Cubed: do we take the office for granted?

Cubed by Nikil Saval details the dawn, rise and dominance of the modern office, and is a fascinating read about an area of life that most of us take for granted. I was engrossed and amazed by this tremendously detailed history of the office, and of the transformative impact it had on society, the economy, and our very perception of “work”. What is surprising about this history is that so much of what we consider to be “modern life” is directly related to the changes that occurred during the Industrial Revolution, which created a culture of office workers and developed a “new” kind of middle class.

Industrialization, mechanization, and management Even the way we conceive of how work should be done: Incrementally, efficiently, ergonomically – comes from the application of Industrial processes and Scientific Management to the office environment. From the layout of offices to the delineation of roles, to the subdivision of even the most minute tasks office-spaceinto separate jobs, the impact of this industrial model of office work is still being felt today in the hierarchical structures of many offices. It is interesting now in an era of “10%” time how ubiquitous this mechanization and drive for efficiency is, when companies have to mandate free time as a goal, and the creative process as a necessary part of work.

The Labour Movement At the same time as “white collar” work was growing as an option, the labour movement was reforming the Industrial era manufacturing sector, leading to social and economic upheaval and causing concern within the political and ownership classes. The aspirations of the office worker, who believed that upward mobility was possible and that they too could become owners and CEO’s, created an effective barrier to greater Union organization, and ultimately prevented the greater development of the union movement, despite the best efforts of union organizers.

Feminism & Women’s Equality The growth of the office created both opportunity and disadvantage for women in the 19th and 20th centuries. For the first time, large numbers of women were employed as stenographers, typists, and operators of various machines (all under the direction of male managers, of course). And though they made little compared to their male counterparts, it allowed a greater degree of freedom and economic opportunity than women even a generation earlier could imagine. However, by the 20th century this inequality had created a “pink-ghetto” of women’s office jobs. Unlike their male counterparts, women office workers who started as typists and secretaries would often remain typists and secretaries.

Architecture That office work has shaped the very fabric of our cities should be obvious, as the proliferation of skyscrapers since the 1800s can attest. However, Saval details a much deeper impact of the office environment on our aesthetic preferences. From Gothic to Art Deco, Modern to Post Modern, from the open-concept office to the cubicle, so much of what we consider to be beautiful, functional, and more, is based on the opinions of architects, planners, and engineers who were creating space for the office.

The End of the Office? It is interesting also, to comment on the long history of office “amenities”. While now the ping pong table seems to be the hallmark of a “modern”, hip office, earlier forms of these NikilSavalamenity spaces included theatres, gyms, napping rooms, music rooms, and more, and acted as symbols of the perceived upward mobility that could be achieved from those jobs. More, the very design of some offices – to allow tele-commuting, choice of work space, and environments that seem to foster play and enjoyment – is set out in a seeming promise of respect for individuality and individual contribution and influence.

However, the message Saval points to again and again is that the promises hinted at by office work- upward mobility, self-actualization, recognition – are promises that very seldom come to fruition: “In short, the story of white-collar work hinges on promises of freedom and uplift that have routinely been betrayed”. Despite the ping pong tables, 10% time, and more, employee hours have nonetheless increased, wages and benefits have stagnated and even declined and job security has disappeared for all but a handful of jobs (especially in the U.S. and especially since the dot-com and 2008 crises as well). Additionally, the growth of freelance work and its coincident loss of stability, benefits, and financial security, threatens the very economic stability of knowledge work in general.

Coworking & Use-Based Office Space Though brief, Saval describes coworking as a movement which acts on the desire for more communal, serendipitous office environments which are actually designed for the work that will take place there. Modular, DIY, organic and collaborative, he described fairly well what we do every day at Camaraderie. I only hope that his update in 10-20 years will be more detailed!

Overall, Cubed is a fascinating look at a history most of us take for granted. Since reading it, I’ve thought much more about the politics of work and labour, and the role that Coworking fills in creating not only space for freelancers and flexible work, but also in developing support structures and alternative management models that are appropriate for our modern work.


Did you miss Lyndon’s event review of Nikil Saval’s reading and discussion? Read it here.


This is a guest blog post by Angela Bepple, Founder of Skilltree Toronto.