If you work at a technology company you could be forgiven for thinking that all offices are slowly transforming into one big futuristic playground. Whether you’re with a startup in a co-working space or on the campus of a bonafide unicorn, the organizing principles remain roughly the same. The emphasis is on light, lounging and play. At the their best they can recall a favorite cafe or an over-sized sitting room. At worst they tend to resemble the set from the Big Brother franchise replete with primary-colored couches. You are certainly given to believe that you have entered the future.
Putting down your ping pong paddle for a moment, you might be tempted to ask whether this is necessarily a good thing?
Offices are as prone to fad and fashion as every other aspect of our life and work. And yet without fail, each revolution in our workspace is presented as the future; the inevitable destination for all smart companies; the end of working history.
Fire, steel and telephones
I blame Catherine O’Leary. An Irish immigrant who kept a few cows in a wooden barn in Chicago in 1871. She can’t have known what would follow when she is alleged to have left a lantern too close to the hay on that fated night. The Great Chicago Fire razed an area four miles long and a mile wide in what had been the center of the growing city. The blaze and the blank space it left behind came as developments in the manufacture of steel changed what was possible in architecture; and the economy tilted from blue collar to white collar.
The result was the construction in Chicago of the first recognizable American downtown dominated by grids of tall office blocks. It also came just as Alexander Graham Bell was patenting the telephone, and the typewriter was replacing handwritten ledgers. Now it just needed someone to work out the best way to organize the massed ranks of office workers that the new template and the new economy demanded.
Enter Frederick Taylor, the original management consultant and the villain of Nikhil Saval’s excellent chronicle of the office, Cubed. Taylor, whose theories were later dubbed “scientific management,” wanted the turn-of-the-century office to work like a factory, and white collar workers to be as efficient as manual labor was becoming. This called for massed ranks of desks for the clerk-class, cubicles for managers and plusher, more personalized offices for the boss-class.
The influence of Taylorism has been stubborn. Despite setbacks like the time in 1912 that the US Senate banned his methods at the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts after a string of angry strikes, it was only after the Second World War that a different office came into view.
The coming of the furniture-makers
The next big ideas didn’t come from engineers, like Taylor, but furniture makers. Two competing notions, one of an open office from Europe and the other a series of semi-enclosed mini-offices from the US, would shape the working lives of millions of people in the decades to come.
The Burolandschaft, or office landscape movement, was born in the delightfully named Hamburg suburb of Quickborn. It was there that brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle gave expression to their idea of creating a more humane and collaborative workspace.
Thought by some to be a reaction to Nazism, Burolandschaft called for an organic office with desks grouped in swirling pods, lines of sight interrupted by indoor plants and sound-proofed screens. Sound familiar? It pretty much describes Workable’s current engineering floor in Athens, Greece, and many other tech companies besides.
First it took Europe by storm, then in 1967 it crossed the pond to the US starting with the Dupont headquarters. It was around this time that the ideas of a brilliant designer at the office-furniture company Herman Miller crystalized. Bob Propst took a long look at the American office as he saw it, and as we’ve seen it in shows like Mad Men, and this was his conclusion: “It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”
Shrinking the Action Office into a cubicle
With the benefit of hindsight, his answer may surprise you. He invented the cubicle, not that he envisaged it that way. What he actually invented was the Action Office and its cheaper sequel, the Action Office II — a highly flexible, affordable furniture system designed to democratize the privacy a personal office offered. For Propst the vision was of an office that was capable of frequent modification to suit the changing needs of the employee, without the need to purchase new furnishings.
Seen from today’s perspective the cubicle conjures up a very different image. When Mae Holland, the heroine in Dave Eggers’ dark satire of Silicon Valley, The Circle, begins her first day at the Googlesque workplace, she is shown to a burlap cubicle as part of a practical joke. Her horrified reaction is pretty typical of contemporary attitudes to the groundbreaking work of Propst.
Things looked different back in 1985, when the World Design Conference named the Action Office as the most successful design of the previous 25 years. Before Propst died in 2000 roughly 40 million Americans — and many millions more elsewhere — were hard at work in more than 40 different versions of his design. Remarkably few of them were happy about this though.
From monks to submariners
Despite the hype there is little that hasn’t been tried before. Monasteries were the earliest pre-cursors to the office and monks used standing desks to write and illuminate manuscripts. An 1856 report commissioned by the British government found that separate rooms were required for the cerebral employee who “works with his head” where as more mechanical work was best done in concert with other clerks in the same room. Even the 1980s fad for “hot-desking” was, in fact, borrowed from war-time hot-bunking where submariners time-shared their bunks.
The steel girder offices of Chicago with their sky-high ceilings were too regimented and alienating; the open offices conceived in Quickborn too noisy and distracting; the cubicles with their promise of flexibility and customization turned out to be just another way of packing as many workers as possible into the smallest space possible. As Propst’s former colleague Joe Schwartz told Fortune Magazine: “They kept shrinking the Action Office until it became a cubicle.”
Furniture, however cleverly designed, is no match for dysfunctional hierarchies and the downright arbitrary nature of power in most business settings. There is something of Mikhail Kalashnikov in the story of Bob Propst and his gradual realization of this. He would end his life as disillusioned with his own creation as the Russian gun-maker was with his lethally popular assault rifle.
“The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive,” Propst said shortly before his death. “Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places… I never had any illusions that this was a perfect world.”