On a warm spring day in South Philly, standing in Nikil Saval’s sunny attic office, I suddenly understood how he could write a page-turning, genuinely entertaining history of the dreary American white-collar workplace and its most hated structure, the cubicle: He didn’t have to work in one.
“I literally willed myself out of the office to write about it,” Saval tells me as we walk over to a bar with a good vegan menu down the block from his house.
Saval joined the cohort of Americans who work from home in 2008, when he quit his last temp job to work on an article for the literary journal n+1, of which he’s also an editor, on the history of the cubicle. Six years later, that article–much expanded–is now the basis for his first book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, which was released last week.
The book starts with a simple question: How did our offices, whether they’re fluorescent cube farms or open-plan hacker spaces, end up this way? And where do we go from here?
A large part of Saval’s answer lies in the ad hoc history of office design, generation after generation of well-intentioned architects and designers who come up with seemingly revolutionary ideas only to see them fall flat once they’re introduced to the real world of day-to- day office life. He chronicles the progress of the cramped counting rooms of 1850s shipping clerks (think Bartleby the Scrivener) as they became the factory-style layout of the typing pool, and covers the history of the Aeron chair and the European origins of the “open office” concept. Along the way, we’re treated to tales of each era’s biggest boondoggles, including the biggest boondoggle of them all: the Action Office, the high-minded workspace concept that eventually turned into the cubicle. Had things turned out the way Robert Probst, the Action Office’s designer, intended, your cube would have widespread walls that were more like a folding screen, and incorporate a standing desk and a privacy nook for phone calls, to better promote constant motion and creativity in the knowledge worker. As we all know, this is not quite how things turned out.
It would be impossible to talk about the cube without talking about its discontents, and Saval doesn’t stop his story at office design. He treats the office not just as a physical space, but a place with a culture of its own, its own complicated relationship to class, and the question of what it means to be a white collar “worker.”
“I got fascinated with how the structures of authority, status, and power in the workplace just inhered in the ways these were designed,” Saval says. “Or not designed, since the cubicle is almost anti-design.”
The book’s intellectual ancestor (Saval says as much in the introduction) is C. Wright Mills’ White Collar, a work of sociology that scorned white collar workers, newly the majority in postwar America, as a group of lily-livered, disenfranchised stooges, doomed to subservience by their false class consciousness.
“The office is a constantly failing capitalist utopia,” he tells me as we eat. He calls the happy and productive “knowledge worker” as much a dream as the Soviet “New Socialist Man.” But when I ask whether he believes office design can actually increase “serendipitous encounters”–those mythical hallway meetings that, for years, architects and managers have been insisting are key to productive workplaces–Saval resists the temptation to wave it off completely. “I have this tendency to make categorical statements,” he says. While he doesn’t disagree with the commonplace that talking to people can be a good thing, he thinks the whole top-down office design approach is flawed. “It’s just mechanical, like two people will collide into each other in a hallway and explode,” Saval explains. “And also, it’s predicated on the idea that people know that office work often sucks.”
To his credit, Saval holds the bile, focusing on how the office is portrayed in fiction and (often pseudo-) scientific studies and leaving out the testimony of the unhappy office workers of today. Although in certain cases, a broadside or two might have been nice: The average office, for instance, would never be able to afford “conversation pods” like the ones Google has to complement its open office, let alone a juice bar, and pet-friendly offices (one Googler tells Saval having dogs around leads to the most “serendipitous encounters” of all) are still few and far between. Unfortunately, the book went to press before news of Silicon Valley-wide employee wage fixing and GitHub’s recent sexual harassment scandal came to light, but Saval brings things up to date with the book’s final few chapters, where he visits high-design offices in the Netherlands, office parks outside of Bengaluru, India’s booming tech capital, and the experimental offices of homegrown tech companies like GitHub and Google.
Even if he doesn’t hold as much of a grudge as former cube-dwellers might like, Saval’s book still stands out as one of the best pop histories to come out in years, and on a topic that most of us (statistically speaking) can relate to. In Philly, we pay the bill and walk back to his house, and before I leave I come up with an excuse to go poke around his top-floor office again. I’m trying to see if I could copy it back at my apartment in New York–I don’t think I have the space, but it seems worth a shot. If design really does change the way you work, Saval’s home office must be doing something right.