New Trends in Office Design
What is the way of life implied by our contemporary standing revolution?
Nikil Saval’s book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace is now out from Doubleday. Available in the n+1 bookstore.
Sit down, man
Sitting used to be considered essential to the West; it was presumed that the “great divergence” came because those in the East did not have chairs. A British colonialist in 1851 was disgusted to see Indians squatting while they worked. “All work with their knees nearly on a level with their chin,” he sniffed, “the left hand — when not used as the kangaroo uses his tail to form a tripod — grasps the left knee and binds the trunk to the doubled limbs. The whole posture is so suggestive of indolence and inefficiency, that an Englishman . . . requires great self-control to look at it with any degree of patience.” A real civilization, it was believed, would learn to sit. As recently as fifty years ago, Galen Cranz tells us in her history The Chair, the Japanese postwar economic miracle was ascribed by some Western experts to the abandonment of tatami mats.
Now we know an entire aesthetic and social order was based on a falsehood. The truth is this: to ask someone to sit is to take months away from his or her life. Meanwhile, to sit yourself, in full knowledge of the costs, is like tying a noose around your neck and then kicking out the support because you think it would be more comfortable. Chairs are forms of comfort that artfully conceal mechanisms of torture: they reduce your legs to jelly, atrophy the muscles in your lower back, curve your spine into unnatural shapes. Over months or years spent in a chair, robust human substance dissipates into muck, and the longer you sit, the sooner you die.
You have clicked through the Times articles and know the statistics. But if you are reading this sitting — here they are again. The American Cancer Society (which you would think would be studying other things) discovered from a 2010 study that women who sat more than six hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die an early death than women who sat fewer than three hours. A similar assessment of men revealed an 18 percent higher likelihood of premature death. Other studies have confirmed that sitting increases your risk of developing diabetes, besides the challenges it poses to the long-term functioning and health of your limbs and muscles.
This discovery should have prompted a revolution in our entire manner of social life. We should have moved to conducting dinners standing up, as at the idli and dosa stands of South India; couches should have suffered catastrophic declines in sales; and long, flat desks should appear in homes only as ceremonial reminders of a naive, sedentary age. Tastes ought to have changed. The demure plywood shells of the Eames chairs should seem unaccountably malign.
Yet conventions of private social life remain untouched, and Saarinen’s womb chairs sell for thousands on 1stdibs.com. In 2013, the office furniture giant Steelcase, though it knows better, placidly came out with a new chair, Gesture, whose stated purpose is to accommodate the unnatural ways that we handle new devices. The company’s researchers did ethnographic studies of offices, carefully watching the strange postures that people assumed and making notes accordingly. It turns out that with their smartphones, people often splay their legs and slouch, or ball up into a fetus, their elbows tucked in, holding their glowing rectangles close to their faces, thumbs tapping. With laptops, they stretch and crunch at the same time, resulting in the terrible neologism, “the strunch”: with a laptop pushed far back on the desk, users crunch their abdomens and lean forward, stretching out their spine and neck, one hand propping up the head, another crawling across a trackpad. None of this is good for you, but there’s money to be made from human mistakes, and Steelcase will make it, until sitting disease gains wider recognition. The chair sells for $979.
White-collar illness was always a curious, and to many, laughable phenomenon. The counterparts to the put-upon clerk have had their bodies crushed by errant steel beams, their fingers and arms sliced off by lathes, their spines racked by hoeing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration began in the 1970s to protect these workers — not the truly disadvantaged of the office, where repetitive stress is as bad as things get. Yes, asbestos in “sick” buildings is bad, but have you tried black lung? For a time in the 1980s health activists attributed miscarriages and cancer to the unaccountably menacing, sickly green glow of the Visual Display Terminals of the early computer. But the risk from radiation was exaggerated: it was just paranoia, caused by a work environment in which mergers and hostile takeovers and layoffs were the byword of America’s morning phase. Such fears spoke more to the dominant affective atmosphere of the late capitalist white-collar workplace, with its panoply of minor ugly feelings, themselves correlates to sickness: dread, irritation, envy, disgust. From Joseph Heller’s unsung masterpiece, Something Happened (1974):
In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it.
Add to this generalized fear of other human beings the new specter of morbidity, now haunting the aisles of the fluorescence-ridden office like never before.
In the world of office design, few things move quickly — two decades after the cubicle is supposed to have died, the rate of new orders has declined only slightly — but the move to standing desks is nonetheless under way. No one dislikes a standing desk, and everyone who doesn’t have one wants one. People who work at them report that the standing desk has ended the classic 3 PM slump. This is, or should be, big news: the 3 PM slump was considered so serious and intractable that the National Association of Office Managers held a session about it in their annual meetings in the 1920s. The Taylorist Lee Galloway, in Office Management (1919), advocated height-adjustable standing desks as a way to keep toxins from settling in the bodies of stenographers; but the stenographers were women, and male managers weren’t going to commit to that kind of cost.
Any workplace fad invites complicated feelings. There are understandable reasons to feel annoyed at having “standing meetings” or watching someone work his calves while muddling through a taco salad. But ultimately the change is right, and there is little to say against it. We should count the new popularity of standing desks as an objective advance in the rectitude of man. “Rousseau,” Kant said, “set me upright.” He would be pleased, we can guess, to enter a workplace and see legions of subjects working on their feet.
But one area has suffered — design. Survey the popular options for standing desks, and you’ll find nothing more than the functional and uninspiring.
The NewHeights Electric Height Adjustable Desk Elegante XT sells for $2,153 and has a simple push-button hydraulic adjustment that accommodates changes of positions with ease. But its dark base is set on obtrusive, ugly casters, presumably for freewheeling excursions around the office. Its flat, glossy top comes in several faux-wood options, among them “hardrock maple” and “chocolate flame.” Similarly, “Steve’s Station” from Anthro sells for a shocking $3,249 (but “Soon you’ll wonder how you could have possibly worked at any other workstation”). A single top with fewer color options than NewHeights (only “maple,” “dark gray,” and — what may be outdated British slang — something called “wenge”), it offers as compensation more potential for drawers and outlets, breaking up a dreary landscape of monotonous gray metal.
For those wanting flexibility, the curiously named Kangaroo Junior for $399 can be placed on top of any desk, and gives you the option of “hopping” (perhaps?) from level to level. The now classic Peter Schenk treadmill desk (price varies) is cumbersome to sneak into cubicles, and lends a certain yuppie-sweaty redolence to your home office. But few things are better at offering self-renewing fodder for middle-class conversation.
Compare these options to the greatest standing desk, perhaps the greatest desk in history — George Nelson’s Action Office I, designed in concert with Robert Propst for the Herman Miller Company in 1964 — and you will feel with a sinking feeling that, for all our enlightenment, we live in a fallen age. Rising from gleaming aluminum legs connected by a slim bracing bar (a footrest but compared by a reporter to “the brass rail in a saloon”), Nelson’s desk issued forth on a cantilever, its corners rounded, the edges blunted by rubber. Its most slyly cool aspect was the retro roll top, a feature common to desks in the merchants’ clerks offices of the late 19th century and in Action Office I made of warm wood tambour. Unlike the flat, exposed Modern Efficiency Desks that proliferated in the modern office, designed by Taylor acolytes to make it easier for managers to watch their workers, the roll top of the Action Office standing desk could shut up three inches of paperwork (Propst believed that any more would mean work was being unnecessarily buried), guaranteeing a measure of privacy. And it was part of a constellation of workstations, some of them allowing for sitting. With Action Office I a worker could roam about a loosely but definitely self-configured space, moving from standing to sitting, slouching to reclining — physical activity of this kind, Propst believed, being conducive to mental labor. “These are not desks and filing cabinets,” Nelson said at the time. “These are a way of life.” Propst and Nelson alike saw these as keys to a new worker autonomy: freed from managerial surveillance, the office worker would adjust his space to his work, and achieve new measures of control.
What is the way of life implied by our contemporary standing revolution?Tweet
What is the way of life implied by our contemporary standing revolution? To justify the standing desk, the sheer quantity of statistics that constitute the contemporary discourse of health should be enough. But some surplus explanation appears to be important, a cultural or creative reason to valorize standing over sitting. For this reason people regularly invoke the examples of Hemingway, Churchill, Nabokov: figures who famously tended to stand while they wrote or read. None of them was an especially healthy individual; more to the point, none was an office worker.
But the conflation of the writer and clerk is symptomatic. The office worker is now said to be a freelance “entrepreneur,” who sells her creative output to the company that employs her and keeps her alive. We double back to see Nabokov as little more than a proto-office employee in a post-bureaucratic space. In the future, Volodya would be roaming his nonterritorial office with laptop in hand, stopping off at Steve’s Stations across an open landscape peppered with plants and treadmills, freed from his chair as from lifetime employment.
Office workers, on your feet! says the standing desk. At any minute you might be asked to leave.
The Propst revolution in office design continued with Action Office II — a fabric-wrapped set of three hinged walls, designed to apportion space as needed. It became a nightmare when companies realized the flexible walls could be turned into sets of boxes, and workers taken from their private offices and thrown into them, resulting in what we now call the “cubicle.”
There were many bad things about the cubicle, but among the worst was that for two decades, at least, one had to stay in it, chained as if to an invisible spot on a lean production line. This was partly because of something no one had quite foreseen: the rise of the personal computer. For years, starting in the ’80s, the one thing every employee came to have on his or her desk was a computer. At first bulky, with a monitor the size of a television atop the hard drive, which sat horizontally like a VCR, it later became vertical and moved below the desk, where it sat at the employee’s feet like a dog. One by one the computer swallowed everything it could: account books, correspondence, files, even human conversations. It became a tonic to have a meeting — you could leave your windowless desk and go into a windowless room for a spell. But those were anxious hours; you fidgeted because you knew that eventually you would have to return to your desk, where the monitor’s glow with its pileup of work and letters was masked by an endless animation, a “screen saver,” which often tried to dupe you into thinking you were hurtling through space.
Apple dispensed with the separation between monitor and hard drive, and then, with later models of the iMac, managed to make this whole contraption relatively flat. But what it lost in depth it made up for in area, with iMacs growing to twenty-seven inches — the size of what would once have been a very large TV (but by then TVs had also become flat, and much bigger: a sixty-inch Vizio is currently selling at Walmart for $798). And so a visitor to an updated design-centric office might look out on a clean, open space punctuated by huge iMacs, behind which hide employees whose physical growth, despite improvements in nutrition (and the Greek yogurt boom), has not kept up with that of their computers.
The laptop has not entirely eradicated this scene, as it once promised to do. Though it took a while for people to dream up the portable computer, in the 1970s it became clear to a few that it would eventually become possible to “telecommute.” Alvin Toffler, in The Third Wave (1980), deduced the consequences with manic logic: he imagined a humanity totally decentralized into the vast reaches of their countries, connected by “electronic cottages,” while the crusts of downtowns lingered, bombed-out and empty. The laptop — with the MacBook Air ($999), slimmed to a water bottle–like lightness — combined with wireless internet, has diffused the workplace across the city. The surprising thing is that it has also drawn people to cities. It turns out cities are basically magnets for nomadic office workers, occasionally huddled behind an iMac, but just as often behind their laptops in some “third place”: restaurant, café, saloon. Nowhere is free, or safe, from work.
As with the cubicle, the laptop has proved on occasion to be a cost-saving measure to bosses. Workers no longer need so much space, the bosses reason: they can either be crammed together at a communal work table and deprived of their desks altogether, or given one on an ad hoc basis, in what is sometimes called a “nonterritorial” office — sparing the bosses an enormous expense. And yet the building of new office space continues apace. Though workspace can be apportioned more efficiently, speculation demands that real estate developers, contractors, and furniture suppliers continue to build it as if it couldn’t be. In one place, the office disappears; elsewhere, it grows. The system creates differences within itself, but stays intact: for everything to stay the same, everything must change.
One image stands out: the half-done Torre David, towering over the huge basin of Caracas. A postmodernist skyscraper that broke ground in the 1990s, the Torre David fell victim to its owner’s economic failure in 1994 and remained unfinished and unused. During a terrific rainstorm, the outcasts of Venezuela found refuge in the building. Not seeing anyone in it, they stayed. An informal mutual-aid community developed, with offices turned into living quarters. Basketball games took place in the corporate lobby. It is a vision of the future: a new ideal of work-life balance.
The late master of the form-hugging black turtleneck, Steve Jobs, was obsessed with bathrooms. He grilled architects over the precise shade of gray to use for bathroom signs in his Apple Stores. And in planning the offices for Pixar (designed by the San Francisco–based firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson), Jobs originally proposed that, for the entire 218,000-square-foot warehouse, they build only two bathrooms.
Jobs’s idée fixe was the “unplanned collaboration”: the notion that ideas come out of spontaneous encounters rather than individual silent work or scheduled meetings. This concept, now a shibboleth of contemporary office design, motivated Jobs’s ideas for Pixar. He thought: Put an atrium in the center of the building, locate essential features there, and you’ll have people passing each other constantly — leading over time to animated films that both adults and children can enjoy. To top it off, he argued, put all the bathrooms there: nothing more fundamental than the human need to excrete. Rushing to the bathroom from the ends of the enormous space, people would run into people they otherwise wouldn’t — and be inspired to collaborate. An animator could take the toilet next to someone from marketing, and together they might have an unplanned collaborative inter-stall epiphany: “Ten minutes into Up, let’s murder the grandmother and make all the kiddies cry.”
The late master of the form-hugging black turtleneck, Steve Jobs, was obsessed with bathrooms.Tweet
But Jobs was forced to compromise. It was obvious to everyone but him that people on their way to the bathroom would have more pressing things to do than innovate disruptive technologies. As built, the Pixar office contains eight bathrooms, four on each floor.
Yet the notion of the office building as a corridor, as a vector for nerve-laden, stimuli-responsive bundles of creativity, has survived Jobs’s humiliation at the hands of his architects. How? Jobs found more deferential architects. Apple Campus 2, designs for which appeared just before his death, is the corridor and the unplanned collaboration brought to their apotheosis. The designer who genuflected before the dying Jobs was Norman Foster.
Norman Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, is certainly the architect who best embodies the age. Foster’s early work in the ’70s and ’80s marked a valuable transition from postmodernism to the neomodernism he would come to embody. He pushed the limits of available technology to create unusual forms, like half-egg domes and pickle-shaped skyscrapers. But eventually he made it big — Foster + Partners is a global firm of at least a thousand people, across fifteen offices — and settled into rich complacency, blithely taking commissions from anyone: Central Asian dictators or New York Public Library trustees, they are all the same to Foster, and perhaps he is right.
The consistency of his architectural mien is admirable. To each commission, he offers the dogged answer: I’ll use glass. Glass for the Reichstag; glass for the Hearst Tower; glass for Commerzbank; glass for 30 St Mary Axe (the “Gherkin”); glass for the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Kazakhstan. He developed a signature curtain wall style, the diamond grid, or “diagrid,” successor to the modular square panel of the midcentury slab, framing the modern white-collar worker in a sharp, dangerous mandorla of refracted light. You might think all that glass would result in a lot of undue heating and cooling costs. But Foster is as obsessed with being “green” as Jobs was with bathrooms. Every building he throws up gets LEED certification, which says all you need to know about LEED certification.
The design for the central building for Apple Campus 2 is an annulus that resembles a futuristic donut or toilet seat. A single roof, over 1,600 feet in diameter, covers four stories rimmed with a sinuous skin of glass — not one pane of which will be straight — that surrounds 14,000 workers. The perimeter of each floor is a continuous walkway, an infinite loop, eschewing Pixar’s central “collaborative” space in favor of one unending corridor. A 90,000-square-foot cafeteria space opens onto a meticulously landscaped park — the spot for each California oak has been plotted — to encourage engineers out of their endless work loop into a postprandial pastoral of contemplation. Foster, still green in his gray old age, has pushed the building’s reliance on nonrenewable energy to an absolute minimum (while the underground parking garage quietly makes room for nearly 2,000 cars).
Apple Campus 2 sets a new standard in self-reflexive, mute, hermetic design. The Apple donut exudes confidence, exulting in its singularity; it nestles in a fabricated landscape that, with every glass bend, it rejects. It reproduces a California that the proliferation of companies like Apple destroyed. The new Apple returns the landscape to California, and makes it accessible only to its employees. It is a self-regulating system, a loop, or medialike tube, employees streaming through it like bits of data, like messages that no one sends or receives. A giant machine that communicates only with itself.
In a matter of two years, the “campus” concept of Silicon Valley has gone from ideal workplace to design’s bête noire. Alexandra Lange’s The Dot-Com City (2012) inaugurated the discourse of disquiet over the Valley’s preferred mode of building. Though their campuses imitated the amenities and atmosphere of a city — with corridors referred to as “streets” and cafeterias resembling food trucks, and dry cleaning and oil changes offered on site — they ensured that their employees never came into contact with the actual city surrounding the campus. “The tech companies of Silicon Valley want spatial variety, ‘walkability,’ chance encounters, creativity,” she wrote, “but they need it (or think they need it) in a controlled, secure environment.” Why didn’t they open out to San Francisco, she wondered, a city that already provided the things they gave their employees?
This sensible-seeming argument overlapped fortuitously with the work of anti-gentrification activists, who today confront a rapidly changing San Francisco, and who, in desperation, have taken to blocking the luxury buses picking up and depositing Googlers from showy suburban campus to demure city home. Over time the distance between the activists and the design critics has begun to show. Though they gestured towards rising rents and evictions in places like San Francisco, the design critics didn’t ultimately seem to care whether cities were becoming more unequal. They mostly cared about whether cities were continuing to produce new cafés at a consistent rate. Designers like upticks in cafés the way economists like upticks in GDP — each meaningless in its own cozy way.
Now when cafés disappear, the design critics blame Google. In a Times column Allison Arieff lamented the failure of tech companies to learn from urban planners. Even when they moved their headquarters to cities, as Twitter has (thanks to an enormous tax break), they kept their employees locked up inside. And the costs began to mount. “The other week, for example,” Arieff wrote, “I had an appointment at Hills Plaza, a waterfront complex that quietly houses an ever expanding Google outpost. A year or so ago there was a Starbucks at street level . . .” Today? “Today, that Starbucks is gone.”
Cities can be enjoyable — I, too, like walking to get vegan donuts and strong coffee to dip them in — but they’ve started to feel a little overrated. Reactions to the new Valley campuses have taken on a rote quality, a reactionary urbanism that a priori upholds cities as beacons of enlightened activity. “In Silicon Valley, almost every town is a company town,” writes Paul Goldberger. But what city is more of a company town these days than San Francisco? An urbanism that considers banks, social media companies, and skyscraper developers signs of economic diversity isn’t worth much. And the design community, not openly clamoring for public housing, isn’t clear on what cities are good for. Lange points out their value as “serendipity machine[s],” which makes urban life sound like pinball.
Design critics think that if tech workers were freed from their offices, cities would benefit. This is a mistake; they forget what those people are like. And they come from companies with nonsense names. Venmo, Meebo, Digg, Reddit, ooVoo, CoCo, BitlBee: there is more baby-speak in my day-to-day language than I would ever have expected from adult life. Mountain View and Palo Alto may be boring and deserted at night, but San Francisco these days looks like a prettier 28 Days Later. It will have to be abandoned. Everywhere else, let the dot-commers stay inside, and let the Starbucks go.
Jim is a fortunate guy. In the new office of his pharmaceutical company, he’s always running into people. “Serendipitous encounters,” they’re called. But it wasn’t always like that. Jim remembers when things were worse.
“Hey Jim.” He saw Jeff on his way from the bathroom. Jeff worked on a different floor. Jim hadn’t seen Jeff in ages. “Funny running into you,” Jeff said, “I’ve got an idea.” They needed to talk things through — to innovate. But their office was old style: private offices on the perimeter, cubicles in the center. They could go into Jim’s cubicle, but he shared it, and everyone would overhear them. Jeff’s desk, meanwhile, was too far away. Standing, staring at each other helplessly, they lingered in sad indecision until Jeff lost the will and Jim realized that he had to get back to his desk, though he was not sure why. It was always like that, and over time it got to Jim. Sometimes on winter days he would wake up too depressed to go in, and he would sign onto the VPN from home. His laptop in bed was a cold, metallic avatar of the collaborator he would never have.
But then good news came. Jim’s company was going to move into an open-plan office. In the new office, the company emails said, breakroom spaces would be available for collaboration. No more cubicles; no more private offices. Long, lab-bench-like desks would push people together. No one would be allowed to work from home. “Being in the office leads to spontaneous, warm human conversations — and from there, to innovation — that you can’t have at home,” the HR director’s email said. Jim knew she was right. Why, just the other day . . .
The building had been designed by a famous architect with initials in between his name and surname, and would be in the Boat District. His city’s shipbuilding industry used to flourish there, but then Mr. Deindustrialization came to town and turned it into a semi-wasteland — beautiful brick warehouses with tall, arching windows, standing sentinel over weed fields, empty. At the same time, the downtown skyline began to house more glass-and-granite towers, looming over the city hall, whose peak had once been the informal height restriction. In the last few years things had begun to change. New tax credits helped bring a major clothing company to one of the warehouses. On Jim’s first trip down there, he saw pale employees in floral dresses clumsily tossing frisbees on a trim lawn, squinting in spring sunshine through their enormous, thick glasses. That they were so nearsighted seemed to be a point of special pride.
But his office wasn’t in one of those buildings. It was new, and it showed. A trinity of sea-green glass flares, crosshatched by slim black mullions, it swelled into peaks at the top and stabbed at the sky around it, as if it resented the atmosphere. From close up, you could see the people inside, standing at desks. From far off, it was a shimmering mirage at the edge of an unused river, its banks lined with reeds, with trash. After years of losing population, the city was changing, for the better, and here was the example.
On his first day, he swiped his badge at the entrance and held his breath as he entered the new lobby. All around him was light, pouring through the curtain wall, scattering diagonal squares of orange across the floor. A nut-brown spiral staircase swept upward in front of him, framing a smattering of bright green and orange tables and chairs. At last: a space to collaborate, a space to breathe!
He stored his bag in an assigned locker — it felt just like high school — and, after chatting with colleagues about how bright and airy was the fresh new world, made his way to a desk. First he sat in one of the open spaces: a low, womb-shaped green padded chair that made him feel like he was sinking deep into another place or state. Screens shielded him only partly from the view of others, and from their conversation not at all. Jeff came over to say hi; so did Julia, and John too. He went to the cafeteria to get a quinoa salad, and came back to a standing desk; he spent the afternoon pushing buttons to lower and raise the desk, chatting all the while with Geordie, who in turn brought Jim over to enjoy his treadmill desk. He went back to his locker, took out his bag and the stale-smelling sandwich he had forgotten. So he passed his first day at work. He didn’t send a single email. He had never felt so productive.
He felt so lucky to have so many casual interactions that days passed without him realizing that his project was butting up against the deadline. Conversations reached him across the wide expanse of the floor, jarring him out of his work; soon he grew accustomed to putting on headphones, even when he wasn’t listening to anything. But that meant people approached and spoke loudly at him, jolting the others crammed next to him into listening too. There were a few private offices, designated for “concentrated work,” but either they were for the higher-ups, who spent most of their days traveling, or he would arrive to find them already claimed by early risers, who occupied them as long as they could.
“JIM WHERE R WE @ W/THE ASPERA TRIALS REPORT PLS ADVISE!! TX :)” came the first of a stream of emails from his boss. In fact, he saw her typing them in her private office; she would click “send,” and turn to briefly catch his eye as his computer emitted a demure bell. He moved a large fern in front of his favorite standing desk, and lowered the desk so that he was shielded from her sight. The next day, someone had removed the plant; he later found it used as part of a wall in an informal cubicle on the fourth floor. He thought about following the plant to the fourth floor, where he knew no one and could get work done. But his “team” worked on the third floor; moving would be tantamount to quitting.
What’s more, a silent scent war had begun. Geordie had taken to microwaving tuna in the kitchen, inundating the whole floor with a wave of fishiness. Julia responded by lighting a Mrs. Meyer’s lemon-scented candle, which was strictly illegal, and which combined with the tuna to create an unbearable eau de fish laced with creamy acid, wafting unimpeded throughout the floor. Jeff surreptitiously extinguished the candle and lit his own soy candle, which harmonized better with the tuna but was still illegal. It made the Aspera Trials report harder to finish than Jeff had ever expected — this strong, bracing, pungent smell of workers fully committed, as never before, to one another.
Design always trades on the reigning idea of what an office worker ought to be. The left called office workers “white collar slaves” in the 1930s and “cheerful robots” in the ’50s because they failed to join or create workers’ movements; progressive management theorists saw them as “knowledge workers” in the ’60s, “symbolic analysts” in the ’90s, and members of a new “creative class” in the ’00s, suggesting that they would become a new political faction of their own. All these labels have some truth to them. Office work exhibits characteristics of each: creative thinking alternating with assembly-line drudgery, a clean professional atmosphere with a toxic cloud of subtle chauvinism. Class cuts right through the office; and office workers often occupy contradictory locations on the ladder.
Today the reigning notion of class in the office derives from the concept of the “network,” coming not from sociologists (Latour et al.), but from the wielders of Big Data. In the recent Social Physics, the MIT Media Lab’s arch-guru Alex “Sandy” Pentland argues that tracking idea flows among workers shows us how “class” as Marx or Weber used the term is outdated, and ought to be replaced by the notion of the “peer group.” Pentland sees distinctions between “hard” and “soft” science, between quantitative and qualitative work, as obsolete. How does he know? He once outfitted eighty call center employees from Bank of America with tracking devices, keeping a score of their motion, conversations, and email for a month and a half. What he discovered was that the workers failed to interact because their coffee breaks were timed and monitored. Bank of America changed its system and permitted its employees to take breaks at less scheduled hours. Their productivity increased.
Pentland believes findings like these obviate class. People act according not to their class background, but to what group they happen to identify with at any given moment. “Members [of peer groups] develop an entire culture, a lifestyle that then leaks into the other peer groups that they are part of,” he writes. “When the bankers get home, they are mothers or church leaders, and some of the banker culture rubs off on those groups, and vice versa. . . . As a result, reasoning about society in terms of classes . . . is imprecise and can lead to mistaken overgeneralizations.” Yes, this is sometimes true. But Pentland, tell me this: What is the network or peer-group explanation that shows how one group of workers can determine when a much larger one can get up to have coffee? They also serve who only stand and collaborate.