Our Cubicles, Ourselves: How the Modern Office Shapes American Life

How did we come to work in spaces that make us so miserable?
Jordan Richmond/Flickr

Each year, the average American spends nearly 2,000 hours working. For many, that time passes inside the three little walls of a modern cubicle.

Writer Nikil Saval explores these odd spaces—how they came to be, how they make us feel—in his new book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. I spoke to Saval about the modern office, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Your book is, as I see it, about twin themes: the spaces we work in, and the quality or character of the work itself. Can you talk, just briefly, about the relationship between those two ideas?

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.

The idea that they were related at all came to me when I was first doing the research for this book, which coalesced into an article for n+1 (where I’m an editor), called “Birth of the Office” (winter 2007). I was working in my second cubicle, much smaller than my first, and looking into the history of it: Where did it come from? Was it always a symbol of the worst of office life? Maybe predictablythough to me it was a surpriseit wasn’t.

The original designs for the cubicle came out of a very 1960s-moment; the intention was to free office workers from uninspired, even domineering workplace settings. The designer, Robert Propst, was a kind of manically inventive figurereally brilliant in many wayswith no particular training in design, but an intense interest in how people work. His original concept was called the Action Office, and it was meant to be a flexible three-walled structure that could accommodate a variety of ways of workinghis idea was that people were increasingly performing “knowledge work” (a new term in the 1960s), and that they needed autonomy and independence in order to perform it.

In other words, the original cubicle was about liberation. His concept proved enormously successful, and resulted in several copieschiefly because businesses found it incredibly useful for cramming people into smaller spaces, while upper-level management still enjoyed windowed offices on the perimeter of the building. In that sense, the design was intended to increase the power of ordinary workers; in practice it came to do something quite different, or at least that's how it felt to many people.

You see this relationship between power and design throughout the history of the office: in the early clerical offices (think Bartleby, the Scrivener or Scrooge’s office in A Christmas Carol), the spaces were small, intimate; even though a vast distance in power separated a partner in a firm from his bookkeeper, the fact that they worked close together made both feel like they were in a father-son sort of relationship (the offices were all male at the time), and there was every expectation that a junior clerk would eventually rise and take over the firm.

Later, an increased division of labor and enormously expanded hierarchy led to the offices that we more or less recognize today: large floors, filled with desks, where lower level employees work; offices along the side of the building for middle management (each of these with slight gradations to indicate status or privilege: a nicer desk; carpet on the floor, etc.); and corner offices for executives, or even different floors with different bathrooms. In places like these, space almost directly reflects hierarchy.

As we approach the present, people began to recognize this: things like the open-plan office, invented in Germany in the 1950s (and called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”), attempted to level hierarchies by making everyone work out on the open floor. But even in the earliest versions of the open-plan, small markers of status began to assert themselves: Managers would apportion more plants to themselves, or set up informal private spaces through creative use of more desks and partitions. So design at work often seems to say something about relations of power at work.

In the interwar period, you write, a visitor to Berlin was “astonished by how much the city seemed to be characterized by an ‘employee culture’." Today, cubicles are so commonplaceaccounting for some 60 percent of office workersthey hardly merit notice. But the sad news is, given their ubiquity, how unhappy they seem to be making us: One 1997 survey found that 93 percent of cubicle workers would prefer an alternative, and a 2013 study found that they had "the highest rates of unhappiness with their work setup." 

What is the role of the cubicle in our culture today? And, also, how much of our hostility toward the cubicle is misdirected, and really is a deep frustration/unhappiness with modern work?

The cubicle’s place today is weirdly equivocal. On the one hand, few words so quickly express contemporary workplace frustration and anomie; one hardly goes a week without reading or hearing about someone working in a “faceless cubicle,” or a “cube farm,” or a “cubicle inferno.”  These elicit practically universal understanding, even for people who haven’t worked in an office.

Partly this is the success of things like Dilbertwhich is so inextricable a part of office work that Scott Adams actually sells Dilbert-themed cubicle decoror Office Space, where the cubicle is viewed as a kind of excrescence against human nature: As the main character Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingstone) says, “Human beings weren’t meant to sit in little cubicles, staring at computer screens all day.”

But now, with the contemporary rush to tear down the cubicle walls and put people in low- or no-partitioned offices (“open-plan”), it suddenly seems ridiculous that people have identified the cubicle as the source of the workplace’s ills, rather than a shifting symbol of it. As is becoming increasingly clear (from books like Susan Cain’s Quiet, or Maria Konnikova’s piece for the New Yorker website, “The Open Office Trap,” but also just from our own experience as office workers), open-plan offices diminish very few of the problems associated with cubicle-ridden offices, and in some cases they augment them. Noise, visual and aural, makes concentration difficult, such that headphones become the new walls. And hierarchies don’t disappear when you place everyone at a communal table or “superdesk”; they persist in more subtle modes of workplace interaction.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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