Post-its, push pins, pencils

Jenny Diski

  • BuyCubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval
    Doubleday, 288 pp, £20.00, June, ISBN 978 0 385 53657 8

The subtitle of Nikil Saval’s book is curiously inapt. Cubed is not a ‘secret history of the workplace’, but the not (entirely) secret history of a very particular kind of workplace. The main title is intended to pull that particular workplace into focus, I suppose, to narrow the vast number of possible workplaces down to a single square box (or latterly a three-walled lidless box) that will inevitably bring to mind the environment of the white-collar pen-pusher, although it has been a very long time since office workers reliably wore white collars or pushed pens to fulfil their duties. But even if we allow ‘the workplace’ to stand for ‘the office’, ‘the history of a secret workplace’ would have been a more accurate subtitle. What happens there? People can be said to ‘work in an office’ and no further explanation is required, but there’s no real clue to what they do, unlike people who work in other places, who make things in a factory, mine in a mine, teach in a school, sell things in a shop. What are the millions of children who since the late 19th century have increasingly been told that one (or both) of their parents is ‘at the office’ to understand by that? At least that nothing is made, mined, taught or sold.

The office in which mid to late 20th-century fathers and mothers worked, where they went every day and returned from at night, had for me as a child in the 1950s the enticing pull of spun sugar and coloured comics, and, even now, long after I learned the difference between the dream and the reality, the word still triggers a promise of delight. Occasionally, when I was allowed to accompany my father to an office that was once or twice his place of work, I went with joy as to Santa’s grotto. The office had so much more to engage with than mere roundabouts and swings.

The secret beating heart of the dream office is the stationery cupboard, the ideal kind, the one that opens to enough depth to allow you to walk in and close the door behind you. No one does close the door – it would be weird – but the perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful. It’s fully stocked with more than one of everything and plenty to spare. Sundries. In bulk. A dozen of; assorted; multi-buys; bumper bundles. Paper in quires and reams, flimsy, economy and letter quality, neatly contained in perfectly folded paper packets. Boxes of carbon paper. (Children, you interleave a crispy dark-blue onion skin between each sheet of paper, you align them bottom edge and long side, tapping the long and short sides sharply together on the surface of your desk, and if you type sharply you can get as many as six or eight copies, each slightly fainter than the one before.) Refills and spares. A cornucopia of everything you would never run out of. Paper glued into pads or notebooks. Lined and unlined. Spiral, perfect bound, reporter. Envelopes with and without windows. Ring binders. Snap binders. Box files. Sticky white circles to reinforce the holes made by paper punches. Paper punches. Green string tags to go through the holes. Labels. So many blank labels. White, coloured, all shapes and sizes. And a mechanical labeller with plastic tape to emboss. More than enough supplies so that if a thing is done wrongly, spoiled or not quite right, mistyped, misspelled, holes punched in the wrong place, pencil broken, you throw it away and get a fresh one from the stationery cupboard that never runs out because it is there always to provide more.

Perhaps this idea of the overflowing, generous stationery cupboard that permitted what was badly done to be dispensed with and a new start made was a source of my reprehensible and ill-timed tendency to rejoice in waste. The pleasures of the clean new page, or a stiff unmarked notebook, the sharp perfectly conical tip of an unused pencil, the crisp blank blue of an unmarked carbon or a black unstruck typewriter ribbon, cloth or plastic. All there, waiting to replace whatever had run out or run down or been botched. And photocopier stuff. Typewriter ribbons. Post-it notes. Push pins, tin tacks, staples, rubbers, rubber bands, Tipp-Ex tape and white-out paint like nail varnish. Boxes of pencils, biros, coloured pencils, rulers, cheaper by the dozen. The stationery cupboard, the smell and silence of office necessities. Whenever I find myself in an office – occasionally the one that produces this paper – I have to restrain myself from asking to be shown to the stationery cupboard so that I can gaze on it and inhale the scent. Part bookish, part chemical. Papery. Inky. Metallic.

Outside the sanctuary of the cupboard, the office equipment, the meta pleasures. Filing cabinets of drawers running on metal sliders, inside, hanging folders on metal struts and plastic labels. Photocopiers. A swivel chair with a silent but compelling gas lift. A desk with drawers into which you might spend hours placing and rearranging the requirements of a convenient office life. And on the desk, a typewriter. Phone. A pencil sharpener – one that clamps to the edge of the desk which you wind like a mincer. Highlighters – perhaps there weren’t any when I was small. Ink. Quink. Was there another kind? Sheaffer? Red, black, blue-black, turquoise. Paperclips, stamps, rubber stamps with sections you turn to get the date, a rubber thimble for counting off pages, stapler, staples, thousands of them that break off so neatly like … like what? I can’t quite get it or nothing else is like it. Trays. Holders. Stands. Sorters. Desk accessories. Containers for which you have to buy the things you hadn’t thought of until you saw a holder for them.

But the actual work, what needs to be done with all the desirable sundries, the reason for them, wasn’t clear. Obviously mostly it had to do with paper. Books were kept and letters written, loose-leaf papers filed. But what the letters were about, what was written in the books that were kept, wasn’t even vaguely known. Some instinct kept me from demanding detail, perhaps because of a correct suspicion that the actual business of business was the very least of the pleasures of the office. What is done in offices, to generalise, is pretty boring and derivative, being at the hands-off service-end of those other places of work where things got made, mined, taught or sold. Work that is always about something other than itself. Paperwork. Allowed to play, I typed ‘Dear Sir’ at the desk on the huge typewriter, sitting high on the chair, legs dangling. And ended ‘Yours Faithfully’ (‘Sincerely’ only after a named ‘Dear’ – I learned that very young), after which I squiggled an elaborate signature that bore no relation to the alphabet. In the space between I let my fingers run riot over the keys, to produce a gobbledygook body of the letter that probably made as much sense to me as most of the real correspondence would have. The accoutrements and contraptions of the office were the delight, the actual commerce remained not so much a secret as an unwanted answer to an uncompelling mystery. Like the most extraordinary couture, Alexander McQueen’s designs, say. You delight in and admire them, gorgeously and dramatically displayed in the videos of professional mannequins on runways, but you don’t want to see them in everyday action, being worn disappointingly as clothes, in real life, to dull receptions or dinners without the special lighting and the right pose (how many frocks are designed to be sat down in?), by people who have them only because they are rich.

I took the idea of a history of the office to be as attractive as the opening of the stationery cupboard, hoping it would tell me about the development of offices as such and nothing very much about the history of what it was that people actually did at those places of work through the ages, or, even less excitingly, why they did it. I wasn’t disappointed. I still don’t know what people do in offices, or rather, I haven’t been required by Nikil Saval’s book to trouble myself more than is necessary with such matters. At the beginning of the final third of the book we are referred to Drucker’s (‘for businessmen who read no philosophy, Drucker was their philosopher’) conception of ‘knowledge work’, defined by Fritz Machlup as ‘conferring, negotiating, planning, directing, reading, note-taking, writing, drawing, blue-printing, calculating, dictating, telephoning, card-punching, typing, multigraphing, recording, checking, and many others.’ Yes, but why? Never mind, the question isn’t pressing.

The story of the office begins in counting houses, where scribes kept their heads down accounting for the transformation of goods into wealth and vice versa. You might go as far back as ancient Egypt or stay sensible and look to mercantile Europe for the beginnings of bureaucracy, and the need to keep written accounts of business in one place. Saval gives a nod to the medieval guilds but settles on the 19th century as the start of the office proper, still in Europe, although this is an overwhelmingly American account of the American office. The closer you get to modernity in Cubed, the more the emphasis is on buildings and the more diminished the figure of the worker inside the buildings (until you get to the end and the buildings begin to disappear, although so too do the workers). It’s not a mystery. The design and construction of entire purpose-built structures for office work is a modern phenomenon. Scribes, to stretch the notion of office work, wrote in scriptoria, rooms in monasteries which were built for the more general purpose of worshipping God and housing those devoted to the various tasks (among which the reproduction of scripture) involved in doing so. Clerks are more likely to be what we think of when we want to look at the early days of office work. They emerged from their religious duties to assist commerce in keeping track of business, where we recognise them as dark-suited, substantially present characters in Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens. The ready-made spaces these clerks worked in became ‘offices’, rather than special buildings defining the work they pursued. They kept their books and scratched out their invoices in regular private houses given over to business, and sat or stood at desks in rooms they shared with their bosses for both convenience and oversight – this too disappears and then returns in postmodernity when hierarchy is spatially, if not actually, flattened.

Proximity has always been an important issue for office workers, so much so that it eventually precluded any form of unionisation. Rather than organise to improve their pay and conditions, office workers chose to keep close to their superiors in the hope, not always forlorn, that they would rise in prominence thanks to patronage. Physical closeness applied in the Dickensian office, but there are other ways to achieve it. In The Apartment (perfectly depicting the apex of the American way of office life in 1960 as North by Northwest perfectly depicts the fantasised alternative), Jack Lemmon gets close to his boss, which gets him ever closer to a key to the executive washroom, by lending his apartment to executives for their extra-marital assignations. Until love (or an understanding of his place in feudal America) turns him into his own refusing hero, or, depending on your interpretation, strips down his view of his possibilities to something more realistic, he is the ingratiating clerk: a staple of office narrative. The demeanour of the literary clerk was twice indelibly and differently depicted in the mid-19th century. In just three years he turns inside out from that epitome of sly unctuousness, Uriah Heep (1850), to the enigmatic bombshell that is Bartleby, the absolute refuser (1853). Perhaps the two portrayals are not coincidental. In 1851, the Melville family read David Copperfield aloud as their evening entertainment.

The pre-20th-century office worker saw himself as a cut above the unsalaried labouring masses, and was as ambivalent about his superiors, who were his only means of rising, as the rest of the working world was about him. Dandyish clerks prided themselves on not being workers, on the cleanness of their job (thus the whiteness of the collars), and on being a step above hoi polloi. They became a massed workforce in the United States, where the attitude towards the scribe and record-keeper changed, so that they came to be seen both as effete and untrustworthy, like Dickens’s Heep, and as ominous and unknowable, like Bartleby, but without receiving the amazed respect of Melville’s narrator. By 1855 in New York they were the third largest occupational group. Their self-esteem as their numbers grew was not shared: ‘Nothing about clerical labour was congenial to the way most Americans thought of work … At best, it seemed to reproduce things … the bodies of real workers were sinewy, tanned by the relentless sun, or blackened by smokestack soot; the bodies of clerks were slim, almost feminine in their untested delicacy.’ In Vanity Fair, the clerks are ‘“vain, mean, selfish, greedy, sensual and sly, talkative and cowardly”, and spent all their minimal strength attempting to dress better than “real men who did real work”.’

By the mid-20th century sex had created a new division within clerical labour. The secretary was almost invariably a woman and so was the typist, who worked in massed serried ranks, although (again to be seen in The Apartment) there was also a pool of anonymous desks for mute men with accounting machines, like Lemmon as C.C. Baxter. The secretaries lived inside a bubble of closeness to power, looking to burst through it into management or marriage, most likely the latter, geishas at work whose most realistic hope was to become domestic geishas, while the typists (originally called typewriters) and number-crunchers clattering on their machines on their own floor merely received dictated or longhand work to type or add up, distributed by runners, and so were not likely to catch the eye of an executive to give them a hand up unless they were prepared to wait outside their own apartment in the rain.

The pools of workers as well as the interior design of offices were under the spell of Taylorism, the 1950s fetish for a time and motion efficiency that tried to replicate the rhythm enforced in the factories to which office workers felt so superior. The idea that things that need doing and the people doing them could be so organised that they operated together as smoothly as cogs in a machine is everlastingly seductive. Anyone who spends half a day reorganising their home office, rejigging their filing system, arranging their work space ‘ergonomically’ knows this. It isn’t just a drive for cost efficiency, but some human tic that has us convinced that the way we organise ourselves in relation to our work holds a magic key to an almost effortless success. Entire online magazines like Lifehacker and Zen Habits are devoted to time-and-money-saving tweaks for work and home (‘An Easy Way to Find the Perfect Height for Your Chair or Standing Desk’; ‘Five Ways to Spend a Saved Hour at Work’; ‘Ten Tips to Work Smarter, Not Harder’; ‘What to Think about While You Exercise’). At a corporate level, this meant erecting buildings and designing their interiors and work systems to achieve office nirvana. No time, no motion wasted. The utopian dream of architects, designers and managers comes together in the form-follows-function mantra, beginning with Adler and Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in St Louis in 1891, although, as Saval points out, from the start it was really all about form follows finance:

The point was not to make an office building per specification of a given company … but rather to build for an economy in which an organisation could move in and out of a space without any difficulty. The space had to be eminently rentable … The skylines of American cities, more than human ingenuity and entrepreneurial prowess, came simply to represent dollars per square foot.

The skyscraper, the apotheosis of form following finance and function, appears once the manufacture of elevators allowed buildings of more than the five floors that people are prepared to walk up. It was a perfect structure philosophically and speculatively to house the now millions of workers whose job it was to keep track of manufacturing, buying and selling – ‘the synthesis of naked commerce and organic architecture’ as foreseen by Louis Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. The basic unit of the skyscraper is the ‘cell’: ‘We take our cue from the individual cell, which requires a window with its separating pier, its sill and lintel, and we, without more ado, make them look all alike because they are all alike.’ The International Style reached its glory period with the vertical cities designed by Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Henry-Russell Hitchcock. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, the Rockefeller Center, the UN Secretariat Building, Lever House and the Seagram Building were visually stunning statements of corporate power and prevailed by making the perceived virtues of repetition and monotony in design synonymous with economy and order. Even the need for a window in each cell was obviated with the invention of an efficient air-conditioning system and electric lighting, allowing more rational ways to provide light and air. However beautiful or banal the exterior, curtained in glass or blank with concrete, the buildings served as hives for the masses who performed their varied tasks to produce the evidence of profit. They were Taylorist cathedrals, and new techniques of ergonomics and personality-testing for employees compounded the organisational religious zeal, so that individuals more than ever before became bodies operating within physical space, whose ‘personalities’ were tested for the lack of them in the search for compliance and conformity. Business jargon added mind-conditioning on a par with air-conditioning, keeping everyone functioning optimally within the purposes of the mini-city.

The popular sociology books that began to appear in the 1960s criticising this uniformity were read avidly by the office workers who started to see themselves as victims. The Lonely Crowd, The Organisation Man, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the movie The Apartment itself, described a dystopian conformity that mid-century business America had produced in entire lives, not just in the working day. An alternative was proposed by office designers such as Robert Propst at Herman Miller, who were still working on behalf of the corporations, but who saw Taylorism as deadening the creative forces that were beginning to be seen as useful to business, perhaps as a result of the rise of advertising. Open plan became the solution. The cell opened out to the entire floor space of the building and it became a matter of how to subdivide that space to suit the varied tasks each individual needed to do, while retaining openness; to create office interiors in which workers needed to move around to achieve their goals, ideally bumping into one another on the way to permit the fortuitous cross-pollination of ideas. Cubes arrived, boxes without lids for people, but humane, alterable and adaptable to their needs (or the needs of the business for which they worked). Lots of little adjustable cells inside the main cell. Walls became flexible and low enough to be chatted over. Herman Miller’s Action Office and the concept of Bürolandschaft, the landscaped office, replaced the fundamental lonely cell and created its own kind of hell: ‘unpleasant temperature variations, draughts, low humidity, unacceptable noise levels, poor natural lighting, lack of visual contact with the outside and lack of natural ventilation’. And in addition there was a felt loss of privacy that had people bringing in all manner of knick-knacks to their cubes as self-identifiers and status symbols.

*

Another kind of office work came along with the arrival of the dotcom revolution. Not paper work but screen work. Like advertising but growing crazily, not humdrum invoice-stamping and letter-writing, but innovative programming that required intense brainwork from young, ill-disciplined talent who needed to be kept at their screens as much as possible while being nurtured and refuelled on the job. Being young and not having any connection with the office work of the past, the new workforce was offered on-site playgrounds that kept obsessive minds refreshed but still focused. Hierarchies were loosened, or more accurately given the appearance of being loosened. Jeans and T-shirts replaced suits, all youthful needs (except sleep-inducing sex) were catered for: pizzas and carbonated drinks, basketball and brightly coloured nursery furniture for the young geniuses to lounge or nap on when they were exhausted with programming. The open-plan office moved towards ‘main streets’ with side offices for particular purposes, often themed like Disneyland with lots of communal meeting and playing places, scooters to get around, and built-in time for workers to develop their own pet projects. The Herman Miller Aeron chair, still so desirable, was a design response to the need to sit for long periods working at a screen. It’s advertised as being ergonomically created for people to sit comfortably on stretchy mesh for up to 12 hours at a time.

In advertising, Jay Chiat decided that office politics were a bar to inspirational thinking. He hired Frank Gehry to design his ‘deterritorialised’ agency offices in Venice, California in 1986. ‘Everyone would be given a cellular phone and a laptop computer when they came in. And they would work wherever they wanted.’ Personal items, pictures or plants had to be put in lockers. There were no other private spaces. There were ‘Tilt-A-Whirl domed cars … taken from a defunct amusement park ride, for two people to have private conferences. They became the only place where people could take private phone calls.’ One employee pulled a toy wagon around to keep her stuff together. It rapidly turned into a disaster. People got to work and had no idea where they were to go. There were too many people and not enough chairs. People just stopped going to work. In more formal work situations too, the idea of the individual workstation, an office or a personal desk, began to disappear and designers created fluid spaces where people wandered to settle here and there in specialised spaces. For some reason homelessness was deemed to be the answer to a smooth operation.

The great days of office buildings dictating where and how individuals work within them may have gone. There are new architects and designers who collaborate with the workers themselves to produce interiors that suit their needs and desires. ‘Co-design’ – allowing the users of a space to have an equal say in how it is organised – is a first sign that buildings, sponsored by and monuments to corporate power, might have lost their primacy over the individuals engaged to work in them. But if the time of grand structures is over, it’s probably an indication that corporate power has seen a better way to sustain itself. The shift away from monolithic vertical cities of work and order might be seen as the stage immediately preceding the disappearance of the office altogether and the start of the home-working revolution we’ve been told has been on its way ever since futurology programmes in the 1950s assured us we’d never get out of our pyjamas within the year.

Fantasies of home-working, as people began to see round the corner into a computerised future, were forever being promised but never really came to anything. The idea made management nervous. How to keep tabs on people? How were managers to manage? And it alarmed office workers. It wasn’t perhaps such a luxury after all not having to face the nightmare of commuting or those noisy open-plan dystopias, when confronted instead by the discipline needed to get down to and keep at work at home, operating around the domestic needs of the family, and having no one to chat to around the water cooler that wasn’t there. Even now, when the beneficial economics of freelancing and outsourcing has finally got a grip on corporate accountants, there is something baffling and forlorn about the sight, as you walk past café after café window, of rows of people tapping on their MacBook Air. There for company in the communal space, but wearing isolating headphones to keep out the chatter, rather than sitting in their own time in quiet, ideally organised, or lonely, noisy, cramped home offices. Cafés with free wifi charge by the coffee to replicate a working atmosphere in what was once a place for daydreaming and chat. The freedom of home-working is also the freedom from employment benefits such as paid holidays, sick pay, pensions; and the freedom of permatemp contracts or none at all and the radical uncertainty about maintaining a steady income. These workers are a serious new class, known as the precariat: insecure, unorganised, taking on too much work for fear of famine, or frighteningly underemployed. The old rules of employment have been turned upside down. These new non-employees, apparently, need to develop a new ‘self-employed mindset’, in which they treat their employers as ‘customers’ of their services, and do their best to satisfy them, in order to retain their ‘business’. The ‘co-working’ rental is the most recent arrival. Space in a building with office equipment and technical facilities is hired out to freelancers, who work together but separately in flexible spaces on their own projects, in a bid ‘to get out of their apartments and be sociable in an office setting’. Office space has returned to what it really was, dollars per square foot, which those who were once employees now pay to use, without the need for rentiers to provide more than a minimum of infrastructure. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that ‘by 2020 freelancers, temps, day labourers and independent contractors will constitute 40 per cent of the workforce.’ Some think up to 50 per cent. Any freelancer will tell you about the time and effort required to drum up business and keep it coming (networking, if you like) which cuts down on how much work you can actually do if you get it. When they do get the work, they no longer get the annual salaries that old-time clerks were so proud to receive. Getting paid is itself time-consuming and difficult. It’s estimated that more than 77 per cent of freelancers have had trouble collecting payment, because contractors try to retain fees for as long as possible. Flexibility sounds seductive, as if it allows individuals to live their lives sanely, fitting work and leisure together in whatever way suits them and their families best. But returning the focus to the individual worker rather than the great corporate edifice simply adds the burdens of management to the working person’s day while creating permanent anxiety and ensuring employee compliance. As to what freelancers actually do in their home offices, in steamy cafés, in co-working spaces, I still have no idea, but I suspect that the sumptuous stationery cupboard is getting to be as rare as a monthly salary cheque.