The Soul-Killing Structure of the Modern Office

CubeSpace/Asa Wilson

Picture Leonardo DiCaprio heading stolidly to work at the start of two of his most alliterative movies. In Revolutionary Road, set in 1955, he’s Frank Wheeler, a fedora’d nobody who takes a train into Manhattan and the elevator to a high floor in an International-style skyscraper. He smokes at his desk, slips out for a two-martini lunch, and gets periodically summoned to the executive den where important company decisions are made. Wheeler is a cog, but he is an enviable cog—by appearances, he has achieved everything a man is supposed to want in postwar America.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, set in the late 1980s, DiCaprio is a failed broker named Jordan Belfort who follows a classified ad to a Long Island strip mall, where a group of scrappy penny-stock traders cold-call their marks and drive home in sedans. His office need not be a status symbol, since prestige for stock traders is about domination, not conformity; if you become a millionaire, who cares if you did it in the Chrysler Building or your garage?

Watch these films back-to-back, and you’ll see DiCaprio traverse the recent history of the American workplace. A white-collar job used to be a signal of ambition and stability far beyond that offered by farm, factory, or retail work. But what was once a reward has become a nonnecessity—a mere company mailing address. Highways are now stuffed with sand-colored, dark-windowed cubicle barns arranged in groups like unopened moving boxes. Barely anyone who works in this kind of place expects to spend a career in that building, but no matter where you go, you can expect variations on the same fluorescent lighting, corporate wall art, and water coolers.

In his new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval claims that 60 percent of Americans still make their money in cubicles, and 93 percent of those are unhappy to do so. But rather than indict these artless workspaces, Saval traces the intellectual history of our customizable pens to find that they’re the twisted end result of utopian thinking. “The story of white-collar work hinges on promises of freedom and uplift that have routinely been betrayed,” he writes. Above all, Cubed is a graveyard of social-engineering campaigns.

Saval, an editor at n+1, traces the modern office’s roots back to the bookkeeping operations of the early industrial revolution, where clerks in starched collars itemized stuff produced by their blue-collar counterparts. Saval describes these cramped spaces as the birthplace of a new ethic of “self-improvement.” A clerkship was a step up from manual labor, and the men lucky enough to pursue it often found themselves detached—from the close-knit worlds of farming or factory work and even from their fellow clerks, who were now just competition. In Saval’s telling, this is where middle-class anxiety began.

The new class of workers also gave shape to the modern “vertical” business structure of discrete departments. Since railroads were the main means of commercial shipment, the most sensible way for a 19th-century company to expand was to build satellite factories, which required their own clerking staff and attending managers. Paperwork begat paperwork, expansion begat franchising, and suddenly “business” was the province of middlemen, ever hungry for higher company positions. 

Around the turn of the century, Frederick “Speedy” Taylor, an engineer whose obsession with efficiency led to stints as a consultant for businesses like the Bethlehem Iron Company, pioneered the critical study of individual workers. His true innovation, Saval writes, “was to take knowledge away from workers and install it in a separate class of people.” Taylor required managers to monitor each employee, preaching a clerk-like ethos of self-betterment to the unionized workforce while promising higher-ups that his mathematical fanaticism (the “moneyball” of its day, Saval calls it) would improve the bottom line. Taylorism, the gospel of so-called scientific management, was employed first in factories, then by railroad companies. Its ultimate effect was to expand nonlabor office staff: Taylor’s vision required ever more white collars to study the blues. It also tended to sequester the actual labor force. As the 20th century went on, corporations began expending more effort and attention on managing and perfecting work than on work itself.

The white-collar explosion largely drove the midcentury architectural boom in major cities, as seemingly everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier attempted an office project, and hundreds of lesser-known architects stacked offices high enough to call them skyscrapers. Saval argues that the office also facilitated women’s lib and the sexual revolution, since the structured environment “made it possible for men and women to meet—if certainly not as equals, then at least on a terrain outside the fraught, unobserved world of the home.” Helen Gurley Brown’s 1964 best-seller Sex and the Office posited the workplace as a forum for female empowerment through flirtation and interpersonal cunning.

Few of the efficiency-minded dreamers who succeeded Taylor got the revolution they intended. Take art professor Robert Propst, hired in the late 1950s by the Herman Miller office-furniture company to broaden its scope. “In one hour, he would reinvent the world,” said a designer who worked with him. Propst’s R&D for a new workplace model included interviews with hundreds of employees, psychologists, and doctors. After six years of planning, Herman Miller unveiled Propst’s “Action Office” in 1964. Deemed “a mind-oriented living space,” it was a triumph of ergonomic, adjustable parts and ostensibly intuitive features like a disorienting lack of drawers. (Propst preferred to let ideas spread out organically on his “movable display surface” until completion.) Propst wanted the Action Office to be a vehicle for greater human achievement. The nation’s CEOs were more practical: The model didn’t sell. Several of its innovations and those of 1968’s Action Office II, such as movable walls, did shape the workplace for decades, however, though few would thank Propst for his inadvertent legacy, the cubicle.

It was precisely this desire for forced efficiency that Silicon Valley set out to destroy with radically new open-office plans in the 1980s. Tech companies like Apple or the shorter-lived Rolm Corporation took the notion of “fortuitous encounters”—the mythical coffee-break run-in between engineer and designer that conjures a creative breakthrough—to its extreme, doing away with hierarchies and encouraging everyone to mix work and recreation by sleeping in the office or playing basketball at an in-house court. Silicon Valley’s blend of countercultural ideals with cutthroat competition was thought to herald the latest oncoming reinvention of the American workplace; instead, it left us with the costly, cushionless Aeron chair and no privacy.

Propst and his California successors were hindered by the same oversight. “Office planners and architects tend to imagine that the setup of their own offices should be the way that everyone should work,” Saval writes. But human behavior, including cheapness, has its own inertia. To inaugurate the kind of changes Propst wanted, you need CEOs willing to underwrite a philosophy in furniture and employees who consider their jobs a fundamental expression of self. For most of us, a job is a job. Time and again, what starts as groundbreaking becomes repressive, since each new design idea is just a means of herding people.


My first office job started in the summer of 2007. I’d just graduated from college, and I took the light rail to the outer suburbs of Baltimore and walked half a mile to my desk. The McCormick & Company factory was nearby, so each day smelled like a different spice. In that half-mile (sidewalk-free, of course), I passed three other corporate campuses and rarely saw anyone coming or going. I worked in a cubicle of blue fabric and glass partitions and reported to the manager with the nearest window. For team meetings, we’d head into a room with a laminate-oak table and a whiteboard. If it was warm, I’d take lunch at a wooden picnic table in the parking lot, the only object for miles that looked like weather could affect it. In my sensible shoes and flat-front khakis, I’d listen to the murmur of Interstate 83 from just over a tree-lined highway barrier, the air smelling faintly of cumin or allspice. This was not a sad scene, but it was an empty one, and I was jolted back to it when I read Saval’s assertion that post-skyscraper office design “had to be eminently rentable. … The winners in this new American model weren’t office workers or architects, not even executives or captains of industry, but real estate speculators.” 

Freelancers are expected to account for 40 percent to 50 percent of the American workforce by 2020. Saval notes a few responses to this sea change, such as “co-working” offices for multiple small companies or self-employed people to share. But he never asks why the shift is under way or why nearly a quarter of young people in America now expect to work for six or more companies. These are symptoms of the recession, and the result of baby boomers delaying retirement to make up for lost savings. But they’re also responses to businesses’ apparent feelings toward their employees. It’s not so much the blandness of corporate architecture, which can have a kind of antiseptic beauty; it’s the transience of everything in sight, from the computer-bound work to the floor plans designed so that any company can move right in when another ends its lease or bellies up. When everything is so disposable, why would anyone expect or want to stay?

Saval cites fictional depictions of the early office—stories like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” with its “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable” clerk protagonist—as primary sources on the history of office work. His contemporary equivalents strangely stop with Dilbert and Office Space, 1990s relics of a time when the office’s worst offense was its meaninglessness. I wish he had contended with something like the recent TV show Enlightened, in which protagonist Amy Jellicoe is demoted from the well-lit top levels of her suburban–L.A. corporation to the building’s IT bowels. Only after her banishment from the managerial cocoon does she realize how corrupt the company is and how unglamorous many of her unseen co-workers’ lives are. Therapy supplies Amy with a social consciousness, and she starts to dream about bringing the company down—not just for revenge but for a vague greater good. The glass-ensconced but otherwise nondescript office building in Enlightened is a symbol of normalized evil; Amy’s company is indeed a menace to public health, but her co-workers are more or less resigned to that. Watching the show, I didn’t think about design theory, but I thought a lot about the frustrations and moral compromises inherent in modern work. Even the smallest businesses rely heavily on tech, banking, and real estate; so on some level, unless you sell vegetables at a roadside stand, your employer probably enables some of the most clandestine or bubble-prone industries in the world. 

The most sought-after jobs in America right now are at Google’s famously luxurious headquarters, even as concern grows about the company’s mining of users’ private information. As it happens, Mike Judge, the writer-director of Office Space, has a new HBO series, Silicon Valley, set in this milieu. The heroes are young programmers living at a would-be mogul’s house and designing apps while working at Hooli, a Google-like corporation whose campus is replete with “bike meetings,” surfboard coffee tables, and other ostentatiously “innovative” features. It’s a complete change from the workplaces in Judge’s earlier movies (including 2009’s underrated Extract), but Judge captures what makes the new paradigm unbearable. Rather than a mere boring cubicle warehouse, Silicon Valley is a place where insane wealth and greed combine with a smug mantra of “making the world a better place.” The pop culture of our moment doesn’t have the luxury of simply ridiculing cubicle work. We can’t assume that a creative environment means the work will be meaningful or that a company professing social goodwill means anything by it. Mergers, bankruptcies, and buyouts happen so often that there’s little chance our jobs or offices will be around when and if we retire. So who cares about the planning and theory that went into our chair?

You may also like