"A cubicle is a sign": Why your office nightmare could soon disappear

Author Nikil Saval tells Salon about manhood office politics and explains why "Office Space's" ending was a letdown

Josh Eidelson
May 1, 2014 4:30PM (UTC)

“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in cubicles,” writes Nikil Saval -- tweaking Rousseau – in his new book, “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.” “The culture of the office has become the dominant workplace culture of the country,” argues Saval; “the United States is a nation of clerks.”

Salon spoke with Saval about “Office Space’s" copout ending, America’s anxieties about office work and masculinity, and how the office as we know it could disappear. A condensed version of our conversation follows.


So what’s wrong with the office?

Well, it’s not all wrong …

The office seems to have been this place where lots of different plans and utopian proposals -- whether it’s the design, or management theories -- have been tried out on the backs of office workers … A lot of them have gone wrong, or they’ve gone in the wrong direction … We sort of live with the debris of …many different attempts to make the office better, to make work better. And I tried to figure out why these things didn’t work …

The big ideal of the office is that it is a perfect meritocracy: That because it is a center of business administration … unlike the industrial workplace, you start at the bottom of an office hierarchy and somehow rise [from] the cubicle to the corner office setup. But, in fact, it does not work that way. Anyone who’s worked in an office I think knows [it’s] mitigated by petty office politics, and things like that. But also just [that] there’s this experience of domination in the workplace -- these arbitrary forms of authority …

I talk a lot about the ways design reflects this … Ideally you feel yourself to be in possession of your own fate and office as an individual. [But] a lot of office workers experience a kind of unhappiness or exploitation.

Noting the positive press Intel CEO Andy Grove got for putting himself in a cubicle, you write that, “The cubicle may have come to represent the exploitation and unhappiness of white-collar workers, but the idea that those modular walls, those tackboards, actually determined anything was patently false.” What can we learn from more recent hip Silicon Valley attempts to reimagine office space without really reimagining office power?


One of the reasons that Silicon Valley offices, at least on the surface -- and not totally on the surface -- are more humane than the most standard cubicle, white-collar workplace is that Silicon Valley labor markets are often tighter … Unless the companies are colluding to keep people from moving and claiming higher salaries -- which, of course, we know has happened -- unless that’s taking place, [some workers are] able to move, and so there’s an attempt to keep people there. Whereas in many workplaces a cubicle is a sign … you’re waiting out your days until you’re laid off …

A lot of these [Silicon Valley tech] workplaces, their attempt is really … to make work smoother, to make it more pleasant, to make it more sort of enjoyable to be in an office setting … without making it easier for you to be in control of your fate in that setting …

When we learned … Silicon Valley [companies] with sort of enlightened office spaces, so-called enlightened office spaces, colluded to keep their employees from moving … you see that [while] these companies are really attempting to keep people in these workplaces … the actual structure and power in those places hasn’t substantially changed ….

It would be a mistake to think that, you know, those companies with high benefits, with high wages, et cetera, are not substantially better than a lot of other, more callous workplaces. It’s just ultimately, when it comes to power, they still hold the reins …


When you see a TV commercial with an anti-cubicle, anti-corporate message, sometimes it’s paired with a message about masculinity, a sense that manhood is being hemmed in or men are being feminized by the office. Has the way we gender office space or office work or office power changed over time?

The presence of women in the workplace -- certainly over the last hundred years, that’s certainly changed …  But there is a weird cyclical nature to … these upsurges of fear over the feminization of the workplace …

Even the early clerical offices that I examine in the first part of the book … There aren’t actually women in these workplaces. [But] there is this fear that office work is feminizing, or at least emasculating. And you have people lambasting office workers for their narrow chests, and pale, you know, sallow faces … their weak bodies … There’s a kind of coded imputation of a eunuch-like quality to the office worker ….


As women begin to enter the office en masse, you then have this upsurge of fear, especially in the years following the Depression … The [1933] film “Baby Face” … suggests that gold-digging women in the office are sort of the cause of the Depression, of financial failure … On the left, you have labor unions who accuse office workers of, unlike blue-collar workers, “They’re unmanly, they’re weak, they fail to organize.”

… There was a concerted effort by women, certainly in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to organize on both class and gender lines that I think really challenged certain masculine prerogatives in the workplace. The show “Mad Men,” which I don’t actually admire very much, at least shows this: that there’s something kind of bizarre about masculinity of the mid-century office, that at the same time people who watch the show sort of admire and long for …

You write that “part of the brilliance” of the movie "Office Space" was “its insistence that the jobs weren’t bad simply because the office workers were oppressed: they were intrinsically bad jobs, in a bad environment.” But you’ve also written that when you started working out of coffee shops, “I began also to wonder whether this wasn’t exactly the feeling the office is now designed to produce — whether my reflexive disgust at the sight of a cubicle, those hoary walls, those fake-wood surfaces, didn’t fit all too neatly into corporate plans.” So did "Office Space" hit the right mark then? Was something intrinsic to the jobs or the space, rather than the power dynamic between those workers and their bosses, a good target?


I think the way “Office Space” was received, to some degree -- and also … less obviously maybe radical things like "Dilbert" … was this sort of comic satire of cubicle life … The endless memos, the endless absurdity of Hawaiian shirt day … It did hit all those targets, and that’s what made it stick at all …

[But when Peter Gibbons says], “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all the day” … I think the point of the film was not that human beings were meant to sit in a cafe, or meant to sit in an open plan or whatever, that that would be better. But [that] there’s an arbitrariness … an insistence that people be there, and be stuck there. There is a reflection on the power of some other individual to dictate the way you live your life, and the way you work. The fact that the boss makes him come in on Saturday and also on Sunday …

What it reflected … we’re seeing through [office] design in a kind of coded way, but design was not the issue. I think some people have maybe received the film that way, but I don’t think that’s what it’s getting at.

I mean, it does have a kind of weird ending …  A disgruntled employee setting the building on fire, and then Peter Gibbons ending up as a kind of construction worker who is actually clearing out the spaces so … Manual labor turns out to be more satisfying somehow … The ending is actually less radical than the film is … [It] romanticized that kind of work …


[But the film] has this whole subplot about Jennifer Aniston’s character, who is working in a sort of Chili’s-like restaurant named Chotchke’s -- and her job has the same constraints as the office workplace: It’s still based on personality, on politics, displaying your commitment to your job, your creativity and all of that stuff …

The target is definitely not the cubicle. The target really is the kind of callousness of work in the late ‘90s workplace.

Some of the jobs we now see on the rise – domestic workers in the homes of elderly clients, or crowd-workers doing digital piece work from their bedrooms – take place in places that superficially look very different from what we imagine as “the office.” Does understanding the office help us understand them also?

One thing that you find throughout the history of the office is the intense psychological demands of white-collar work … affective labor, or the sort of immaterial aspects of labor that require just emotional work ... You see it in C. Wright Mills, in his book “White Collar” … Care work … [has] a high demand on a certain kind of psychological affective labor. So in that sense, yes, I think the office place can show and does resemble at least that kind of work …


[As for crowd-workers] a lot of labor going on in offices … is not by so-called organization men who are in the job for life … or even for a long period of time … They’re often on contract, or they’re temporary, and in a way they’re kind of performing the same on-demand sort of work, and their situation is equally as precarious. And sometimes … they’re freelancing … They’re in a physical workplace, but ... they’re not of it. And I know this from my own experience being a temp …

Rather than trying individually to escape to the corner office, or to working from home, you’ve urged [in the essay that led to the book] office workers to “make claims on the real mechanisms of power — that same autonomy that was promised, and perverted, by the cubicle.” What would that look like, and how would that translate into a change in the physical workspaces that people were working in?

One of the reasons I didn’t include that language in the final book was that I felt like it was a little demagogic, to the extent that I didn’t have a good answer … As someone who wasn’t actually working doing that kind of organizing, you know, I didn’t have a vision -- I just thought that I had sort of a critique …

Lots of different versions of it … seem to be taking place. On the one hand, you have the Freelancers Union, which seems to be more of an advocacy group that is trying to seek … a kind of safety net for workers -- so that it wouldn’t actually change the precariousness of the work, but it would make it easier to land somewhere if you’re not working … By fighting for healthcare, and changing the tax code to benefit self-employed people. So there is that version of it.


On the other hand … I think you might see portions of the Occupy movement, you know, representing the class white-collar workers, or students who otherwise would be in white-collar jobs, or are about to be in them -- jobs that won’t pay well enough, or are exploitative in various ways …

[As for] how that would change the workplace … The sacred desire for flexibility that managers seek in a workplace, [it] usually [has] to do with flexible labor markets -- being able to lay off people and hire them, et cetera … [But] you find workers themselves who actually choose a freelance existence – which is not probably most of them, but there are people … who try to do it. And it seems like what they are seeking is a kind of autonomous way to make your own workday. And so that might mean … the actual office -- as a place where you’re forced to go, you know, rather than as some mode of work that is spread out over many different types of settings -- that would disappear.

Josh Eidelson

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