An office tower at night in Chicago
An office tower at night in Chicago

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval, Doubleday, RRP £20/$26.95, 368 pages

The Org: How the Office Really Works by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan, John Murray, RRP £14.99/Grand Central $26.99, 320 pages

Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time by Brigid Schulte, Bloomsbury, RRP £12.99/Sarah Crichton Books $26, 368 pages

Office life is weird, inefficient and dysfunctional. We turn up first thing in the morning at gigantic glass and steel boxes, where we pass the day being nice to people we don’t necessarily like. We speak an opaque language full of “going forwards” and “key deliverables”; we spend hours around conference tables in meeting rooms and at our desks composing emails that may never get read. And then, having failed to get much done in the glass box, we go home and continue to work on our laptops and smartphones at home.

Why is the office like this? One way to answer the question is to consider how it used to be in the days of the frock-coated clerk of the mid-19th century or of the martini-drinking corporate man of the 1950s. This is what Nikil Saval sets out to do in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, (though what is secret about it is never made clear).

According to Saval, the story is one of constant disappointment. The office was meant to be a miraculous escape from the factory. It was meant to make everyone upwardly mobile. Instead it has led to the “frenzied solitude” of cubicle farms, home to 60 per cent of American workers, of whom 93 per cent are apparently miserable.

In the mid-19th century a new breed of white collar worker sat in cramped, dark quarters, doing work that was not only insufferably boring but that was seen as parasitic and unmanly. These clerks, said Vanity Fair in 1860, were “vain, mean, selfish, greedy, sensual and sly, talkative and cowardly”.

From such unpromising beginnings, things got worse. By the early 20th century it was “farewell the tranquil languorous days of the counting house. Greetings to the factory-like labour of the office.” Frederick “Speedy” Taylor had come along with his dreaded stopwatch, making work more specialised, more routine, with the result that climbing the ladder was even harder than it had been before. “For some,” notes Saval, “work was always, frankly, going to suck.”

Every now and then a visionary heaves into view, poised to improve the life of the white collar worker. Only, every time, greedy corporations get in the way. The first visionary was Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1904 designed a building in Buffalo for Larkin, a mail order business that was the Amazon of its time. He built a cathedral of an office, complete with bathhouse, a gym, gardens, a piano. Yet instead of approving, Saval talks darkly of “social control” and says “the numbing work remained the same”.

Then, in the 1950s, the first truly modern skyscrapers started to be built. Lever House opened on Park Avenue; not only was it nice to look at from the outside but it was also designed with the worker in mind. There was natural light for everyone and desks had rounded corners, so women didn’t snag their nylons.

But this building was a rarity; other skyscrapers were being flung up in which office space was a commodity, sold by the square foot. Air conditioning produced the “startling phenomenon of seeing office workers huddling in thick sweaters in the middle of summer”, while fluorescent lights pushed people further from windows into the inhospitable middle of vast floors.

The most radical attempt to free the office worker was made in the early 1960s by Robert Propst, an excitable inventor who set about designing furniture that was inspired by the new idea of the “knowledge workers”. The result was a gorgeous, flexible system of furniture in pop art colours that everyone loved – apart from the companies who were to buy it, as they didn’t fancy spending so much on the steno pool. So a second version was produced, with a set of three walls at obtuse angles intended as a “workstation” for the “human performer”. Alas, what the human performer ended up with was a cubicle with angles their employers set at 90 degrees so as to squeeze as many in as possible.

Then came the 1970s, “that beige, dishonest decade” – though why dishonest, Saval doesn’t say, other than that people stopped drinking two martinis at lunchtime and had wine instead. That gave way to the even more punitive 1980s and 1990s, which were “ruled by a deep-seated psychological fear of being fired”. Things got so desperate, he notes with spiky irony, that people even started buying business books.

The trouble with so much negativity is not just that it is relentless but one doesn’t necessarily feel inclined to take Saval’s word for it. Scott Adams, that better known cubicle-hater and creator of the Dilbert comic strip, worked for many years in a big company and once said: “Me, I’ve gnawed an ankle or two.” Saval, whose day job is at n+1, a small literary magazine, simply hasn’t gnawed enough ankles.

That also makes him a stranger to the many pleasures of working in a big office: the gossip, the routine, the familiarity. He is blind to all the things that have got better. To write a history of the physical office without pointing out that modern ergonomic chairs are an advance on their back-breaking forebears seems a bit off. Even more perverse is what he has to say about technology. “Computers had brought the blues to the white collar workplace,” he writes. “The green characters of the visual display terminal . . . suggest some kind of menace.” I remember my first green screen and it wasn’t a menace at all. It was a miraculous improvement on the typewriter.

In his view, a perfectly understandable thing to do with a computer is to throw it at a colleague in a fit of rage. Indeed, the book begins with a description of such an incident, caught on CCTV, and much watched on YouTube. The only trouble, Saval himself reluctantly admits, is that it may have been a spoof. Which diminishes its power more than a little.

Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan begin their book about dysfunctional corporations with a story that actually happened. In 2009, a blogger wrote a rant about how awful the American Airlines website was. A member of the company’s customer service team replied, mainly agreeing with the analysis but explaining the cumbersome process by which changes were made to the site. The blogger printed the reply. The manager got fired.

This, you might think, was a story about evil, stupid corporations. Yet as told in The Org: How the Office Really Works, it isn’t. The authors argue that anyone can design a webpage; but to be able to design both a webpage and fly a plane is much harder. An organisation that has to do both is likely to end up looking like something almost as cumbersome as the now bust American Airlines.

The authors, respectively a professor at Columbia Business School and editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Press, tell us that organisations are necessarily dysfunctional. Their stated aim is not to stop our cynicism but to make it better informed. The book is founded on economics more than history. Companies, they remind us, are for doing things that we can’t do ourselves. If the transactions costs of doing something in an org are lower than doing it on the market, then that makes sense. The key is those transactions costs. The bigger the company, the higher such costs become.

Organisations, they tell us, are machines of many moving parts and getting the parts to move together involves a lot of trial and error, and sometimes it goes wrong. BP (the only org in the book that gets a serious beating) had become, by the 1990s, too bureaucratic, so it cut costs and decentralised. Only it went too far, and the result was the Texas refinery explosion of 2005, and five years later the spillage of 200m gallons of crude spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

What is needed, they point out, is to steer a course between the two theories that have dominated all history of management thought. Theory X, peddled by Frederick Taylor, is that workers need to be measured and watched; Theory Y says workers are creative free spirits that get there on their own.

Saval is evidently a Theory Y man, who seems to think we don’t need managers at all, whereas the authors of The Org, have more X in their veins. With barely disguised glee they point out that even in al-Qaeda, the most networked organisation in the world, members still have to file expense accounts, and get told off if they don’t do it right.

In The Org the most loathed features of office life are made forgivable. The cubicle isn’t so bad, if you compare it with the bullpen that went before it. Meetings are OK, because they are still the best way we have for an executive to get his views across. Even executive pay is (sort of) understandable, even if not quite justifiable.

So what do these two rival accounts – office decrier and office apologist – make of the latest version of corporate life being played out in Silicon Valley, where infantile playground equipment is laid on for adults in hoodies to play on?

To Fisman and Sullivan, it is just another swing of the pendulum, which will doubtless swing back in due course. Saval’s response is more surprising. Instead of being scathing at the new designs, or deploring the way employers have taken over their employees’ entire lives, he praises Google’s flexibility and says that the way it experiments with lighting shows how much it really cares.

The trouble with both accounts is that they are written from the armchair – the voice of the office worker is curiously absent. By contrast, in Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time, Brigid Schulte writes directly of her own cubicle experience, and it is not pretty.

Although she doesn’t work in Silicon Valley (where the hours, she says, “eat you alive”), she is a journalist on The Washington Post and a mother of two children. With so much to do she describes how she is permanently sweaty-palmed, short of breath, and inclined to be found baking Valentines cupcakes at 2am.

The difficulty here is that Schulte isn’t a very reliable cubicle witness. The answer to her “overwhelm” (the book makes the condition even more uncomfortable by turning it into a noun) is easy. She should simply quit the baking in the small hours, and go to bed instead. Yet her analysis of the problem in general and her solutions make sense even if they are hardly new. Work, she says, is still designed for 1950s men. We need better deals for working parents. Less striving for perfection. More flexibility.

The future, she thinks, could look like Menlo Innovations. This is a groovy software company in Michigan, and is the very same place chosen by Saval as an example of a new, improved way of working. The boss has the squeamish title “chief storyteller and tour guide” and staff are encouraged to bring their babies to work. The children get passed around by colleagues in an atmosphere of familial, creative chaos.

I don’t need the voices of Sullivan and Fisman in my ear to tell me that the pendulum has swung too far towards Theory Y and that this could never work writ large. I also have my own voice telling me that mothers go to work to get away from their own children so to work surrounded by other peoples’ is scarcely attractive. Yet there is something else about Menlo I do like. It seems that everyone turns up at the same time in the morning and by 6pm the office is deserted. There’s no evening work from home. Work ends when it ends.

This points the way back to a brave new future that could be less overwhelming than the present. It is called 9 to 5. It has a long, splendid, and not remotely secret, history.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist


Work reading: Joshua Ferris selects his favourite fiction about work

We want our novels to show us men and women at the moment of some violent and inevitable change, after which nothing will ever be the same again. This explains why the intersection of work/office life and literature is a desultory one. How can the earth shatter and the heart break during the dull old 9 to 5?

The smart novelist tends to give us only a partial view of the protagonist at work. Thus we have dozens of masterpieces that aren’t strictly “about” work, but which give us brilliant set pieces situated there. I think of the television executives in Don DeLillo’s Americana (1971), and Philip Roth’s glove makers in American Pastoral (1997).

What follows are my favourite books that show more than just a passing interest in work. In each of these books, whether “office” means the platonic one equipped with desks and chairs, or a more singular place where life is worked to the bone, the office is the world.

‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853) by Herman Melville

Technically a novella, I suppose, and easily read in an hour or two, Melville’s wicked story of a mystery man who refuses to play by the rules in an already-colourful law office threatens even now, 160 years later, to be the final word in the imagined literature of work and business.

‘The Castle’ (1926) by Franz Kafka

All Kafka’s stories and parables are informed by his years as a successful functionary in an insurance firm. His deeply felt and widely read story, “The Metamorphosis”, can be interpreted as the tragedy of the man who can no longer get out of bed and go to work. The Castle is essentially the same: a punctilious land surveyor is prevented from executing his professional duties, and for that feels his entire existence indicted.

‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ (1955) by Sloan Wilson/ ‘Something Happened’ (1974) by Joseph Heller/ ‘Revolutionary Road’ (1961) by Richard Yates

This fine triumvirate of novels sets the high-water mark of office malaise in postwar American fiction. Wilson’s novel derives its power from the contrast its protagonist feels between the mortal invigoration of war with the doldrums of careerism. Heller’s classic is one drop of existential dread after another, set at home and at work. And Yates is the lyrical poet of stunted dreamers gone to seed in a suburbia of office-influenced conformity.

‘Orientation’ (2011) by Daniel Orozco/‘You Think That’s Bad’ (2011) by Jim Shepard

Here are two recent collections of short fiction on the ravages and delights of work. Orozco’s title story, originally published in 1994, is directly addressed to a new employee during orientation and will be familiar to anyone who has crept through strange office environs fearing the worst. Shepard’s protagonists all have obsessions of such enormity – particle physics, Dutch water management, extreme mountain climbing – they dwarf the human need to comprehend and control, and so their working lives come at the expense of everyone and everything around them.

‘The Flamethrowers’ (2013) by Rachel Kushner

This great novel from last year features all kinds of work: rubber harvesting, motorcycle racing, tyre manufacturing, waitressing, modelling, the making and selling of art. What the book does well, among other things, is show how the work we choose to do turns into a life, for good or ill, determining the compromises we make, the circles we move in, the things we come to value as a matter of life and death, and the moral agents we become.

Joshua Ferris is author of the novel ‘Then We Came to the End’. His new novel ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ is published next month in the US by Little, Brown and in the UK by Viking in June

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