A History of All the Office Designs That Were Supposed to Change Office Work Forever

Reading between the lines.
April 10 2014 12:33 PM

Little Workers in Pretty Boxes

A history of the workplace.

Illustration by Rem Broo.

Illustration by Rem Broo

Early in Cubed, Nikil Saval’s detailed cultural history of how the office grew to become the definitive 20th century workplace, Saval presents a description of the stylish office worker, courtesy of Walt Whitman circa 1856.* At that time, nonmanual labor accounted for a minority of jobs in the country, and those who did spend their days in an office were often the source of derision. Whitman, for one, described office workers as “a slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest … trig and prim in great glow of shiny boots, clean shirts—sometimes, just now, of extraordinary patterns, as if overrun with bugs!—tight pantaloons, straps, which seem coming little into fashion again, startling cravats, and hair all soaked and ‘slickery’ with sickening oils.”

Adjust for some—but only some—changes in fashion and that passage could describe the put-together hipster or flashy banker you saw on the way to work today. You can take or leave the mockery (perhaps the description hits a little close to home), but Whitman’s words undoubtedly still resonate. Saval’s book accentuates the transformations that occurred as those weak and spindly office workers began to inherit the Earth, or at least the eight-hour workday. In 1880, less than 5 percent of the American workforce worked in nonmanual labor, although the number was much higher—in the 20-40 percent rage—in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston. As trade expanded across the country, the amount of clerical work increased. And as the number of people working in offices grew, the question arose of how to optimize efficiency and, in some cases, comfort in this new work climate.

To start, Saval explains, many offices took a cue from the factory and lined desks up in long rows. Then, in the early 20th century, two innovations emerged that would get recycled and reinterpreted in various ways over the next century. The first arrived courtesy of Frederick Taylor, a consultant and theorist who made it his goal to remove all inefficiencies from the office and argued for an extreme division of labor to replace what was the more fluid work style of the old clerks, who worked in small offices of four or five people and were responsible for a wide variety of tasks. Taylor created the position of the manager. As Saval writes:

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By separating knowledge from the basic work process … the ideology of Taylorism all but ensured a workplace divided against itself, both in space and in practice, with a group of managers controlling how work was done and their workers merely performing that work.

Even as some offices today, particularly those in the tech industry, have attempted to move toward nonhierarchical models that recognize the benefit of idle, creative time, most still employ a version of this hierarchical, efficiency-driven system. The drive to get workers producing at highest capacity probably reached its apex with Robert Propst’s Action Office in the 1960s. The Action Office was an open-concept space consisting of several different working spaces, including a desk that you sat at and a larger drafting table that you could stand over. Propst’s second version of the Action Office, created after the first failed to gain traction in the marketplace, added walls of different heights around the workspace.

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Propst’s ideas were received rapturously, heralded for finally allowing the office “to achieve the work utopia that it had always promised.” As Saval writes: “Most office designs were about keeping people in place; Action Office was about movement. For in keeping with the ergonomic thinking that Propst had been doing for years, the motion of the body assisted—corresponded to—the ceaselessly inventive motion of the white-collar mind.”

The results, however, were hardly radical. The Action Office, which was meant to liberate workers and get them moving around the office, instead led directly to the proliferation of its stifling cousin-in-design: the cubicle.

The same ironic story gets repeated with almost every grand design that Saval describes. Throughout Cubed, we read about “the dream of a better office,” but that phrase and others like it turn comical as we realize how little progress ever gets made toward turning that dream into reality.

That’s not to say that nothing has changed about office life at all in the past century. Saval emphasizes how offices were, for much of the 20th century, filled only with white men, an unfortunate reality that has slowly been reversed. But if the people doing the work have grown more diverse, any changes in how that work is actually done has tended toward the superficial, despite what the Taylors and Propsts of the world may have hoped.