Crisis in the cubicle

“What do you like to read?” Most readers have an answer ready when faced with this question at the proverbial cocktail party: mysteries, nature writing, biographies of renowned poker players. I would get bet good money that no reader has ever answered by saying that she likes to read about offices. Our modern workplaces, so goes the thinking, are just the sort of dreary, soul-deadening environments that we wish to escape when we read a book. Who would want to read about them?

The answer: you. You may know not it yet, but Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval is the book you’ve been wanting to read. Even if, like me, you’ve managed to avoid working in an office, you’ll find that Cubed has that hiding-in-plain-sight quality that makes for an engaging read. Indeed, part of the fun of the book is watching Saval take on a subject that others would deem too dull and surprise you with new facts and insights at every turn.

Historically, when writers and thinkers have chosen to pay attention to our workplaces, they’ve focused largely on the factory. Things have happened there, from strikes to union-busting to the whole paradigm shift of industrialization. Drama at offices tend to consist of coworkers stealing your yogurt from the break room fridge.

Part of Saval’s point, however, is that offices are coming to resemble factories more and more, with employees doing automaton-like work such as data entry. But where factory workers would band together on the picket line, office workers find it difficult to do anything more proactive than forwarding cat videos. What are the causes of this?

Saval identifies upward mobility, or at least the semblance of it, as one factor. Unlike factory workers who, in the long-gone good old days, worked at the same position for 30 years, office workers are always looking to get that promotion and the accompanying corner office. Linking shirt-sleeved arms in the spirit of brotherhood would be anathema to one’s climb up the corporate ladder.

Even more compelling are the chapters where Saval turns his attention to the ladder itself, as it were. Some of the highlights of the book look into the formation and evolution of what we now know to call the cubicle, a poignant story of failed ambition.

Robert Propst was one of those postwar figures with grand, utopian ideas for remaking the public sphere, like Buckminster Fuller or Jane Jacobs. Propst worked for Herman Miller, the Michigan-based office furniture company, where he laboured to design workspaces suited for the forward-thinking, boundlessly creative Organization Men (and Women, as time went on) of the 1960s and -70s. He called his work the Action Office, and industry insiders hailed it with the breathlessness of a Reuters reporter touring the beanbag palaces of Google or Pixar. Only the Action Office was not what most companies wanted, as it was expensive and, more to the point, gave employees too much freedom over how they organized their space and time. The Action Office got streamlined, its corners cut, and became the cubicle of today that we all know and dread. The most tragic part of Propst’s story is that it never quite rises to the level of tragedy, getting mired in its own sense of missed opportunity, like the rest of us stuck in middle management.

Saval closes the book with some speculation. What is the future of work? The past. Today we earn wages and salaries, working at companies for years or, what’s becoming increasingly rare, decades. In the future, Saval expects us to do similar work as today, but on an as-needed, contract basis, like the artisans of the eighteenth century whose livelihoods were at once more free and more precarious. It’s here that Cubed becomes not just entertaining but prescient. We are all going to be, for lack of a better term, freelancers.

It’s a speculation that Christians would do well to consider. Following the Reformation, the idea of a Protestant work ethic arose, the thought that it was right and good for Christians to do their work to the glory of God, regardless of any material benefits they might benefit. Lately this has been tainted by various proselytizers of the “prosperity Gospel,” who preach that God wants us to be financially successful during our time on this earth. Perhaps that made more sense before the recession, but now? It would be comical if it wasn’t so wrongheaded.

Christians, like everyone else in this world, are going to find out that our hard work might not get us everything that we want. And it’s then that we’ll have to ask ourselves where our faith truly lies.


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