In 2009’s Wanted James McAvoy plays a frustrated office worker, whose cubicle seems to be the sole source of his anxiety. The whole film kicks off when he builds up the courage to storm out of the place and allow Angelina Jolie to teach him how to unlock his potential as a natural born assassin.
In the slightly less ‘Hollywood’ 500 Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon Levitt is a brilliant architect trapped by the safety and security of his ‘office job’. Again and again the office has been cast as a symbol of unfulfilled potential, stagnation and monotony. What we see in popular culture is a space that is so out of touch with contemporary values that it is portrayed as the very obstacle to productivity, health and happiness.
Even today, in the popular imagination, the word ‘office’ conjures the image of heavy wooden desks, big dusty monitors, overflowing desk tidies and a solitary wilting plant.
Meanwhile, digital nomads are jumping from one exotic co-working space to another across the globe, living out new experiments in how work can shape our lives. Are we so despairing about the state of work that we are fleeing the office altogether?
The digital nomad conjures words just not associated with the office today: dynamism, autonomy, innovation and independence. But there’s no reason the office can’t be these things.
The Oxford Dictionary says that the office is ‘a room, set of rooms, or building used as a place for commercial, professional, or bureaucratic work.’ Yet the office is basically just a space. If we can make that space dynamic, autonomous, innovative and independent, it can be a healthy and productive place for people to achieve their potential.
We just need to adapt.
If the office had never adapted, we’d still be where we were at the beginning of the 20th Century. Lined up behind desks in long rows like obedient students; our chairs facing forward but our eyes glancing up to the clock, waiting for 6pm to roll around.
Some historians call this the ‘militant’ structure: a rigid hierarchy to keep people in check. Yet this isn’t as criminal as it sounds. This was a time of greater paternalism and cultural conformity. A time when people ‘just got on’ and when work itself was a very different beast.
The history of the office space is a history of ideas about work. It shifts with the tides of opinion in society at large. So why, when society is transforming more dramatically and quickly than ever before, do we still think of the office as something static and fixed?
Sure enough, after World War 2, when Socialism took a hold, people began to think about how to adapt the office to these new values.
In the early 1950’s Eberhard & Wolfgang Schnelle’s ‘Bürolandschaft’ or ‘office landscape’ brought managers out from behind closed doors and created comfortable and pleasant spaces for the entire workforce.
Of course, this wasn’t applied to every office. It wasn’t until after 1968 that a more ‘viral’ phenomenon took hold. An office fundamental which needs no introduction: the cubicle.
The cubicle certainly has a bad rep. It’s where James McAvoy was sitting whilst going slowly crazy; it’s where Joseph Gordon Levitt sat wasting his talent. Today, it’s a set for modern disillusionment with work. Yet, in its day, the cubicle was a step forward from the ‘militant’ space.
If we were in the same place as we were in the 1970’s we would be sitting in a cubicle.
Bafflingly some of us still are.
So perhaps it’s time for a new paradigm shift in the way we think about our workplaces.
It’s difficult to believe, but the cubicle was a utopian dream of the 1960s counter-culture movement.
Emerging from World War 2 military research, cybernetics saw the world in terms of organic information flows. This encompassed everything from beehives to computer programming. By the 1970’s, these cybernetic ideas merged with ‘people power’ to give birth to organic, un-hierarchical architectures for structuring society.
One such architecture was the geodesic dome. Made up of equal components to create a delicate but incredibly strong structure. The epic Adam Curtis series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ tells how the geodesic dome became a kind of ‘hippy house’ for mini countercultural colonies on the outskirts of San Francisco and along the West Coast.
This was a very literal manifestation of re-structuring society.
Another such architecture was… that’s right: the cubicle.
Like the geodesic dome, it is an un-hierarchical structure made up of many equal parts. It’s lightweight, and easy and cheap to manufacture. Perhaps too easy and too cheap, because for a long time we didn’t look back.
It’s hard to imagine this origin story for the cubicle today, precisely because it was a failed experiment. The cubicle made the office equal but homogenous; devoid of personality and individuality. In cubicles, people felt more than ever like cogs in a machine. It’s this notion that is reflected in Macintosh’ first ever commercial, which, channelled Orwell’s 1984 to show how people felt about the conformity of the workplace.
Apple has made great waves by appealing to this side of our working psyche. Their 1997 slogan ‘Think different’ was widely popular because it was so in touch with the social climate.
Yet, the cubicle persisted through the 1990’s.
Remember Chandler from Friends? Yep, he had an ‘office job’, the kind that is so dull that no-one can remember what he does and which serves as a running joke throughout the ten year long TV series
Finally, in the 2000’s big tech companies like Google began to experiment with what an innovative work environment can look like. Their experiments seem so outlandish that they still receive a lot of attention from the press.
Yet the architecture firm Clive Wilkinson, who designed the infamous Googloplex in 2004, don’t seem outlandish at all. On their website They describe how they looked to the environments of Universities for their plans:
‘In a university environment, you typically have the option of self-directed work, a selection of work styles or work environments, independent study subject choices, either private or within a group... one which satisfies the needs of the individual as well as the collective, and results in the success of both.’
Clive Willkinson aimed for higher productivity through the health and happiness of their employees and built up from there.
Google continues to be one of the most cutting edge companies in the world today. And, as we know, ideas can spread pretty quickly these days. Airbnb, Uber, Slack, Twitter, all these game changing companies have gone the way of the Googleplex.
The question isn’t whether we need to change our working environments, but how?
We live in a time of vast transformation. Millennials have grown up in an entirely new world to the previous generation, and they are now a major part of the workforce.
It’s time to take stock.
We can’t all build a Googleplex, so what should the everyday office look like today?
Well, we’re all still trying to figure that out but what we see from google and from early adopters in all industries today is an engagement with the needs of their staff. With their physical and mental health and well-being.
Terms like an ‘activity based’ workplace, ‘co-working space’ or ‘flexible workspace’ are becoming the norm. They offer spaces that understand that people sometimes need quiet and sometimes need to be social, sometimes need to be resting and sometimes need to be active. Spaces that allow technology to be an embedded part of the working environment. We can achieve all of these things on a smaller scale.
What they have in common is an understanding of individuals as both physical and social beings - the recognition that keeping employees healthy and happy is the key to productivity and an empowered workforce.
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