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05.01.145:45 AM ET

Squares in Cubes: A History of Two Centuries of Office Culture

White-collar office culture has changed a lot since it emerged in the 19th century, but one thing has remained constant: It’s the bosses’ world. You just work there.

There’s so much going on in Cubed, Nikil Saval’s examination of the form, function, and evolution of the American office, that the book is a bit of a mess. It began as an article in n + 1, where Saval is an editor, and appears to have overflowed its journalistic boundaries without ever quite achieving long-form organization. Architecture, office design, management theory, sociological analysis, economic change, gender roles—if it has anything to do with offices, Saval wants to consider it, sometimes to the detriment of his focus. But Cubed is so stimulating, so filled with terrific material and shrewd observations, that it’s a must-read for anyone pondering how America arrived at its current state of white-collar under-employment and economic insecurity.

Saval begins in the mid-19th century with “the clerking class” created by the Industrial Revolution, which physically separated administrative work from manual labor as part of the larger trend toward business specialization. At first, clerks scribbled alongside their merchant employers in small office spaces whose inhabitants engaged routinely in the kind of “face-to-face interactions” that modern corporations started trying to encourage again after World War II. A major subject in Cubed is the way that office design has fostered worker alienation and feelings of powerlessness; we’ll get back to this.

The most important quality about clerks that Saval initially spotlights is their sense of themselves as “potential bosses” who would soon be moving up to positions of real authority. Their frock coats and immaculate white collars, which distinguished them from grubbily clad laborers on the docks and factory floors, were psychologically crucial assertions of status for men who performed “a kind of work that nobody recognized as work” because it didn’t produce anything tangible.

By the early 20th century, white-collar work was more common—and more regimented.  National transportation and communications sparked giant national companies with an exploding population of clerical workers, 4,420,000 by 1910. In the larger, taller office buildings made possible by iron-frame construction and elevators, these workers found themselves seated in rows of desks on noisy open floors far from “a small squadron of bosses locked away in snug executive suites.” Office layouts made corporate hierarchies visible. The scientific management principles of Frederick Taylor, though originally crafted to control factory workers, were quickly applied to office employees, whose tasks became increasingly specialized (and tedious), so as to be better supervised from above.

Nonetheless, white-collar workers resisted calls to unionize, even though collective bargaining had substantially reduced the pay discrepancy between them and manual laborers by 1920. The fact that women now made up about half the office labor force probably played a role in this resistance. Popular culture (Saval cites novels and movies throughout to buttress his points) encouraged female workers to dream of marrying the boss, not organizing against him; the clustering of women in the lowest-paid, least promotable jobs may have encouraged male colleagues to imagine their prospects were better.

Management was not reassured. Alarmed by New Deal laws protecting collective bargaining, businesses became obsessed with the need to make sure white-collar workers stayed out of unions. Their solution, Saval notes with considerable irony, was to create nicer offices. Theoretically, these would be “more suited to workers’ actual needs,” and indeed such iconic post-World War II skyscrapers as Lever House and the Seagram Building had more pleasant amenities than their drab predecessors. This does not alter Saval’s judgment that they represented “fundamentally an architecture of corporate bureaucracy,” which changed nothing about the power structure within them.

Over and over, as the narrative moves through the postwar years into the 21st century, Saval shows idealistic efforts to create human-friendly office spaces trumped by commercial imperatives. This disheartening process is epitomized in the degradation of Robert Propst’s visionary 1964 “Action Office” into the cheap, cramped cubicle now ubiquitous in America offices. Propst’s design of a workspace that could be adjusted to meet individual requirements reflected the influential concept of “knowledge workers,” a phrase coined in 1962 by management consultant Peter Drucker, to once again enshrine white-collar employees’ self-image of themselves as different.

‘Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace’ by Nikil Saval. 368 p. Doubleday. $17 ()

This time, instead of claiming that anyone could become the boss, Drucker asserted that mid-century office workers were increasingly educated professionals whose intellectual skills were under-utilized. Flexible “office landscapes,” which encouraged interaction among employees with a greater degree of autonomy and independence, would increase productivity and satisfaction. But what companies really loved about the flexible office was that it was cheap; cubicles could be rearranged or dismantled at minimal expense, which came in very handy during the downsizing orgy of the ’80s and ’90s.

It was still all about control, Saval demonstrates. In the pseudo-countercultural offices of Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, Foosball tables and basketball hoops and casual dress codes simply prettified the fact that people were spending more and more time at work. Today, when 25-30 percent of the American work force is freelance, and many more are “permatemps” with no benefits and no security, it may be true that direct managerial control of personnel has lessened. Saval’s declaration that this “flexibility” (to date a tool of the corporation) “has the potential to transform itself from contingency and precariousness into something that might well look like autonomy,” however, seems unduly optimistic If there’s a single unifying thread in his intelligent, wide-raging survey of 150 years of office life, it’s the persistence in white-collar workers of the illusion of personal freedom in an environment largely shaped by corporate demands.

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