A short history of the office

Author Nikil Saval talks about the ever-evolving drudgery and idealism of the workplace

historic office

Would you believe the person credited with the design of the cubicle originally intended it to give office workers a sense of freedom and movement? Probably not, if you’re one of the 60% of Americans who work in one, given that 93% dislike them.

But that’s one of the stories that Nikil Saval uncovered while writing his book “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace,” about the place where many of us spend so much time.

Saval recently spoke with us about the utopian origins of the cubicle, the rise of freelancing—and how he believes that in the ideal workplace, self-determination is more important than design.

 

business office
The General Business Office of the Stratton Commercial School, Boston (1884). Courtesy of the Early Office Museum.

 

Slack: You begin your book with the first office workers, who were clerks in mid-nineteenth century counting houses. What did early offices look like and what kind of work did clerks do?

Saval: Mid-century early offices were small, one-room affairs with two to three clerks, a partner, and a bookkeeper. They were attached to places like dry goods stores. In a way, office work wasn’t seen as especially distinct or very interesting. There was lots of endless copying of documents.

Slack: In 1880, less than five percent of the US workforce worked in a clerical profession. Yet very quickly, white-collar workers surpassed blue-collar workers in the 1920s. What happened?

Saval: The simplified answer is the railroads. All of a sudden, you had the increasing ability of goods and services to travel enormous distances. And with the telegraph, telecommunications became much easier across wide distances. All of these things contributed to a new sense of what business could do.

Then to manage the railroads themselves, you had to pioneer a new way of business and a new form of administration. Railroads became a prototype for the way a lot of business were managed, in an intensely hierarchical way.

Slack: In Cubed, you introduce us to Robert Propst, who in 1960 became president of Herman Miller’s (the office furniture manufacturer) research practice. How did his Action Office concept lead to the creation of the cubicle?

Saval: In the 1960s, offices felt like factories.There were rows of desks and they looked like paperwork assembly lines. That was what Robert Propst was reacting against when he started to do research into what became the Action Office. He felt like it was an completely arbitrary arrangement of work. It was all based on hierarchy and status.

 

Robert Propst, inventor of the Action Office system
Robert Propst, inventor of the Action Office system. Photo courtesy of Herman Miller.

 

Propst was employed by Herman Miller, a furniture company, and he did a lot of research with questionnaires based on anthropology, psychology and ergonomics. He was an early proponent of standing while you work and thought it made you more alert and vital.

 

As they began to copy and replicate it, the idea of action and movement were lost. What they did was take his design and they cubed it.

 

His first attempt at this was Action Office 1. It was a loose assembly of furniture. People thought it was beautiful and liked it a lot, but it was too expensive. So Propst went back to the drawing board and created a three-walled, hinged space. It was meant to be very open and flexible. That’s why it was called Action Office. It was for movement.

It came out in 1968. It was really loved by the office industry. People began to copy it and other companies came up with their own action offices.

As they began to copy and replicate it, the idea of action and movement were lost. What they did was take his design and they cubed it.

 

office cubicles
Office cubicles are based on Robert Propst’s Action Office, a furniture system originally meant to be open and flexible.

 

Slack: What are some of the most important developments in office culture in the two years since your book came out?

Saval: There are two trends that have continued. One is the increasing “gig-like” nature of work. This leads to higher levels of inequality among office workers. Some freelancers are super freelancers and others are totally struggling.

What has gone along with it is the growth of coworking and its professionalization. When I was looking into it there were some fancier spaces, but a lot of it was ad hoc tiny spots. It had an organic quality to it. Now there are things like “We Work,” a fancy, professional coworking company.

What this means is that you have a lot of organizations who aren’t devoting the resources to permanent office space. You also have freelancers who choose to work there because they are afraid of isolation. It’s not totally surprising, but I didn’t expect it to grow quite so much.

 

modern workspace
Workspaces designed for the gig economy. Photo courtesy of WeWork.

 

There is this increasing permeability between the office and the city and I think what that might do is decrease the need for gargantuan skyscrapers.

 

Slack: How do you see these trends affecting work culture and productivity?

Saval: Productivity is a hard thing to measure, but in a very banal way, it’s not easy to work in these spaces because they are all kind of open and noisy. They are more about connecting people with other people, but doing work is not what they are actually for, unless you can find a quiet space.

The one thing that I think is promising about the idea is that there are lots of “third spaces” in cities, as they say, that can be devoted to office work. Already there were cafes, libraries, airport lounges, and things like that.

There is this increasing permeability between the office and the city and I think what that might do is decrease the need for gargantuan skyscrapers.

Slack: What does the ideal workplace look like to you?

Saval: The better way to look at is from the perspective of a worker’s needs, and that’s dependent on their interests and what they have to do all day. That could mean that they just sit at home, and that could mean that they travel to a bunch of places, or that they actually have a dedicated desk in an office.

The only thing that unites all these examples is that the office worker is totally free to choose. It doesn’t imply a specific kind of furniture or building, it implies control over one’s work. It means that a worker has power to determine his or her working arrangement.


Emily Brady does not work in a cubicle.

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