"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Life in a Cubicle–The Essence of American Capitalism

A familiar Washington organization recently went through two spatial reorganizations. The first was to merge the offices of three separate buildings – a reasonable idea because to get from the Africa Division to Accounting you had to cross a busy DC street.  The second was to move from individual offices to an ‘Open Work Environment’.  Individual, private, and enclosed work spaces were to be replaced by cubicles.  Literally working under one roof, employees – the argument went – would be more encouraged to share ideas, to collaborate, and to bond together in corporate camaraderie.

The Senior Vice-President broke the news of the reorganization one day over pizza. “The Open Work Environment”, the SVP began, “is an opportunity.  For far too long we have labored on our own plot of land – our little kitchen gardens tended with our own water and care.  We loved our tender leaves of lettuce, our carrots, and our modest patch of spinach; but we admired our neighbor’s tall tomato plants, winding green beans, and flowering squash so much more.  Now with one large communal garden we can all share in the planting, the care and the harvest; and the bounty will be far more and far better than any one of us could produce individually”.

One senior staff member wasn’t fooled by the SVP’s folksy homily.  He had labored for five years in the Ronald Reagan Building downtown – a nightmarish, Kafka-esque warren of cubicles that stretched for city blocks, floor upon floor, from east to west, avenue to avenue. Acres of beehives and post office box offices.



One of the reasons he had joined our relatively small firm was to escape the assembly line, depressing environment of RR. “It was hell”, he said.

Any survivor of the Reagan Building had the same stories to tell – tales of confinement, constant noise, interruption, bad lighting, and dry, stale air.  The layout was scary. Whole floors of identically small cubes. The only difference between the modern office cubicle and the sweat shops of the Lower East Side was the machine – a computer rather than a sewing machine.



The ‘open environment’ rather than encouraging cooperation and collaborative work actually discouraged it because after a few weeks of listening to the irritating, scraping conversations of colleagues; the barking laugh of middle-level supervisors; or the football talk and loose corridor jokes of rapping paper-shredders, everyone was on edge, frustrated, and hostile. 

“It’s just a way for management to save money”, the Ronald Reagan survivor snapped.
He was right, of course.  Individual lighting, air conditioning, doors, and bookshelves would be replaced by track lighting, divisional libraries, and communal air ducts.



Rebecca J. Rosen writing in The Atlantic (4.15.14) adds another painful slight to the office workers crammed into tiny cubicles, rasping in the dry air, and confused by the constant din and shuffle – status and class:
The open-plan office, invented in Germany in the 1950s (and called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”), attempted to level hierarchies by making everyone work out on the open floor. But even in the earliest versions of the open-plan, small markers of status began to assert themselves: Managers would apportion more plants to themselves, or set up informal private spaces through creative use of more desks and partitions. So design at work often seems to say something about relations of power at work.
Later, an increased division of labor and enormously expanded hierarchy led to the offices that we more or less recognize today: large floors, filled with desks, where lower level employees work; offices along the side of the building for middle management (each of these with slight gradations to indicate status or privilege: a nicer desk; carpet on the floor, etc.); and corner offices for executives, or even different floors with different bathrooms. In places like these, space almost directly reflects hierarchy.
The Washington office was no different.  The boardroom and executive offices were on the top floor.  They were cool, spacious, with panoramic views of the city.  There was room for tropical plants, African masks, and photo galleries.  Persian carpets were on the floor, Scandinavian modern blinds shaded the bright sun, and impressive solid mahogany and oak furniture was placed to accentuate the air of authority and good taste.

The difference between executive and worker space was as great as the salaries and benefits.  The minions worked for a pittance, spent long hours in the office and at unpaid overtime on the weekends.  It was only because of a long-ingrained and particularly American sense of possibility (“One day I will have a sunny corner office”) that the laborers did not revolt.

The era of the modern cubicle coincided with the IPod, and so cubicle workers simply plugged in and tuned out everything and everybody in the office.  If these young assistants were isolated before reorganization, they were ten times more removed from communal sharing than ever before.  Almost in spite, they cluttered their cubes with stuffed animals, raver nipples, Jim Morrison posters, and Indian tie-dye.  The floors were stacked with files and books. The desks jammed with coffee cups, pencil-holders, and faux paperweights; and the flimsy composition cube dividers pinned with baby pictures, beach pix, and Mom.  The effect was of a hundred cluttered playrooms.

Management was having none of it, and issued circulars saying, “Forthwith, cubicles shall remain clean and uncluttered; and employees shall not be distracted from their work by extraneous diversions”. 

Workers’ advocacy groups were quickly organized and petitioned management for clemency if not understanding.  We are not living in the 19th century, they said, and must be given the proper amenities. Needless to say, since the demand for employment at the company far exceeded supply, management was politely listening but paying no attention.

A visit to government offices in Slovakia not many years after the fall of the Soviet Union when old Socialist worker-favorable regulations were still in force was enlightening.  Employees had the right to sunlight, air, and space – all thought to be necessary for morale, productivity, and communalism.
The modern American office was more of a Soviet gulag – a white collar salt mine with minions hacking away at their paperwork with pick and shovel, close enough to smell the sweat and breath of the worker working the seam next to them.

Walt Whitman was only slightly less generous:
“A slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest,” Walt Whitman called clerks, and he derided their tendency to dress fancily as a kind of compensation: “What wretched, spindling, ‘forked radishes’ would they be, and how ridiculously would their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stript naked!”
The tendency to assume that the office worker, so demeaned by his dull, repetitive tasks and stifling, chicken coop environment, leads an equally uninspired live outside the office. No, says Rosen:
I sometimes wonder if the abstracted nature of our understanding of “office work” leads us to overestimate the banality of other people’s lives—we see a drab, monotonous, corporate environment and just project it onto the individuals who work in those spaces—and perhaps underestimate the meaning they may find in their work or in their lives out of work, through family, friends, religion, whatever.
Rosen asks, “Is there a way, in a sense, that the office environment obscures the individual?” Of course not.  Sad to say, most people who work on assembly lines or in office cubicles are there for a reason – their skills are appropriate for the regimented and repetitive work required. The ambitious and talented are working elsewhere – painting in NOMA and SOHO lofts, creating computer hardware in garages, software apps in empty downtown lingerie stores, and predictive data engines in borrowed basements. They are counting wildebeest on the veldt, in medical school, or interning in MSF camps in South Sudan.

While cube work may be a way station on the road to bigger and better things; or a place to mark time until a student loan comes through; it is usually nothing more than the modern version of the Roman trireme.



In fact, while the thought of working in a cube anywhere is indeed a very depressing one, for low-level repetitive jobs are always soulless affairs.  But then again American business is a soulless affair which rewards the enterprising, penalizes the indolent, and uses restive but hardworking middle-level office workers to man the oars of the capitalist trireme.

Drones working in cubed offices of the public sector are often singled out for either pity or ridicule. At least a young MPH in a private firm can see her cube days end in a windowed office; but the GS-10 in the Ronald Reagan Building is there for life, signed up for the long haul, waiting for eligibility, security, and a pension.  Either cubed by necessity (a patronage job in municipal government); because of misinformation (government works); or bad luck (a pre-existing medical condition or disability), the public office worker is at the bottom of the heap.

Rosen writes:
The sad news is, given the ubiquity [of cubicles], how unhappy they seem to be making us: One 1997 survey found that 93 percent of cubicle workers would prefer an alternative, and a 2013 study found that they had "the highest rates of unhappiness with their work setup."
Of course cube workers are unhappy with their workplace environment.  Who wouldn’t prefer an alternative?  Yet it is no coincidence that workplaces in essence haven’t changed since the days of the sweat shop.  Industrial chicken factory workspace is a logically efficient configuration of labor force whose union clout has disappeared, whose supply exceeds demand, and whose skills are easily replaceable.



Offices and factories have always been divided by class – executives on the top floor, managers in corner office, and minions at the assembly line or in cubes.  The work environment for labor has improved over the years – fewer noxious fumes, better lighting and ventilation - but the basic, fundamental space configuration has not.

The cube is then the best expression of the nature of American capitalism, the divisions between management and labor, labor and capital, and wealth and a working wage.  The entrepreneurs, risk-takers, and the talented who have never set foot in a cube are relatively few and far between, but they are the country’s most valuable resource.  They punch over their weight, pull more than a full load, give more than they get.  It is that vast army of cubed workers, however, who keep the engines of corporate and public enterprise running.  They may now be coding data, running spreadsheets, and processing electronic requests instead of installing door hinges on Model T’s; but the nature of their work is the same.

So no one should feel sorry for those working in the Ronald Reagan Building because they are a good fit.  They keep the wheels of government running, if only creaking and rattling along; and the taxpayer dollars spent on their upkeep are just about in keeping with their performance. Moving to a bright, sunny, windowed office just isn’t in the cards.

No comments:

Post a Comment