Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The surprising history of the cubicle and the rest of the modern office

View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images

Like many people, Nikil Saval has spent a significant portion of his life in an office.

"Right out of college, I had a series of office jobs — in publishing houses, working for a private equity firm, and a string of other odd jobs," he says. Eventually, he became an editor at the literary magazine n+1, and wrote about things like the economic crisis in California or US policy in Central America.

But all along, an idle curiosity about his fluorescent-lit surroundings simmered. Eventually, that curiosity led to an article about the origin of the cubicle, which became the seed for Saval's new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

In it, Saval explores the fascinating histories behind the cubicle, the filing cabinet, and all sorts of other mundane designs that quietly define office workers' lives.

Cubicles were designed to give workers freedom

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Penn State

"The cubicle was actually intended to be this liberating design, and it basically became perverted," Saval says.

As he writes, its origins lie in the creations of Robert Propst, a designer at the Herman Miller company in the 1950s and 60s. "Propst tried to come up with an individualized, autonomous space for workers that was flexible, that could be changed if circumstances in the office changed. The design he eventually came up with and debuted in 1964 was called Action Office: it was three-walled, obtusely angled, fabric-wrapped wood. The idea was that you could shape it to whatever sort of setup you needed — it was never meant to be stuck in place."

At the time, these adjustable, independent units, equipped with both sitting and standing desks, were a forward-thinking way of upending the traditional office — in which lower-level workers were packed together in a bull pen, and surrounded by executives with private rooms. "But soon, the Action Office became popular and widely copied, and it became clear that managers saw it as a really useful tool for cramming as many people into as little space as possible," Saval says. "And that’s when it became more like a box."

It wasn't merely these boxes' unintended rigidity, though, that led to them becoming so detested. "In the 1980s and early '90s, the recession was especially harsh on white collar workers, and cut into their ranks. Layoffs became common, and there was a rapid increase in mergers, and you had workers emerging from them and being thrown into cubicles," Saval says. "So the cubicle became the symbol of the transforming workplace — of impermanence and the disposability of workers."

The filing cabinet was once a revolutionary innovation

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H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images

"We assume that some aspects of work, like vertical filing cabinets, are just a given — but it actually took several tries for people to come it that as a more efficient form of filing," Saval says.

The earliest filing cabinets, from the 1880s, were large, wooden structures that held horizontal stacks of files in drawers. Even these were revolutionary in the way that they made files accessible — previously, Saval writes, they were just folded or rolled up and stuck in desk pigeonholes.

But the idea of organizing files vertically in cabinets, which came about around the start of the 20th century, made records even more accessible — and unleashed the flood of paperwork that would come to define the modern American office. "This was connected to a larger craze of efficiency in America — Taylorism, and things like that," Saval says. "People were finding better ways to sort more and more paperwork. Offices became, basically, an enormous file."

Interestingly, as more and more offices were housed in skyscrapers, the flammability of wooden cabinets stuffed with paper became a concern, so they were replaced with metal. "So the file cabinet, in a way, mimicked the form of the skyscraper," Saval says.

Air conditioning and fluorescent lighting allowed skyscrapers to grow

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Worapol Sittiphaet

Neither AC nor fluorescent lighting were specifically invented for offices — but they were both essential for the ubiquitous, glass-covered skyscrapers that now fill American downtowns with office workers.

Early skyscrapers required central courtyards to let in light and air, the expense of lighting meant that floor sizes were generally capped by the distance natural light could travel from windows. AC and cheap fluorescent lighting lifted these constraints. "They permit these giant floor plans in huge glass skyscrapers, which let in tons of light and have to be powerfully cooled," Saval says.

In 1952, the UN Secretariat Building in New York was completed. The next ten years, Saval writes, saw a wave of glass imitators sprout up across America's largest cities — over that period, the average office's floor space doubled, as did the total number of American white-collar workers. Air conditioning kept these large-scale offices (packed with hundreds of human bodies) at frosty temperatures, and fluorescent lights shined over the workers seated far from exterior windows.

"The giant glass skyscraper is a symbol of postwar US prosperity, and it was made possible by these advances," Saval says.

Open offices were intended to be utopian workspaces

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Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images

Nowadays, open offices may seem like a relatively modern concept, part of the backlash against cubicle farms. But "one interesting thing to note is that it’s not a new idea — it was really invented in Germany, in the late '50s and early '60s, they called it the office landscape," Saval says. "The idea was that you eliminate hierarchies, and barriers to communication, and create workplaces that allow flow of communication and paperwork."

Like the original cubicle, the initial concept of Bürolandschaft — which translates as "office landscape" — was strikingly different than the open offices popular today. Instead of orderly rows, desks were arranged in organic clusters, and all workers, whether entry-level or executives, had roughly equivalent amounts of window access.

The idea didn't end up taking off in Europe — where unions and working agreements often give workers a say in office design — but has become widely implemented un the US, if in an altered form. Despite the lofty ideals behind the open office concept, it's generally used for one key reason: "they’re often about real-estate costs, and making it cheaper to have more people in less space," Saval says.

The problem is that research has never supported the idea that open offices achieve any of the benefits their German inventors envisioned. "Human psychology studies show pretty definitively that they’re really bad, in terms of distraction," Saval says. "Psychologically, they’re more stressful — they have all the problems of cubicles, but compound them with visual distractions."

Standing desks were widely introduced way back in the 1960s

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Logan Ingalls

Although standing desks were used by a number of idiosyncratic thinkers throughout history, their place in modern office furniture, it turns out, can also be traced to Robert Propst and the 1964 Action Office.

"The idea was to let workers move positions," Saval says. "Early designs by other scientific management experts also emphasize the ability to move, and stand up, for workers. In the language of the time, they said that otherwise, 'toxins' would build up in them. And this isn’t scientifically accurate, but it’s basically sound in terms of health as a whole."

It's taken a while, but standing desks appear to be finally taking off — and Saval thinks that giving office workers the choice to stand is a pretty good idea, for the health benefits and other reasons. "The standing desk is one of the few office fads that I am hard pressed to criticize. Sitting is bad," he says. "I can be pretty grumpy about all this stuff, but I think these desks are good."

Tech campuses are designed to make sure workers never leave

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In Cubed, Saval also looks at recent trends in the evolution of the office, and visited several tech campuses — including Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, where, he writes, "you not only get free food all day and the gym anytime you want but also have day care, on-campus health and dental service, a resistance pool, and the ability to get your oil changed."

Saval's not the first to observe that all these utopian amenities hide something mundane: the company's desire to keep its workers there for as many hours as possible. "It's odd," he says. "In a way, they’re the most admired workplaces, yet they’re less exceptional in the way that a lot of them place a huge emphasis on having workers there. That seems to run against what people perceive as the trend, that you can work anywhere."

Like other observers, Saval is also critical of the way these inward-looking campuses, filled with workers shuttled in and out from cities miles away, fail to interact at all with the surrounding areas.

"The cities that are actually around the campuses have not developed, because they’re not designed to support communities around them," he says. "A really egregious example is the new Apple campus, called Apple II, that Norman Foster designed. It’s deplorable. You have a giant disk that occupies a wooded park that’s just for the workers, no one else."

Read the interview

Joseph Stromberg: What made you decide to write this book?

Nikil Saval: Right out of college, I had a series of office jobs, in publishing houses, working for a private equity firm, and a string of other odd jobs. And by moving place to place, and comparing the culture, and design — it put all these ideas in my head, and made me begin informal research into the area, wondering if there was a good history overview of this topic.

And that mainly led me nowhere. Everything on the topic was segmented, and each specialization neglected something I thought was important, whether it was architectural history, or management theory, or whatever.

So I stumbled into writing about the history of the cubicle in particular. It was actually intended to be this liberating design, and it basically became perverted. And that story seemed to be paradigmatic. When people talk about offices, they talk about it as a place — "my stupid cubicle" — referring to the design, but it’s really a way of talking about the work. So I began to see this story about the office, through the way people regard it as a place. And no one had really done that.

Joseph Stromberg: So what happened with the cubicle in particular?

Nikil Saval: The origins lie in the design and thinking of this guy Robert Propst, who worked at the Herman Miller furniture company. The office he confronted is one you might be familiar with from "Mad Men" — it’s an office that’s constructed around the hierarchy of power, and prestige. You’d have a steno pool in the center, organized kind of like a factory of paperwork, with rows, meant to mimic an assembly line. And then around the corridor you’d have the middle managers and executives, awarded based on one’s level in the company.

Propst thought this was great at reflecting hierarchy, but not so great at reflecting the work that people actually do. So in response, Propst tried to come up with an individualized, autonomous space for workers that was flexible, that could be changed if circumstances in the office changed. The design he eventually came up with and debuted in 1964 was called "action office": it was three-walled, obtusely angled, fabric-wrapped wood. The idea was that you could shape it to whatever sort of setup you needed — it was never meant to be stuck in place.

Even at the time, other designers thought there was something inhuman about the setup, but Propst didn’t think so, he thought it was liberatory. And soon, it became popular and widely copied, and it was really during the copying that it became clear that managers saw it as a really useful tool for cramming as many people into as little space as possible. And that’s when it became more like a box.

But the thing to remember is that you can do any kind of work inside a cubicle. I think what actually made the cubicle so reviled is the way work changed in the American economy in the 1980s and early 90s. The recession was especially harsh on white collar workers, and cut into their ranks. Layoffs became common, and there was a rapid increase in mergers, and you had workers emerging from them and being thrown into cubicles. So the cubicle became the symbol of the transforming workplace — of impermanence, and the disposability of workers

So the thing isn’t necessarily that cubicles are bad — even though, in design terms, they’re not great — but that they seem to be symptoms of an arbitrary and callous workplace.

Joseph Stromberg: You wrote about this sort of unexpected history for a number of objects that became staples of the modern-day office — what were some of the backstories that surprised you most?

Nikil Saval:Well, the filing cabinet is interesting. We assume that some aspects of work, like vertical filing cabinets, are just a given — but it actually took several tries for people to come to it as a more efficient form of filing. And this was connected to a larger craze of efficiency in America — Taylorism, and things like that. People were finding better ways to sort more and more paperwork. Offices became, basically, an enormous file. So the filing cabinet was both efficient, but also symbolic. Many of them were made by Steelcase, which was instrumental in creating metal furniture for skyscrapers, and skyscrapers needed metal furniture because they were fire hazards. But the file cabinet, in a way, mimicked the form of the skyscraper. So in a way, the file cabinet is a symbol of the workplace as an efficient bureaucracy.

Air-conditioning and fluorescent lights, which go hand-in-hand, are also interesting. They permit these giant floor plans in huge glass skyscrapers, which they let in tons of light and have to be powerfully cooled. In a way, the giant glass skyscraper is a symbol of postwar US prosperity, and it’s made possible by these advances. Now, we see that they’re not the most sustainable — they use a huge amount of energy — but they made big offices possible and scalable.

Joseph Stromberg: What about the more recent backlash against cubicles, and the move to open offices? How did that come to happen, and what do you think of it?

Nikil Saval: Well one interesting thing to note is that it’s not a new idea — it was really invented in Germany, in the late 50s and early 60s, they called it the office landscape. The idea was that you eliminate hierarchies, and barriers to communication, and create workplaces that allow flow of communication and paperwork. You had these workplaces that were, in theory, purely based on work. These were successful in the UK and America, but actually unsuccessful in Europe — because many workers had protections, from unions or works counsels, that passed laws to ensure that workers could determine how workspaces were designed, alongside management.

But US embarked on the open plan, which originally had somewhat admirable intentions: collaboration, and openness, and transparency. But really, they’re often about real-estate costs, and making it cheaper to have more people in less space.

Human psychology studies show pretty definitively that they’re really bad, in terms of distraction. Psychologically, they’re more stressful — they have all the problems of cubicles, but compound them with visual distractions.

So in both instances, you see a pseudo-utopian idea imposed on workers, regardless of their needs when it comes to work.

Joseph Stromberg: So if you were designing an ideal office, what would it look like?

Nikil Saval:Well, I’m hesitant to propose something and sound like a consultant, but the thing I think is that workplaces are best when workers have some say, or control, of how they look and what they do. One example would be an ability to control whether you actually need to be in the office to work. And in general, offices that are better accommodate multiple kinds of work — they have common areas, where you can have meetings, but have other areas that are conducive to private work.

So it’s best when there are different areas and people can decide their day. In the Netherlands, for example, there are some workplaces where you’re allowed to work where you want, and when you want. I’m not a huge fan of Silicon Valley offices overall, but because there’s more of a need to cater to workers, they do reflect this a bit. There’s more mobility.

Joseph Stromberg:What are your criticisms of these Silicon Valley tech campuses, and what they represent about the future of workplaces?

Nikil Saval:They’re odd. In a way, they’re the most admired workplaces, yet they’re less exception in the way that a lot of them place a huge emphasis on having workers there. That seems to run against what people perceive as the trend, that you can work from anywhere.

Also — and I’m certainly not the first to notice this — these workplaces segregate all the functions that one might find in a city inside an office campus. So it’s very odd: there are these suburban campuses, and they’re like miniature cities. Workers commute to them from actual cities, like San Francisco.

And the cities that are actually around the campuses have not developed, because they’re not designed to support communities around them. So it’s kind of explosive, it’s not a great situation. This doesn’t explain all the tension in San Francisco around gentrification, but it’s part of this, this enclave culture.

They’re best when they open up to the area around them, and they’re not so hermetic and don’t occupy tons of land. A really egregious example is the new Apple campus, called Apple II, that Norman Foster designed. It’s deplorable. You have a giant disk that occupies a wooded park that’s just for the workers, no one else. These enclaves are not a good model.

Joseph Stromberg:This is kinda random, but another recent trend I’m interested in is standing desks — can you tell me a bit about the history of them?

Nikil Saval:The first design for the Action Office, that Robert Propst came up with, actually included a standing desk. The idea was to let workers move positions. And early designs by other scientific management experts, they emphasize the ability to move, and stand up, for workers. In the language of the time, they said that otherwise, "toxins" would build up in them. And this isn’t scientifically accurate, but it’s basically sound in terms of health as a whole.

I think the standing desk is one of the few office fads that I am hard pressed to criticize. Sitting is bad. So I can be pretty grumpy about all this stuff, but I think these desks are good.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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