Miscellaneous Fast Company

How We All Ended Up Working In Cubicles: A Frustrating History


Laura Vanderkam

May 21, 2014

Every day, millions of people don uncomfortable clothes and drive to vast buildings full of drab desks and chairs. They do not make anything with their hands in these buildings. They do not direct machines to make things. Instead, they largely email and call people in other similar buildings for eight hours, then repeat the morning’s drive in reverse. Chances are, you are one of these people.

This is a strange sequence of events if you think about it, something people for much of human history would not recognize. And yet it is utterly ubiquitous today. How did office life arise, and where is it going?

Philadelphia-based writer Nikil Saval tries to answer these questions in his new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. White-collar work was once viewed as a haven from the fields and factories; “Few jobs rivaled in prestige and symbolic power that of white-collar workers in mid-20th-century America,” Saval writes.

But 50 years later, the majority of office workers sit in cubicles, and the vast majority of these people say in surveys that they hate them. Saval traces the history of the office from its “scrivener” days through the rise of skyscrapers, the advent of the cubicle, and the fevered hope, not yet realized, that people will eventually be able to work anywhere at anytime, rather than 10 feet from their bosses.

Cubed is not a page turner. It is dense, and sags a bit as you wade through yet another discussion of labor turmoil or office politics. Given that Herman Melville was writing about “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in 1853, and Office Space is still being shown with shocking regularity on Comedy Central now, there’s almost too much ground to cover, which means that important topics get less ink than they might.

While Saval is sympathetic to steno pool women suffering sexual harassment, or people of color being denied promotions, these narratives come and go and get mixed in with architecture criticism in a way that leaves the reader puzzled at times.

Saval saves his sagest observations for the last 100 pages, on the rise of the cubicle-based office woes we know now.

After tracing the origins of the Herman Miller design that spawned the cubicle–a classic case of an invention being twisted far from its creator’s intentions–Saval notes that “the cubicle had the effect of putting people close enough to each other to create serious social annoyances, but dividing them so that they didn’t actually feel that they were working together. It had all the hazards of privacy and sociability but the benefits of neither.”

No sooner was it designed than it began to shrink. The average cube, by 2006, was down to 75 square feet, and half of Americans believed their bathrooms were larger than their cubicles. “One wonders to what extent the extravagant growth of the American bathroom, and of the suburban home in general, is partly a reaction against the shrinking of cubicles, where the owners of those bathrooms spend so much of their time,” Saval writes.

The obvious reason for such shrinking is cost cutting, so Saval duly mocks the claims of some so-called visionaries (“collaboration ideologists”) that shrinking private space is really about creating serendipitous encounters, the idea that two random people might bump into each other in the hall and “through sheer friction of their sudden meeting, combust into a flaming innovation.”

More likely, workers will just be ticked off.

He even mocks some of the companies that gave him access to their offices, which is a laudably brave move for the author of a business book. He casually notes that one director of office services speaks in Tom Peters titles. Her office is designed to be like a city street, but it’s a fake one, “something more like a cul-de-sac in Celebration, Florida, than the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal.”

There’s no real resolution to all this illusion and cost cutting. Saval is hopeful about the rise of co-working spaces, which are designed more around actual human needs than bland office space, which is generally built to house any company that might like to lease it.

He’s tepidly appreciative that the rise of the freelance class is partly about the desire for autonomy and flexibility, though from a corporate perspective, it’s also about shifting the cost of benefits.

“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.”

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