"I had a hatred for my cubicle": Nikil Saval on "The Office," "Office Space" and the fascinating history of where we work

Our cubicles, ourselves: The "Cubed" author explains how our office life has snaked its way into everything we do

Published January 17, 2015 8:00PM (EST)

Stephen Root as Milton Waddams in "Office Space"
Stephen Root as Milton Waddams in "Office Space"

The office has become fertile ground for deadpan satire, but writer Nikil Saval saw something profound in our workspaces. Ensconced in his cubicle in his early days as an office drone, Saval looked around in wonder. Why are we doing this? Why do we work the way we do? Why are so many of these spaces set up the exact same way? How can they actually expect us to be productive within a cubicle farm?

The end product of his pondering is the book "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace," an irreverent exploration of the American office -- its bizarre rituals, its social quakes and its planners' unrealistic expectations. Saval peels back the cheap metal and particle board of our workspaces to reveal the history of American work and dreams. The book is newly available in paperback, so the time seemed right to catch up.

On the surface, the world of the office seems like an incredibly dull topic, and when you think about the typical office worker in literature, the man in the gray flannel suit, you can’t think of anybody more repressed and boring. But people just had so much fun with this book. On the surface, it’s just not a fun topic, so what made you think the book was going to work?

You know, my hope for the book was that it would speak to someone like me. I was interested in the topic when I was an office worker myself, during my first job in publishing. I just got interested in the nature of  my work, and why it was arranged the way it was, and why it looked the way it did, how it had changed. I was looking for such a book and it didn’t really turn up anything. My hope was that somebody would answer that very longing, so I was writing it for that person that I was; I assumed that if there were enough people like me, there would be a readership. The other thing I discovered through writing the book was that, in some way, you could see a good portion of the social history of the 20th century through the office. I thought I was telling a story of the middle classes in the United States, of the history of labor relations in some ways, certainly of a great portion of design, of urban history, of women’s history and the story of women’s labor history in some ways -- and I felt like everything was being pulled into this office vortex and there was something about the fact that we tended to regard it as such a tedious, boring place, and not without reason. But it felt like through our daily travails in offices, that it is a social space, one that was involved in some of the biggest transformations of our time.

The more I felt like things were being pulled into the story, the more I saw it as a way of telling -- not a kind of micro-history, but rather telling a very central story about American society.

When you first got interested in the topic, was it because the office space seemed so strange to you? Was not conducive to good work? Or was it just more general that that? Did you have a lot of criticisms about it?

(laughs) I did, in a way. I guess it was really when I moved from one job to another and I had a sense of comparing spaces. People tend to think of office spaces being largely the same across the board -- you know, cubicles and corner offices the politics and all that. Homogeneity is usually what’s emphasized -- even the show "The Office" speaks to that homogeneity.

I had a feeling of being dissatisfied in my space, and once you put that in design terms, I had a hatred for my office cubicle, and the fact that I was exposed all the time and didn’t have any privacy -- I had just enough privacy to hide the work I was doing, but not enough to feel like I really had my own space, and there was a way in which the office was not conducive to work and it was distracting. It was sociable in some good senses, but also mostly not a pleasant place to be. I also felt very acutely the kind of hierarchy and status privileges that accrued when getting a larger office than someone else, or having a closed-door office versus a cubicle, and all these things were very vague in my mind. I didn’t quite understand their connection but I knew I wasn’t comfortable with it. That was the kind of feeling that led me to even begin researching the book. I realized that in talking to other people, everyone had these sorts of feelings. If you are in an office, you spend a lot of time thinking about it and the arrangement of offices, about the work that goes in and the politics. Then you spend a lot of time talking after work about it and it follows you home.

The other thing that was key was that in the mid- 2000s to late 2000s, when I was just beginning to research the book, there was a weird efflorescence of pop culture and works of art about “the office.” There was the British show "The Office," which had just been made into an American show. And everyone who works in a office seems to have seen "Office Space" over and over and over again. And then two novels came out in quick succession, actually three: the Joshua Ferris novel "Then We Came to the End" and Ed Park’s novel "Personal Days," and then this very, very good Danish novel by Cristian Jungersen called "The Exception," which was sort of like a thriller set in an office. All of these things I was consuming while working on this and I thought there was this period of great reflection on the office as a social space that prompted me also to think about it historically and sociologically.

I wanted you to talk a little bit about the whole idea of the cubicle because you referred to this a little bit before, but I used to work at a newspaper and I was in a cubicle and I found it almost impossible to get work done. I had to stay super late or get in really early because I was always hearing my co-workers screaming at their mothers or hearing reporters trying to cajole a source, which was always interesting, and there was just way too much going on. Whose idea was the cubicle and why did they think it was a good one?

The irony of the office cubicle is that we see it as a kind of encapsulation or refraction of all the ills that one suffers in an office job; but it was initially introduced to solve precisely those same problems, and in some ways it replaced another kind of problematic situation. Before the cubicle, offices tended to look like  -- you mentioned newsrooms -- they did tend to look like the newsrooms in the films, like in "All The President’s Men" or "His Girl Friday" or something, where you have row after row of desks modeled on a factory setup. The people who initially planned that office just assumed that offices were in some ways paperwork factories and they tried to mimic that setup. They tried to mimic the assembly line. And so, in the 1960s, spurred by lots of new social research into the way that people actually behave in offices and the things that people actually need, a designer working for Herman Miller, the office furniture company, a designer named Robert Propst started to come up with ways that he thought he could mitigate this situation, because in those early offices there was lots of noise. There were typewriters going off constantly. Typewriters were even segregated into typing pools, and for Propst it was just totally antithetical to the kind of work that people actually wanted to do. He was one of the first people to really adopt the term “knowledge work” as an idea for the new kind of work people were doing in offices. And so he, over several tries, kind of came up with this three-walled, flexible space called the Action Office, and the idea was to guarantee a certain level of privacy, but also to encourage flexibility. The older offices were rigid -- the desks were fixed in place. The idea was not really to move them. But Propst was interested in people creating private places for themselves or moving those walls to create meeting rooms or, you know, he just assumed that the office was in constant flux, and it was a technologically very transformative time: the computer was changing a lot of things; automation was changing a lot of things. So he assumed that the office had to be designed to have a kind of minimal set up that could be shifted to any given need of the workers themselves. The cubicle Action Office was really meant to liberate office workers from a frustrating environment.

The thing Propst didn’t foresee is he assumed that managers and CEOs and all those types were really enlightened like him and that they would use the setup precisely for those aims: to liberate workers, to have workers design their own spaces. One of the things about the Action Office is that you could design it yourself — move it, tack things to it. It was individualizing the space. But then what started to happen, and Propst witnessed this in his own lifetime, was kind of the turning of this flexible, three-walled space into something like a box that could cram in as many workers as possible into as little space as possible, as quickly as possible, with as little money as possible. And it became over time the office cubicle and this symbol of a degraded, white-collar workplace that he didn’t really have any control over. It just started to replicate itself endlessly, and so it became exactly the opposite of what it was intended to do.

You brought up the mainframe computer and how they needed to move the office around because of it and I was thinking about "Mad Men." I don’t know if you’ve seen the episode where they bring the computer in. Do you watch the show at all?

People have told me about that episode.

Yeah, it’s sort of a side-note, but one of the characters feels like the computer’s talking to him and he loses his mind. I was thinking about that and the Sony hack.

The office space used to be this impenetrable structure with well-defined walls. Because of email, that has changed, and it seems like workers are so much more vulnerable now — Sony employees’ children’s Social Security numbers are now available on the black market. Have you had any thoughts about the that hack and what that means in terms of your book?

One of the things that it definitely points out is that the kind of workspace where digital communication is predominant and people say things to the cloud or even just internal servers -- it’s not even that it’s less secure in terms of hackers from the outside, but that it’s also sort of internally more open to a kind of surveillance. I mean, people have often felt that working from home or remote working was one of these things that might free you from the overbearing eyes of management or what have you, and for the very same reasons, managers have also been afraid of remote workers and what do we do to leash them to the office? But what’s become a little bit clearer is that it might even be easier in certain ways for a lot of private information, or things that seem private, to become available within the workplace and to bosses. And with the introduction of the computer, and the personal computer in the 1980s, it became, for example, much easier for employers to track the amount of work you were doing, or even your typing speed, or how many keystrokes per minute you were doing for data entry. The computer has gradually facilitated a lot more tracking and surveillance in the workplace. So that’s the kind of flip-side to being hacked from who knows who. At Sony, these communications are also internally less secure. In that sense, it makes it clear that a lot of things shouldn’t be committed to email. It’s one of these things where people don’t think about these things when they’re emailing about Angelina Jolie, or Scott Rudin, or whatever. But I think what it really suggests is that there is a lot that’s available on this network, and that just committing a lot of things to it makes it less secure. It just means that workers can have less privacy no matter where they are. You could even see this in the broader reach of work into all aspects of our lives. I mean, I think that’s what was revealed by all these private communications being exposed. It’s increasingly hard for people to distinguish between their private lives and their work lives, and so they communicate things that should be private or interpersonal on this network, and [those communications] are available to other people, and I think that’s also what you see at play in this Sony hack: A lot of things that would have just been communicated by phone and would’ve been otherwise not available, they’re suddenly on the record in a way that is very dangerous.

Or they might have just communicated it after work at a bar. I’m thinking in the old days, right? How do you think this is a uniquely American book? It really is a history of not just one aspect of our lives, but for a lot of people, it’s about the way America developed. There are offices everywhere though, so how do you think this history is uniquely American?

I had intended to write something that was a lot more of a global history of the office and found myself so overwhelmed by just the minimal amount of American material that I couldn’t figure out a way to write something that would be persuasive about the offices in general. And I think one of the reasons that that’s the case is very simple. You could say that the labor history of the United States struck me as very different from other countries. One thing that interested me from the outset was why white-collar workers in the private sector did not really develop unions in the same way that they had in other countries. I think if you look at northern European countries, not too surprisingly, there’s a much higher rate of unionization for white-collar workers. A lot of what companies did to divide labor against itself had to do with pitting white-collar workers against blue-collar workers, separating offices from factories and also in labor laws. [For example,] the Taft-Hartley act, where foremen and supervisors were separated from other workers in their capacity to be unionized. So that was this one very strange aspect of it that was American.

Even just the urban history is very American — American cities were really the only cities to develop downtowns. The city of London is an exception, but the kind of city where you have skyscrapers clustered in this one part of the city. Even skyscrapers, for a while, were uniquely American. At least the sheer number of them is pretty American. So, there was something about the fact that the office -- in its visual manifestations, in the labor history, and in every aspect --there were more extremes in the American case. The extreme lack of unionization. The extreme concentration of business. That was what made it kind of curious and not totally applicable to other situations.

At the same time, I think there is something universal about the more basic and mundane aspects of white-collar work, the drudgery and the kind of feeling that you’re not doing real work, and even the sense of prestige that accrues from working in an office. Working a “clean job” as opposed to working in a factory with a blue-collar job. That kind of stuff you do find all over the place. And sometimes, in the course of writing the book, I would sort of take these detours to other, I thought relevant, situations to take a stance on the American situation, or to show how there was something universal about it. So if you think about, for example, Germany in the 1930s — there was this real debate about whether white-collar workers were basically conservative and Nazi supporters because they didn’t form unions, and the same debate took place in the United States. This fear that white-collar workers were budding fascists and would bring fascism to the United States. And in both cases, that turned out not to be true. That is, white-collar workers weren’t essentially conservative. And they did, in the 1930s, in both countries, actually move a little bit to the left in some ways. And so that was interesting. If you looked at Japan, and the kind of salaryman culture in the ’60s and ’70s, which America really wanted to emulate in the ’80s, you found this totally different kind of culture that was no less central to Japan’s identity, but it was so difficult to explain. So there was something about the American context that struck me as different in many ways and made it hard to generalize, which I regret in some ways. I wish I could have written a book that was about the universal office. And, you know, if you think about the fact that "The Office," this show that was originally British, has been remade in many different versions… I think there’s an Israeli version; there’s a Chinese version in the works; there’s obviously an American version. There’s something clearly basic about the experience of the office that people recognize. I can see the British version of the show and not feel alienated by it, but I think when it came down to researching the history of it, it became hard to see outside of the national boundaries.

You were talking about clean work versus dirty work, and the office versus the factory. I was reading the first part of the book and you talk a lot about how writers characterize the early clerks, and they seem to be concerned about their masculinity a lot of the time. Why do you think that was, just because they were sitting down most of the time? Or was there something artificial about what they were doing? Why do you think there was so much distrust in the clerks of that time? In like the time of Edgar Allen Poe, right? And Herman Melville.

I think a lot of the distrust of the early office worker comes from not being part of the way that people thought about work at the time. The United States saw itself as a nation of farmers, and that it would be nation of industry. I mean, there was of course the other narrative, where it was a nation -- at least part of it -- of slave-holders. No matter what story you told, it was a story about manual labor that was being done: hard, back-breaking work in the fields or in the factory. That was the way people thought about work. And then, if you looked at a clerk, they saw work that they didn’t recognize or understand as work. They were doing paperwork. They were copying things. It was work that seemed to require no physical exertion really, except for lifting boxes every so often. And, you know, it was done inside. Workers got paler, which was not something people assumed about work. You were supposed to be tanned by the sun by your work. Your hands didn’t reflect the kind of work you were doing, except maybe in ink stains. All that was not part of the narrative of American work, and I think that’s what people really feared. And, you know, office workers themselves felt this. There’s this one worker whose diaries I read. I researched Edward Taylor, who was this tireless propagandizer for exercise and going to the gym, and he was really self-conscious about having a narrow chest and not having muscles as an office worker, so he goes to this gym in Greenwich Village constantly with newspaper articles about the gym, and that sort of way of thinking about office work has absolutely persisted. I think you see that in contemporary gym culture — a lot of office workers who push papers all day but are shockingly muscular. That comes out of part of this self-consciousness about that aspect of office work; that it’s not really real work. The film "Fight Club," the book and the film play this to a degree, where you have an office worker who needs to go beat people up or get hit. That’s the fear of the unmanly aspects of work that is part of the origin. People just still don’t see this kind of work as natural.

There’s that great image in your book where the characters in "Office Space" have that printer and they’re beating it up. The thing that struck me is that they’re in an open field doing it. They’re bashing the printer but there’s no sign of civilization around at all, so it’s sort of primitive man hitting back at technology and artificiality…

Let’s talk about women a little bit. You write a lot about how women transformed the office space through the decades, and I’m wondering, how do you think that they changed the office?

Big question. (laughs) I think the entry of women into the office changed the workplace in stages. You might even say waves, to use a kind of schematics that people use about feminism, as much as it is a kind of schematic. The early sort of workplaces where women started to predominate -- one thing that it did change, it had an effect on the class hierarchies of the workplace. So, women were almost invariably slotted into menial occupations, like typing, stenography, working the phones. The notion was that women were suited for lightly mechanical, repetitive, tedious work, and of course they were paid less.

Women entered in the late 19th century, early 20th century en masse, and this was also a period of intense automation in the office workplace and the growth of offices -- this time when offices start to resemble factories more broadly. So, it had this kind of solution for men who felt that their work was being de-skilled, and they too were becoming typists. It made it easier for men in class terms because women would then take these sort of lower-class proletarian office occupations, while men would take the middle-manager and higher rungs at the office. That was one function that women served in the early part of the office.

At the same time, it clearly created all these kinds of tensions and social changes that were unexpected. One of them was that women and men were interacting on a daily basis. In some ways, they were seeing each other as equals, but they had to interact in a way that was not purely social. They had to interact as workers. That had people panicked. People panicked over women’s morality. People panicked over men’s morality. There are lots of films and books that testify to women who are ruined by men in the office, but also women who similarly find romantic satisfaction in the office. Despite all the anxieties and fears that it engendered, it also seemed to provide just the fact of upward mobility in a white-collar workplace, however limited it was.

For a while, it offered a narrative that women didn’t otherwise find in other avenues, or not often, in other aspects of American society.  So by the late 20th century, really by the 1970s, the hitting of the ceiling -- the sense that women were in fact having access to higher education but were still being slotted into menial jobs, still not protected by this new legislation over discrimination. That produced this wave of labor organizing in the office and I think you have things like the 9to5 organization in Boston in the 1970s that is the basis for the film "9 to 5." This major wave of movements toward equality, in pay of course, but also just in terms of treatment in the office. I mean, all of this comes out of that ferment, the sense that the office promised upward mobility to women while denying it in so many de facto and also legal ways up until that point. I think, in turn, that has had somewhat immeasurable effects on society outside the office -- the fact that men and women, at first not as equals, but now very much so — at least in theory and certainly in law — interact in daily ways with each other, and that I think changed the way that they interacted outside the office. The office was unique in this respect, in encouraging that kind of mixture, in socializing and work. You don’t really see that in other transitive workplaces, in factories and things like that. The effect was profound. It’s in some ways hard to state very clearly because it was so long-term and so deep and so big.

As I was reading your book, I was thinking about the book "Quiet," the part about Dale Carnegie and that whole section that talks about achievement culture, and it seems like the modern-day office, in a lot of ways, is really geared toward extroverts.

Oh yeah, absolutely. And I think that Susan Cain is totally right about that. In a way, the office has always had some aspect of valuing extroversion of introversion, because in hiring decisions, for a long time, people have tended to favor people who are more overtly sociable. The sense is that the work in offices depends upon easy sociability. And offices have oscillated between more privacy and more openness. In the United States, it’s actually pretty largely been a trend to move toward opening up over the years. Even the cubicle is part of a plan to get more and more people out of private offices and into cubicles over time. And now I think, especially in like Silicon Valley offices and the trend toward the open-plan office, you do have this high premium placed on collaboration, on sociability, on people being subtly coerced into interacting constantly. It’s very ironic in Silicon Valley. It runs against the grain of the social type out there, which is largely the computer engineer, who is usually considered to be introverted. The idea is to get you out of that.

I think a lot of offices are geared toward having people do what they’re not inclined to do. It’s not totally malign. I think when you look at the social events and social occasions and all the social spaces that are planned in line at these offices, it’s not all terrible. But I think it is pretty misguided and also runs against the kind of work that people do in these places. A lot of work is not dependent on collaboration. Most of it is not, in fact; much of it depends on concentration and privacy and on things like that. There’s very little value placed on them in the design of offices, because everything seems to be geared toward people seeing each other, speaking to each other, running into each other, which is not helpful to what people actually have to do (laughs). And it does run against any kind of need for privacy or concentration or just time to one’s self that, from social psychology, one might expect from more introverted individuals. Even just in terms of productivity or those basic things that people claim to be interested in, it runs against the grain of what workers actually want, I guess is what I would say. If you look at studies of what people actually desire when it comes to their offices, they overwhelmingly prefer private offices and private space. People who leave cubicle workspaces and are put into more open-plan setups claim to miss their cubicle. It’s that dire in that way, certainly. I think the office definitely, as it’s currently being constructed, runs against introversion. But that is part of a larger trend in American offices that ignores the preferences of workers in favor of some kind of idealized image of what workers should prefer. That in some ways has a longer history than the current vogue for collaboration.

I have to finish because I am on my lunch hour right now. I’m actually at work, which seems appropriate. (laughs)

Where do you --

Where do I work? Not in a cubicle, thank God. I work in a library. I was wondering what are some of the worst office euphemisms you've heard in researching the book? What were some of the really terrible ones?

(laughs) To me, the worst ones are the things that involve people getting fired. I learned that the word “layoff” is actually a euphemism. Originally a layoff was meant to be a temporary reprieve, like a suspension. You’re taken off work for a little while, as opposed to a mass firing, which is what it’s become. The British term “redundancy” is arguably even worse. It means the same thing, that your existence is totally superfluous.

There’e euphemistic language in the office and there’s also the tendency to use macho bluster or football metaphors, like to refer to the office as a team. One of things I discovered is that that has a very distinct origin, which is the wide influence of this book "The Art of Plain Speech," by this doctoral student from Columbia, who tried to write a manual toward plain spoken-ness. It was widely adopted by businesspeople and became the source of a lot of shirt-sleeve English, I guess they called it back in the 1950s, that one also hears in offices. Offices are characterized by both in some ways: the business jargon as well as the macho bluster that one sees in things like "Wall Street" or films like that. You see both at play.

After doing all the research on this book, what is your personal ideal office space? What do you think is the best setup for the kind of work we’re doing now?

Oh man. For me, it’s hard to say. I’m a freelancer now and have been for a few years. I guess the thing I admire about freelancing is that it involves a high level of choice over the places that I work. I find that I usually prefer to work in libraries but I can often then move to a café or work at home. I feel like the implication of that level of flexibility is a certain measure of freedom over what one does. That to me is the best kind of working environment, one that changes throughout the day and one that is reflective of what you have to do in a given day. Most offices don’t really reflect that. They don’t reflect that you might do different things each day. That you might not actually need to be amongst a bunch of people at once or that you may need to have privacy or that you may need to have limited amounts of social interaction or quiet or what have you. That’s something I’ve discovered in writing the book. That was the kind of environment I sought out, and it turns out to be the kind of environment that many people recommend for work.

You know, the ultimate point of this, the reason that people don’t have workplaces like this, or they don’t have work setups like this a lot is that there’s some idea being propagated by designers or CEOs or what have you that is supposed to be the ideal workspace for workers. But the best kind of workspace is the one that workers decide upon for themselves, free from coercion or ideology propagated by designers and business people and the like. I think a lot of the kind of resentment people express about their spaces is simultaneously a resentment against the kind of ideologies that govern their work lives.

By Sara Scribner

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