bodies, “backs cramped from poor posture and fingers callused by constant writing”, did not make for desirable characters. Their lives were deemed unworthy of comment and their work too dull to be recounted.

Clerks became more visible with the accelerating industrialisation in Britain and America, which produced more and more administrative paperwork. They got a new sense of power and were less isolated. By 1880, 5% of the total workforce in the US was in clerical professions. In cities, clerks were a fast-growing population. But nothing about their work was congenial to the American work culture. Unlike farmers and factory workers, clerks didn’t produce anything. They could only be said to reproduce things.

Hence unlike factory workers who had class consciousness and political representation, clerks didn’t know what to identify with. They were not factory workers (blue-collar workers) and felt closer to power. What distinguished the clerk was his collar: bleached white and stiff, the white collar was detachable and yet a status marker. More and more people had ceased to work with their hands and were now working with their heads. These new workers would come to be referred to as “white-collar workers” in opposition to “blue-collar workers”.

How the modern office came to be

Between 1860 and 1920, business became big business and the number of positions in the office skyrocketed. Huge empires like General Electric and American Tobacco extended their reach on an increasingly large national market—all of the USA, as the new railroads unified the country—and needed new armies of white-collar workers to run their operations. In other words, with the new geography came new markets and new organisations to serve them.

In the analysis of business historian Alfred Chandler, the railroads precipitated most of the changes in firms. More managers were needed to coordinate ever larger networks of operations and control activities in disparate units. A new stratum of managers began to occupy the “middle” between workers and top executives. The legal fiction of the “corporation” completed the change by making the ownership of a firm separate from its management.

The change in the work environment reflected a change in work itself. Administration and bureaucracy took over the world of business. Thanks to the age of steel, lots of new skyscrapers were built downtown in all major cities to house the new offices. By 1860, iron frames made it possible to build taller buildings; the new elevators assisted the climb. The vertical file cabinet (also made of steel) was invented to store ever expanding masses of paper files and mirrored the buildings themselves. The office became vertical.

Paradoxically enough all the things that promised to be “labor-saving” created new needs and gave rise to a whole new industry… with more office workers. The fast changes had produced much chaos. It was often unclear who was supposed to make a given decision. Organisations needed management to become a science.

How the office space came to be organised like the factory floor

In 1898, the Bethlehem Iron Company (a producer of steel) hired Frederick Taylor as a consultant. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Taylor would be obsessed with efficiency all his life. 

“Throughout his life, he displayed an obsession with measurements and with ensuring that every physical activity was being performed with the maximum possible level of efficiency”.

He sought to find the key to efficiency, which he found consisted in taking knowledge away from the workers and installing that knowledge in a separate class of office workers.

Taylor could be said to have started a whole new industry of process mapping and efficiency seeking. Newly hired experts started to time workers’ every motion with a stopwatch. From then on everything had to be measured and recorded, which involved a lot more paperwork and office workers. Thus taylorism implied profound changes in the nature of work itself: the system now came first, and it had to be enforced by management. Consultants would help them put the system first. That’s also when “human resources” became a professional department.

“By separating knowledge from the basic work process, in the factory as well as in the office, the ideology of Taylorism all but ensured a workplace divided against itself, with a group of managers controlling how work was done and their workers merely performing that work.”

A new army of women in the office

Women soon began to enter the office world en masse: in 1870, only 3% of office workers were women; by 1920, they were 50%. But they were deprived of any power as their positions were limited to stenography and secretarial tasks. The Remington typewriter became their number one tool.

Women were seen as better able to handle unrewarding work. One of Taylor’s disciples, Leffingwell, wrote: 

“a woman is to be preferred to the secretarial position (...) for she is not averse to doing minor tars, work involving the handling of petty details, which would irk and irritate ambitious young men”.

By 1926, 88% of all secretarial positions were held by women. And 100% of the typists, file clerks and switchboard operators were women. Within the office, a class division sprang up that matched gender lines.

In spite of their very limited options and lack of power, women still found some sense of freedom in the office, which they in turn transformed profoundly. It is worth noting that the entry of women into the office overlapped with the growth of the cause of women’s suffrage.

How the office transformed the skylines

In the 1950s, “nothing signaled the dynamism of American cities more than the skylines of its cities”, which were a symbol of prowess and ruthlessness very much at odds with the boredom associated with the jobs performed inside the skyscrapers. By contrast, European cities did not follow the same pattern of development, as they were constrained by building traditions and height restrictions—in London, for example, the Building Act of 1894 limited heights to 30m.

In American cities, skyscrapers transformed urban life profoundly, filled as they were with offices and office workers. For example, Chicago’s beautiful downtown, called “the Loop”, became the ultimate place devoted to the consecration of white-collar work. Some of the buildings became miniature cities in themselves, where form always followed function. The uniformisation of offices increased because the space had to be rented easily. Real-estate speculators ruled.

The growing popularity of behavioural sciences led managers to seek ways to study employee behaviour and how to nudge it. Office space was found to be an effective leverage. Many experiments were conducted. Architects started to think of the office as a kind of utopia. Le Corbusier, the most influential architect of the 20th century, liked to work with Frederick Taylor. For him, better buildings could prevent social unrest.

How the office became more horizontal and less vertical

A corporate exodus into suburbia started in the mid-20th century. The presence of union workers in cities were one thing that frightened executives. With the 1950s also came a fear of nuclear war and central business districts were seen as too dangerous. Many companies set up headquarters in suburbs: AT&T’s Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, is one famous example. Bell’s goal was to foster innovation through “serendipitous encounters” in the office.

Designers and thinkers like Robert Propst started studying how “man and his environment participate in molding each other” and how to create an environment conducive to concentrated work. “Ergonomics” was thus invented. Whereas office work had so far been regarded as a variety of factory work, with Propst it was argued that mental work was of an altogether different nature. It was discovered that mental effort was tied to the environmental enhancement of workers’ physical capabilities.

In the 1960s a more individualistic culture spurred further changes. And business embraced some of these changes. When management guru Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in 1960—one of the most influential management books of the 1960s—, he popularised the idea that individual self-actualisation had to be encouraged for companies to create more value. A more educated workforce of knowledge workers—the term was coined by Peter Drucker—desired a different kind of workplace.

The workplace had to become more performance-based, less hierarchical and more open to employee ideas. A new approach to designing offices came from 1960s Germany, where the Schnelle brothers’ space-planning firm invented Bürolandschaft (office landscapes). To them, the office had to be viewed as organic, natural and human. That’s how the open space came to be. Sadly, in the years that followed, these open spaces were more often filled with standardised and numbing cubicles that reflected the large dominance of individual-crushing bureaucracies...

Postmodernism in the office

With the late sixties and seventies came more criticisms of the bureaucratic expressions of “modernism”. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased the pressure to hire a more diverse workforce. The modernism of Le Corbusier (and the like) came under attack for its blind utopianism, its disregard for reality and context in favour of social engineering. Modernism was deemed anti-human. The time had come for postmodernism.

In the 1980s, unemployment, uncertainty and competition from Japan fostered new anxiety. Thousands of middle managers could be laid off overnight in an attempt to make companies leaner and competition ready. In the two decades that followed, the generous benefits and stable wage increases that had defined a generation would vanish. A spree of mergers and acquisitions and corporate raids made the headlines. White-collar workers began to see themselves as expendable. Fear became a management principle.

Complaints about office environment became ever more common. Computers and automation brought the blues to the white-collar workplace. The boredom associated to repetitive jobs was less and less accepted by an increasingly educated workforce. The office needed a different future.

The “office of the future” and the end of the office

After the computer revolution, a number of researchers predicted vast changes in the nature of office work. Visions of paperless and non-territorial offices became common. It was even argued that the office could become entirely virtual. In the late 1990s, a brand new workplace utopia was shaped in the Silicon Valley where an “aristocracy of talent” shaped a new workplace culture.

The pervasive cult of informality, coupled with a devotion to all-hours work, had a significant impact on the Valley’s work environments. It was the college lifestyle extended into the infancy of startups and then institutionalised as these startups grew. The fun office lifestyle became the stuff of legend—no company communicated more on the subject than Google. Startups would make their workplaces into “palaces of informality”. To better attract knowledge workers, they would focus on company culture and offer an all-encompassing all-you-can-eat-buffet type of workplace.

Open plans were generalised to support the idea of spontaneous encounters. 

“In the dot-com boom, the idea that two workers from different departments or on different rungs of the ladder might run into each other by chance, and, through the sheer friction of their sudden meeting, combust into a flaming innovation became sanctified as the key to company culture”.

For Valley people, the old distinction between work and leisure had become outdated. Your office was to be your home.

But the hold of the office over its workers is dissipating. The rise of freelance and contract work, the emergence of the cloud and the gradual disappearance of lifetime employment policies make the office less relevant. The “virtual office” dreamed by 1980s techno-enthusiasts was just a mirage in the 1980s and 90s. Now it is a reality for an increasingly large number of workers. As the workplace takes on a more precarious aspect, more companies will have to accommodate the different needs of different types of workers by offering more flexibility…and more choice when it comes to how and where workers can work.

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