Last Offices

Wondering how your life has changed over the past two decades? Just rummage through your email for old autoresponds. “Out of office” referred to unlucky politicians until the 1970s, when UNIX began ...

Wondering how your life has changed over the past two decades? Just rummage through your email for old autoresponds. “Out of office” referred to unlucky politicians until the 1970s, when UNIX began to host vacation messages. Then, delays were counted in weeks; now, warnings that “Professor Price will be out of office from 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 3, to 8:15 a.m. Thursday, September 5” compete with confessions that “Over the vacation I will be checking email only once a day; apologies for delays.”

The phrase “work-life balance” entered the English language in 1977. Its metaphor remains mixed: if work is part of life, how can the two be imagined as counterpoised? And if not life, what exactly sits across from work on the metaphorical seesaw? When we lobby for flextime and telecommuting, or when on the contrary we complain about being on call around the clock and the globe, are we picturing a unitary self or rather a vocational veneer layered over a personal core? And whom do those debates leave out: developing-world migrant laborers whose workplace lies a continent away from their homes, developed-world factory workers and construction workers whose tools have nothing virtual about them, professional-class men who are not supposed to have a second shift to go home to?

The invasive office plays the villain of books published this year in fiction (Dave Eggers’s The Circle), self-help (Arianna Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder), pop sociology (Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time), and business (Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s Remote: Office Not Required). In the age of the smart phones that one journalist dubbed “the cubicle in my pocket,”1 il n’y a pas de hors-bureau.

Back in the 1740s, the epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson coined a term for the breathlessness of correspondence quickened to a “lively present-tense manner”: he dubbed his characters’ minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow letters “writing to the moment.” Richardson’s narrator Pamela dates her letters by day of the week, but as her wedding approaches they shift into “Wednesday evening,” then “Thursday, six o’clock,” then “half an hour past eight o’clock.” Though shrinking more gradually than Pamela’s, the autoresponder’s shift from weeks to hours similarly attests to a changing granularity of work rhythms. Ever-shorter stints in Word punctuate more and more frequent toggles to Outlook: lives measured out in smaller and smaller coffee spoons.

“Out of the office” gave way to “away from email”; soon, even that may sound as dated as Pamela’s quill. Both prepositions presume a spatial divide superseded by an inbox as impossible to shake off as your own shadow. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but American writers imagine smart phones as domesticity’s fifth column. Like God or the author, the office is everywhere present because nowhere visible. None of these books say much about the fluorescent-lit cubicles in which, as Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace points out, the majority of American workers spend their days. Some focus on Starbucks-sipping freelancers and pj-clad telecommuters; others gravitate toward the total environment of tech firms’ corporate campuses.

The Circle vs. the cube: the tech firm satirized by Eggers defines its geometry in contradistinction to open-plan offices. Its characters avoid even the word: “I love that you call it a campus,” one gushes to another. “That’s very cool. We used to call those places offices.” Another employee’s explanation that “we want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a humanplace” winks at the real-life ergonomic furniture firm Humanscale as much as at Citizens United: the novel’s protagonist turns out to be not the human character we initially follow but a corporation.

The Circle opens with a practical joke. Employees fool their new colleague into imagining she’s been “cubed,” escorting her to a workspace covered in “burlap. A dirty sort of burlap, a less refined form of burlap. A bulk burlap, a poor man’s burlap, a budget burlap.” The truth is different: sunstruck atria, adjustable-height desks, nap pods, yoga studios, loaner telescopes, doggie daycare. More than an office, more even than a campus: “heaven.”

These amenities, we learn in the perfunctory backstory, have been bankrolled by merging “Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe, and Quan” into a single system called “TruYou—one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.” Paywalls come tumbling down along with burlap panels. Tracked by Google Glass–like cameras even in her parents’ bedroom, the protagonist can find privacy only in her office’s bathroom stall, protected by cubicle-style half-walls. Don’t knock your modesty partition, Eggers seems to be telling us: the alternative is a corporate aquarium.

Photograph by John / Flickr

Photograph by John / Flickr

Mixing keyboarding with kayaking, The Circle’s fun-filled office forms the mirror image of Remote’s work-filled home. Coined in the 1950s, the term “home office” cut both ways.2 No sooner had particleboard computer desks been wedged against a thousand suburban sleeper sofas than beanbags made their way into a thousand office parks. No sooner did homeschooling go mainstream than tech firms equipped their new “campuses” with extracurricular hang-gliding clubs.

Siva Vaidhyanathan points out the irony of legislators exhorting universities to emulate the private sector at the very moment when Silicon Valley corporations mimic colleges by giving employees “unstructured work time, … an altruistic sense of mission, recreation and physical activity integrated centrally into the ‘campus,’ and an alarmingly relaxed dress code.”3 Knit trumps woven: by the time a WordPress employee entitled his telecommuting memoir The Year Without Pants, pajamas had become more aspirational than suits. Steve Jobs’s black turtlenecks allied him with sweat-suit-clad freelancers against sweated white collars. Not for him the alienation of Stendhal’s court chamberlain who, even in the privacy of his own study, “never allowed himself to dictate a despatch without having first put on the coat embroidered with gold lace and embellished with all his decorations.”4

Eggers rings few changes on a genre—call it smart-phone dystopia—that has changed little between the 2010 publication of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Alena Graedon’s 2014 The Word Exchange. His characters’ conversation about the word “campus” points back further to the 20th-century academic novel, itself heir to Trollope’s 19th-century insight that a cathedral setting could weave courtship plots into professional intrigues. If Mountain View can claim to be the new Barchester, it’s because geeks don’t clock in and out of their vocation any more than prebendaries or professors do.

The Circle’s ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Nine-to-five cube-dwelling is so 20th century, over by Chapter Two. Yet its historical progression masks class structure: Eggers’s characters enjoy at-work massages less because they live in the future than because they occupy the top of an org chart. The campus metaphor remains foreign to the 88% of US college students who cut costs by commuting.5

Behind every American home office lies a Chinese company dormitory.

Despite ergonomics experts’ shout-outs to hunter-gatherers, workplace reform continues to be debated by and for the North American one percent.6 When Solzhenitsyn asked, “If you wanted to put the world to rights, who should you begin with, yourself or others?,” he wasn’t expecting his words to become the battle cry of Arianna Huffington’s crusade to equip office parks with “yoga classes, Thai massages, hand massages, [and] mini-facials.”7 The labor conditions that Solzhenitsyn was describing have yet to vanish in a puff of aromatherapeutic smoke. The laptops in the window of every Starbucks are manufactured by migrants given little time to sleep, let alone see their families. Behind every American home office lies a Chinese company dormitory.

First World fiction, however, shows even less interest in factories than in cubicles: the myth that work is becoming more flexible universalizes the luck of a few knowledge workers in a few rich countries, including the novelists and bloggers who propagate it. (To be fair, The Circle does take as its backstory the heroine’s low-wage, no-perks previous job in a genuine cubicle.) Worldwide, increasing numbers of migrants leave their villages for urban slums or their countries for ours. To Huffington and Schulte, work means having a nanny; to women who send dollars back to children left behind in the Philippines, work means being one. And within the US, night shifts and second jobs account for more sleep deprivation than do the Blackberries blamed by Huffington. Might raising the minimum wage help more than issuing insomniacs “yummy pink silk pajamas”?8

Where Eggers deploys beige burlap as a neutral backdrop against which to pin a less than yummy future, Saval reminds us how recently the cubicle looked innovative or even radical. His account recaptures the utopian hopes that once surrounded now-familiar technologies, not just the cubicle itself but the air-conditioning and fluorescent light bulbs that converged to make its windowless depths thinkable. In 1960s Germany, egalitarian ideals drove the development of modular open plans.

Only after crossing the Atlantic did the “action office” achieve the worst of both worlds: claustrophobia without privacy. Douglas Coupland’s Generation X traces the very word “cubicle” to the pens used to corral cattle before slaughter. Saval adds that cubicles—some manufactured by prisoners—went on to inspire new trends in prison design. The cubicle itself tracked economic trends: between the 1980s and 1990s its average size decreased by a quarter. In one survey whose watercooler humor squares with Saval’s fondness for adolescent adjectives like “incredible” and “insane,” half of respondents reported their bathroom to be larger than their cubicle.

Zigzagging from architecture to politics and ergonomics to economics, Cubed makes its way from Germany to Bangalore by way of Palo Alto, itself the heir to early 20th-century Manhattan and its mid-20th-century suburbs. Whatever the time and place, the same debates recur: Are workplaces public or private? Should offices look like factories, libraries, kitchens? Do their inhabitants count as labor or management, and does gender affect the answer? Is sitting at a keyboard any less hazardous to your health than staffing an assembly line or a construction site?

Saval punctures tech firms’ claims to revolutionize the office, trawling the archive for precursors to the total environment satirized by Eggers. In 1906, one office already offered bathhouses, clinics, gyms, thrift clubs, picnics, concerts, and profit sharing; half a century later, another was luring female workers with “sunbathing facilities … shuffleboard courts, a lending library, and a lounge for noontime meditation.” In fact, late 19th-century offices bore more resemblance to The Circle’s setting than to early 19th-century counting-houses, because the single biggest change in office work was complete by 1900: the advent of women. Out went spittoons and counter-height stools; in came restrooms and cartoons captioned “Try this on your typewriter.”

Unlike many historians who rummage novels and films for a quotation here and an anecdote there, Saval remains alert to the forms of his sources, analyzing the fit of comics like Dilbert with the cubicles to which they were pinned and contrasting the failure of Office Space in movie theaters with its revival on video, “a medium that suited the office worker existence depicted in film: long days huddled in front of a computer, followed by short nights exhausted on the couch.” And if online gaming now forms the perfect relaxation for tired keyboarders, their ancestors could already play the “Office Boy” board game released by Parker Brothers in 1889. Saval’s decision to quote apocrypha, “authentic or not,” makes perfect sense in a book that tells us less about the office than about its representations—born, it’s worth adding, in the bullpens of newsrooms as well as in cartoonists’ studios. Saval’s truth is stranger than Eggers’s fiction: there’s nothing novelistic about the advertising agency that punctuated its open plan with bumper cars into which employees could clamber for confidential conferences.

In retrospect, 2013 looks like the year of arguing about when and where knowledge workers think best. Yahoo’s telecommuting ban and Best Buy’s cancellation of its Results-Only Work Environment provided copy for the stay-at-home bloggers whom Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity lumps together with Etsy merchants and gentlewoman farmers. Lifehackers culled productivity tips from the biographical factoids assembled in Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

One takeaway from Daily Rituals is to work in the morning: afternoon is for walking with your wife, who has spent the morning waiting for you to finish. Another is to have a wife in the first place: Martha Freud applied toothpaste to her husband’s toothbrush; Currey doesn’t mention Vera Nabokov licking Vladimir’s stamps. In the face of the evidence that plenty of uncreative men throughout history have shirked answering the door, Daily Rituals memorializes a lifestyle increasingly off-limits to male writers who bail their own inboxes. Does the title of The Year Without Pants (also published in 2013) imply that you can’t wear the pants in the family unless you head out for the office every morning?

When Dickens petitioned Parliament to outlaw the organ-grinders stationed distractingly close to his study window, John Picker has shown, his point was that working from home isn’t synonymous with housework.9 In Dickens’s time, “office” still designated those parts of a house where work went on (the kitchen, the stables); only later did it become the antonym of “home.” The Industrial Revolution divorced home from work by replacing cottage industries such as handweaving with factories that inhabited not just a separate building but a separate neighborhood. As living above the shop fell out of fashion, bedroom suburbs grew apart from business districts.

Now that cloud storage conspires with portable devices to stop us from quarantining work in space, time takes over the gatekeeping.

Only once “home office” joined the swarm of oxymoronic midcentury neologisms (think “adult child”) did the telephone and the personal computer begin to undo that 19th-century divide. But the pendulum is swinging back: now that cloud storage conspires with portable devices to stop us from quarantining work in space, time takes over the gatekeeping. Volkswagen programs company-issued smart phones to block work emails overnight; my local café, where the laptop batteries tend to be thirstier than their users, has begun marking the Sabbath by switching off Wi-Fi.

In book acknowledgments, software now edges out the wives traditionally thanked for typing drafts. Zadie Smith’s NW credits Freedom, which blocks Internet access for minutes or hours or (unthinkably) days: the superego V-chips the id. OmmWriter isolates your words in a window as frameless as any Bauhaus design, stripped of task ribbons and scrollbars. Ask a writer today where they do their best work, and the answer is as likely to refer to Scrivener or Pages as to a cork-lined study.

Yet even as the typing pool’s twinsets are receding into a Mad Men–themed distance, gender remains central to the marketing of the anti-modern, anti-multitasking manifestos that have mushroomed in the decade following Carl Honoré’s 2004 In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed. Huffington and Schulte overlay class privilege with gender oppression when they emphasize the double whammy that compounds emotional labor at work (remembering colleagues’ birthdays) with logistical labor at home (remembering the dry cleaning). Compare Honoré himself praising the “Slow Thinking” of a woman who cuts down on work hours while her husband picks up the financial slack: now that she spends only three days at the office, “the house is clean, the food is bought, the laundry is done, the children are happy. And during my days off I don’t just rest and rejuvenate, I mull.” Honoré’s announcement that “now that the sexes are on a more even footing, the domestic arts of yesteryear are making a comeback” ignores how uneven his own vignettes of women’s so-called “days off” remain. Here’s a Canadian family whose Slow lifestyle Honoré describes as “amazing” and “enviably serene”: “Susan was cooking pasta in the kitchen. Michael was reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on a sofa in the living room. Beside him, Jeffrey flipped through the Globe and Mail. On the floor, Jessica was writing a letter to her grandmother.” Males on the sofa, females at the stove or penning a thank-you note at their brother’s feet: if this is home, bring on the office. There may be worse fates than a cubicle of one’s own. icon

  1. Gretchen Rubin, Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life (Crown Archetype, 2012), p. 129.
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1960 as the earliest date for this usage; the earliest instance Google Books yields of this meaning (as opposed to the central branch of an organization) comes from Popular Mechanics in 1957.
  3. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (University of California Press, 2011), p. 187. Fred Turner dubbed “velvet goldmine” the “workplace in which the pursuit of self-fulfillment, reputation and community identity, of interpersonal relationships and intellectual pleasure, help to drive the production of new media goods.” See Turner, “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production,” New Media and Society, vol. 11, nos. 1–2 (2009), p. 80.
  4. Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, translated from the French by Richard Howard (Modern Library, 2000), p. 19.
  5. The most recent National Postsecondary Student Aid Study estimates that only 12% of college students live on campus; even at four-year colleges, over half of students commute.
  6. See Mark Frauenfelder, “Standing Desk Jockey: Eric Ragle,” Boing Boing, June 7, 2011; Peter T. Katzmarzyk, “Sit All Day, Die Early,” New York Times, April 23, 2010 ; “Authors@Google: Esther Gokhale,” YouTube video, 53:45, from a February 14, 2008, event at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA, posted by “Talks at Google,” February 27, 2008.
  7. Arianna Huffington, “HuffPost’s Oasis: The Place to Unplug and Recharge at the DNC,” Huffington Post, August 20, 2008.
  8. Arianna Huffington, “Sleep Challenge 2010: The Good, the Bad and the Coffee,” Huffington Post, January 7, 2010.
  9. Victorian Soundscapes (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 60.
Featured image: Cubicle Farm, Louisville, KY, 2004. Photograph by Eric. B / Flickr