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Evolution Of The Office Life: To The Cubicle, And Beyond

From counting houses to cubicles to floating free agents, we’ll look at the evolution of the workplace, and of work itself.

At Brooklyn Boulders Active Collaborative Workspace in Somerville, MA, it's possible to both workout and get work done. The unusual coworking space is one of many changing the shape of the modern office. (Courtesy Brooklyn Boulders)

At Brooklyn Boulders Active Collaborative Workspace in Somerville, MA, it’s possible to both workout and get work done. The unusual coworking space is one of many changing the shape of the modern office. (Courtesy Brooklyn Boulders)

The office has always been a stage for the meaning of white collar work.  A miserable “tank” for Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit,  in Dickens’ time.  A corner office seat of glamour and power for Don Draper in Mad Men.  Lines of desks and then angsty cubicles for millions in the computer age.  Or “open plan,” with Fusbol.   Now, work and the workplace are going free agent.  To a corner of Starbucks.  Or anywhere.  And that has meaning too.  This hour On Point:  the history and future of white collar work and the workplace with Nikil Saval, author of “Cubed.”

– Tom Ashbrook


Nikil Saval, editor at the literary journal n+1. Author of the new book “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.”

Jesse Levin, senior cultural chameleon at Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville, MA. (@BKBSomerville)

Nancy Koehn, historian and professor business administration at the Harvard Business School. (@nancykoehn)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Atlantic: Our Cubicles, Ourselves: How the Modern Office Shapes American Life — “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.”

Slate: Little Workers in Pretty Boxes — “By separating knowledge from the basic work process … the ideology of Taylorism all but ensured a workplace divided against itself, both in space and in practice, with a group of managers controlling how work was done and their workers merely performing that work.”

The New Republic: Why Do Our Offices Make Us So Miserable? — “Counting houses were cramped: One typical New York establishment was only 25 square feet yet accommodated four partners and six clerical workers. They were also hopeful. In part because we were so physically close to our employers, we were convinced that we would eventually take their places. For this reason, we thought we were exempt from the Marxist principle that capital and labor are locked in an intractable conflict.”

Read An Excerpt of “Cubed” By Nikil Saval

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  • creaker

    I’ve been working out of my home for years – going into the office has become stifling in comparison. Cubicles and noise and endless interruptions – not to mention the air and lighting that make me feel a bit ill.

    I’m home, I can open the windows, the sun is shining in, and there’s good coffee downstairs – it’s quiet and I’m actually more accessible than I am in the office even if it’s not face to face.

  • geraldfnord

    It might seem a snipe, but I’d like to see a distinction maintained between ‘work and ‘job’; the modern job often has less to do with getting work done, much less necessary work, and more to do with making sure most of us are safely stowed-away in a hierarchy strong enough to keep us in line.

    • Maureen Roy

      Which doesn’t work real well for us “creative types”…

  • creaker

    Long live the Crimson Permanent Assurance – my favorite workplace story.

  • adks12020

    People keep talking about how the cubicle is dead, everyone is moving towards open plan, etc. Have they been in a bank, insurance company, accounting firm, any office that isn’t in the tech field, design, architecture, other creative areas, etc. lately? I work in the legal / financial fields. In the past 8 years I’ve yet to see any offices that aren’t set up in the traditional offices on the outside and cubicles (or maybe just a bunch of desks) on the inside model. Sure, some industries are moving to different models but that doesn’t seem to be the norm from my perspective. Maybe once all the boomers retire things will move faster.

  • creaker

    A local company is getting rid of the cubicle – but workers still have to come into the office – you reserve whatever open spot is available in a large open space, you won’t necessarily be with coworkers or even the same people every day.

    When your time is done you won’t even have a desk to clean out.

  • J__o__h__n

    Only 5.5 more hours until 5:00.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=32606540 Brian Belgard

    I’ve never heard of someone who is really all that happy with an open floor concepts for an office.

    The irony of all of this is that in the 70′s my fathers middle school classrooms in Burlington MA did the same thing. Tore down the walls between classrooms and would have 60-80 students in one room, with each class huddled in a particular area. Was a complete disaster.

    Also the dirty little secret of this “new age” open office plan is that it is significantly cheaper than cubicles.

    • JP_Finn

      …which in turn are cheaper than giving everyone four walls and a door, lol. Good point. It’s an interesting dilemma: the worry that everyone will hole up in their office and never collaborate is a legitimate concern, but not having a quiet space available to avoid distractions can also inhibit work.

      • AC

        we have ‘quiet rooms’ for calls or whatever it is you want to do….

        • JP_Finn

          Right, but it seems the unspoken implication of open work spaces is that if you’re not on a call when you’re in a side room, or if you’re not in the open work area often enough, you’re somehow not participating or working as hard as the others. Also, the transaction cost of having to transition spaces repeatedly can be easily overlooked, and it’s often difficult to relocate to avoid distractions as they occur when you’re “in the zone.” I understand the positive benefits of open work spaces, but it is a trade-off with definite downsides as well as advantages; not a 100 percent positive solution.

          When I started at my company, we had a semi-open space where everyone sat together but had assigned stations; however, there weren’t enough side offices or call rooms available to be able to avoid distractions more than 5 to 10 percent of the time. It also felt awkward to remove oneself and work in a space that is commonly available, but only for one-person-at-a-time–as if you were being selfish or monopolizing a scarce resource. When we moved our office, the company also changed back to cubes.

    • J__o__h__n

      The only thing worse than cubes is not having them.

  • JP_Finn

    Put your foot down, people! Don’t let your boss demand that you be available at all hours of the day–guaranteed they’re not paying for that availability, so don’t give it away for free. Think of how much extra you have to pay the locksmith when you get locked out of your apartment or house on the weekend. “Work creep”–the invasion of work into non-work hours of people’s time is just as big an injustice as the abuse of unpaid internships and part-time positions.

    • The poster formerly known as t

      Yes, it’s just that easy. I mean, it’s not like most people are not valuable enough to employers to get concessions out of their employers. It’s not like employers have successfully used the concept of competition to get what they want out of workers. Here is the dialogue that employers are giving workers these days.”Hey, if you don’t want this job, there’s a hungry and homeless 26 year old person from (insert third world country here) who’ll do your job better than you for half the pay and without the uppity attitude.”

  • AC

    they say sitting is worse than smoking. i’ve been whining for a standing desk and more open common work space so team members can get together instead of endless ‘meetings’
    ….but we deal with ‘security’ sensitive info, so i don’t think they’ll ever move away from an ‘office’ because it’s more controlled…

  • Chris Welles

    In the ’90s I was an engineer at Lucent Technologies [, the post-ATT-breakup transmission equipment manufacturing spin-off]. The ["Merrimack Valley Works"] plant in North Andover, MA was a 1/4 mile square [, surrounded by barbed wire topped fencing,] and fronted by a 1000′ x 100′ office building housing engineers and managers.

    One day, standing at one end of the [office building corridor] “horridor”, looking at the rows of cubicles marching into the distance, my Russian supervisor Slava said, “You know, Chris, the Bolsheviks could only dream of building something like this!”.

    [Satellite photo of MV Works: http://tinyurl.com/mvworks-satellite

  • Human2013

    In 30 yrs, I fully expect to be living/working in a 300 sqft trailer in the deep South selling anti-wrinkle skin cream to the 1%.
    How can it be any different in this rigged economy.

    • jefe68

      It could end being worse, one could end up under a bridge. If there are any left in 30 years that are safe enough to live under.

    • ExcellentNews

      In 30 years, the 1% will have access to genetic rejuvenation. They will be forever young and practically immortal. You need to think selling snake oil to the 99%. That’s how the 1% has it made…

  • Naomi

    At this point, I’ve worked in offices and from home full time 8-5. I find that working from home suits my personality much better. For me it is less stressful and more enjoyable because I’m an introvert and I like fresh air and sun and some flexibility. However, I have friends that hated it. I am seeing people with all this extra stuff going on in their offices (massages, pool parties, bbqs, afternoon music jam sessions) and I wonder when does anyone get any work done? Since when is it the company’s job to keep you entertained? I think this is a side effect of some people not being able to concentrate an actually WORK. As far as the other activities, I enjoy not having to spend part of my personal off time socializing with my co-workers. When I was in the office setting, it seemed like everyone dreaded those extra events and we didn’t really have fun anyway. As for the freelancing, my experience is too much work for too little pay. But I probably need to keep exploring that. Thanks for this show. Very good! I guess we will see how this all turns out in 10 years.

Aug 22, 2014
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