Exploring The Secret History Of The Cubicle

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The new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, is a look at how the white-collar world came to be the way it is, and what it might become. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with author Nikil Saval.


Now to a topic you may be intimately familiar with, the office - the paperwork, the cubicles, the potentially awkward social dynamic. It is an almost universal experience that's been baked into our pop-culture, like in the movie "Office Space."


GARY COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Hello, Peter. What's happening? Uh, we have sort of a problem here. Yeah, you apparently didn't put one of the new cover sheets on your TPS reports.

RON LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) Oh, yeah. I'm sorry about that. I forgot.

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Uh, yeah. You see, we're putting the cover sheets on all TPS reports now before they go out. Did you see the memo about this?

MARTIN: Nikil Saval has written a book that takes a closer look at the office throughout history. It is called "Cubed" and he said the idea for the book came from personal experience.

NIKIL SAVAL: Really, what made me think about the cubicle was that the more I switched jobs, the more my cubicle started to shrink.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SAVAL: I mean, my first job was in a large corporate publishing house. It was very nine to five. It was very hierarchical. It was very straightforward. Then I moved to a smaller place. My back was to my boss' door, which was very scary.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SAVAL: And eventually I was temping in a private equity firm and my cubicle was - I felt like it was two by two feet. I mean, it just - it had really closed in on me. And then finally I was actually a freelancer. And that meant the cubicle had been squeezed out of existence. And that was really what got me thinking about this to begin with - the relationship between our spaces and the way we work.

MARTIN: You chronicle a long history of the workplace. Can you walk us back to the first recorded experience of what we have come to understand as the office?

SAVAL: Well, people have worked office-like jobs for centuries. Paperwork has existed since there's been paper. But I really start with the mid-19th century in America and that's these very small merchants clerk's offices. They were dark. There was a pot-bellied stove. And it was this sort of smoky, very tight, almost suffocatingly intimate sphere. And that's when, I think, the office as a sort of separate concept - I mean, even the term office comes into being around this time.

MARTIN: Was this considered to be prestigious, I mean, as opposed to going out and doing some kind of hard labor? Did these clerks stand apart in society?

SAVAL: They did stand apart but it was - the prestige at that point was somewhat equivocal. Commentators at the time just thought it was not real work. And so you have newspapers everywhere just decrying the rise of clerks as just kind of thin, stoop-shouldered, narrow-chested...


SAVAL: ...Pale, sallow, you know. Yeah, exactly. They're just this group of people who - they're not doing real work. They don't even produce anything. They just produce more paper.

MARTIN: At a certain point in the history of the office space, we start building our lives around these places called offices. And you talk about in the book how big corporations, IBM for example, start marketing themselves as a kind of a family, which is a really interesting part of the evolution.

SAVAL: Yeah. So this really starts to happen in the 1950s and '60s. And what these companies do is they realize that they want their workers to be really dedicated to their workplace. And because offices are so social, they test and they interview in order to ensure that everyone gets along. And then they also start to interview the wives of these managers because there are so many corporate events that surround the office where managers bring their wives.

And they have to make sure that their wives fit the corporation. And so in a way the office really has this outside influence that goes way beyond the actual walls of the office.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the space itself. For most of the modern era when we talk about the office, most of us conjure up images of the cubicle, for better or worse. Can you talk a little bit about when these spaces work well?

SAVAL: Well, you know, there've been sort of waves of attempts to make workplaces better. I think there's a lot of utopian thinking about offices, partly because they seem to embody a certain kind of meritocracy. If you look at the basic outline of an office space where you have cubicles in the center and offices in the corner, it's - the presumption is that you will one day rise from the cubicle to the corner office. And so the space has been organized to make that feel good.

The office cubicle was started in the 1960s by this designer for Herman Miller, called Robert Propst. And he thought, well we need - we need space that will provide privacy. It'll provide autonomy for workers. And so he created this concept called the Action Office, which was these three walls. It was flexible. It could be organized. It could be changed.

And the reason that didn't work out is, you know, people at some point decided well these make really nice boxes. We really can cram people together. And so that's really what started to happen in the 1970s as this design was mimicked and copied and its original intent was lost.

MARTIN: So where are we today? I mean, you write about how more often we see people telecommuting, so not as many people going to a workplace. But it is still, as you describe, a universal kind of experience. People still go to a building and do work. Are we happier in that space today?

SAVAL: Well, you know, one question that comes up is whether these offices need to exist when you can do a lot of work from home or elsewhere. And the kind of test of this is the fact that there are all these spaces that have sprung up called co-working spaces, where you actually pay to go to an office if you're a freelancer or if you have a small company. And that seems to prove something. I mean, it seems to at least prove that people need something like an office setting.

And it means that the office is sort of bleeding out into the rest of the world. It's bleeding out into cities. You see cafes being turned into offices, obviously, homes. Every place in a way can become an office.

MARTIN: The book is called "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace." The author is Nikil Saval. He joined us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Nikil, thanks so much for talking with us.

SAVAL: Thank you.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was written by B.J. Leiderman. I'm Rachel Martin.

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