Tuesday, January 26, 2021

All The Live Long Day

I have a memory of a Wendell Berry essay about the value and virtues of working at home. Berry, IIRC, pointed out that working from home, or at home (farming; shopkeeper living above the shop, etc.) was the norm until very recently. I've seen stores still in use in small-town Texas where the upstairs was clearly once a residence; and small "weekend houses" still preserved, which farmers would use when they came to town for church and market, since horses and wagons couldn't whisk them back and forth the way cars do now.

Whenever I see some program nostalgic for the days of rail travel and steam engines (especially), I remember Thoreau's lament of the noise and destruction represented by trains shattering the silence as he sat by Walden Pond.  I feel nostalgic for trains myself, and wish they'd return and relieve us of both highways and airports; but some would wonder what we were losing in the "bargain."

And I get it:  office work is not shop work or farm work, and doing it at home with young children screaming just beyond the door (or more likely pounding on it, from my experience with children) is a problem.  But it's interesting how quickly our frame of reference shifts, and how obdurately we cling to the "old" and "familiar."  But is this brave new world what hell looks like?

Depends on whether you’re Wendell Berry or Henry David Thoreaus, or not; I guess.  I mean, there is always the law of unintended consequences:

The cubicle evolved out of utopian notions of office flexibility and flow that were promoted in the sixties by Robert Propst, the head of research for the Herman Miller company. Propst grasped that office work was fundamentally different from factory work. Nikil Saval, in his 2014 book, “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” (2014), writes, “Propst was among the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to environmental enhancement of one’s physical properties.” Propst believed that, in particular, knowledge workers—a term coined by Peter Drucker in 1959—would benefit from what he called a “mind-oriented living space.” He sought to integrate a more dynamic concept of work into a program of hinged partitions and standing desks. The Action Office, as Propst called it, d├ębuted in 1964. But by the mid-eighties it had evolved into the inert cubicle, and Propst was blamed for fathering it. What happened?

Propst’s action-oriented designs may or may not have increased productivity and collaboration, but they did enhance the bottom line, allowing office managers to add more employees without having to move to a bigger space. As density increased, partitions collapsed into the smallest possible footprint: the ever-shrinking cube. Two years before Propst’s death, in 2000, he told an interviewer, “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

I never worked in a "open office," saints be praised.  But the idea of "mental effort" being tied to "one's physical properties"?  All I can tell you is my wife worked at home for several months of the pandemic, and got more done with fewer interruptions than she did before, or since she's returned to the office (her job almost requires her to be in the office; she was home because no one was in the office.).  My experience with office work was that it involved a great deal more gossiping in the halls or coffee room, or arranging groups for lunch, than anything "mind-oriented."

There are some interesting observations in this article:

In the late nineties, a few businesses outside tech sought to seed similar cross-departmental innovation through open-plan design. Among the first was the advertising agency Chiat Day, whose co-founder Jay Chiat, after hiring Frank Gehry to build the company’s binocular-fronted building in Venice, Los Angeles, got rid of private offices, cubicles, and desks, making it possible to work from anywhere in the office. The Chiat Day workplace was like Propst’s Action Office after a triple espresso.

With today’s mobile technology and broadband speed, the plan might have worked, but Chiat, who died in 2002, was two decades ahead of his time. After the company moved out of the space, Wired’s 1999 postmortem noted that the Venice office had become “engulfed in petty turf wars, kindergarten-variety subterfuge, incessant griping, management bullying, employee insurrections, internal chaos, and plummeting productivity. Worst of all, there was no damn place to sit.” 

But, sadly, no explanation of how mobile technology and broadband speed would provide a place to sit.  All I can say is that I did a lot of mental work as a legal assistant and then as a lawyer, and the office spaces and ideas discussed in this article sound like hell to me.  The work of software engineers described here doesn't sound all that different from the work of trial lawyers and legal assistants and secretaries trying to handle lawsuits.  99% of that work never gets to the courtroom, and much of the effort in the office is to stay out of the courtroom.  So not conceptually all that different from the engineers mentioned in the article.

In recent years, activity-based design has become a powerful tool in many companies’ branding and recruitment efforts. Gensler has specialized in creating this kind of space, and, with its design of the Campari America headquarters, which opened in March, 2019, the firm hit peak office-as-life-style. The place is intended for workers who are “living the brand every day,” Stefanie Shunk, Gensler’s lead designer on the project, told me as she showed me around the deserted workplace in early August. Desks are first-come, first-served, although Ugo Fiorenzo, the head of Campari America, admits to having a “preferred corner.” Personal items are stored in lockers; anything left behind on a desk at day’s end winds up on a “table of shame.” Fiorenzo described the aim of the design as “collaboration and collision.” There are five different bar spaces scattered around the two floors, including a speakeasy, the Boulevardier, hidden under the internal stairs. Shunk used the metaphor of the perfect cocktail to describe the interior aesthetics: “Clarity, color, aroma, flavor, and finish.” The tasting profiles of particular liquors (the company also owns Wild Turkey, Skyy Vodka, and Grand Marnier, among other brands) inform the color palettes in branded meeting rooms.

Yeah, thanks; no.  Closest I got to "shame" was a framed postcard of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason.  My brother gave the postcard as a joke when I graduated from law school.  I framed it and put it in my first office.  Someone noticed it one day and took it to be a family member, until he got close enough to see it clearly.  It was one of those occassions when I realized my sense of humor was a bit too, shall we say, "dry" for the general public.

Following the new one-way directional signage, I eventually came to my desk. I booted up my virtual desktop, thinking I might take advantage of the rare quiet and privacy to actually do some work in the office. But I couldn’t concentrate. I missed my colleagues. Whether walled, open, or cloud-based, an office is about the people who work there. Without the people, the office is an empty shell. ♦

Clifford Simak wrote of a future where technology would allow us to communicate "virtually" (he didn't call it that, no one would have known what he meant) through a life-like projection, without having to leave your home.  This was, for his scenario, the end of the city; who needed it anymore?  Where all this technology was made, and how food was provided or purchased (or other goods) was never explained, but that was beside the point.  Do we need people around if we can replace them with voices and images, if we can talk to them as easily as if they were in the same room (but without the risk of contagion, in today's terms)?  His conclusion was that we would, because we are social creatures.  But offices?  Do we need them?  Of that, I am much less sure.  Or that it's a bad thing if we don't. 

I do know that the only thing that is certain is change. But that’s a rather trite observation.



  1. I liked the part when all of the humans had left to live on Jupiter and the dogs and their robots inherited the Earth, that is until the ants did.

  2. Yeah, the dogs got screwed by the humans, who taught the ants how to take over.