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Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace notes

Title Author Rating Type
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval 🔵 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 🤓

Open Office Plan Timeline

  • 1750s
    • Clerical work done in big open spaces as early as 1750s. Mostly for clerks/typists to perform repetitive tasks. Small rooms were most common.
  • 1909
    • Frank Lloyd Wright started experimenting with open plan offices in Buffalo, NY
  • 1939
    • Frank Lloyd Wright designed building for SC Johnson Co HQ, with open plan space for administrative work.
      • Included special pillars, ceiling let in natural light. He specially designed specific desks and chairs. lots of space. Managers got private offices on a mezzanine.
    • “The box was a facscist symbol, and the architecture of freedom and democracy needed something beside that box.”
  • Pre 1950s Europe:
    • Before the 1950s, the majority of offices in Europe operated with closed-door offices and scaled-down versions of the massive bullpen offices that were found in skyscrapers across the U.S.
  • 1950s
    • Bürolandschaft movement started in Germany.
    • a German team named Quickborner, a German design group, developed the office landscape, which used conventional furniture, curved screens, large potted plants, and organic geometry to create work groups on large, open floors. Idea was “open but flexible”. Break up space. Allow for easy interaction and rearrangement. Constant flexibility. With specifically designed furniture.
    • idea of “spontaneous encounter”.
  • 1960s
    • Bürolandschaft came to America.
  • 1960
    • Herman Miller launched the Herman miller Research Corporation, created to solve furniture problems. Created first cubicle. Included tax benefits.
    • Cubicles started to get a bad rap. Could be hard without light, and could be isolating.
  • 1964
    • Herman Miller unveiled Robert Probst’s research - the action office (cubed, loc. 3417/61%).
    • Action office is all about movement. No place to store things (reaction to “out of sight, out of mind” - instead, moveable display surface.) Colorful, rolling desk, a lot of beautiful touches. “communications center with a telephone …was acoustically insulated”.
    • Was well received by the press.
    • But the action office didn’t sell. Too expensive (v. quality materials), space “too vaguely defined”. Felt too porous, before the office landscape had caught on.
    • Problem: propst had assumed that the way he / his office worked was how all offices should work.
    • Could also have been the cynicism of executives. - too expensive, offices growing too fast. “something faster was needed, something more easily reproducible.” (cubed 62% loc 5756)
  • 1964 - 1968
    • Probst doubled down on his theory. Was interested in needs of individuality, making workplaces more forgiving/flexible. Parted ways with Nelson (who was more concerned with the physical aesthetics).
  • 1967
    • America’s first “office landscape” (Bürolandschaft) set up at DuPont (cubed, loc. 3396/61%)
  • 1968
    • Probst made improvements by 1967: space was smaller, interlocking “walls were mobile, lighter, made of disposable materials; storage space was raised off the ground” (3498 63%) Had three walls per worker, moveable, worker could create whatever space they wanted. moveable desk, pushpin walls. Revealed Action Office II in 1968. Modular components!
    • But his design is based only on bodily needs. Too optimistic, couldn’t see how his designs might be manipulated.
    • Action office II was well received, herman miller launched a marketing campaign. JFN architecture firm installed the first Action Office II system. Competitor Haworth produced a rival version, sales took off of herman miller’s. Followed by Steelcase’s 9000 series and Knoll’s Zapf system. Federal tax code made it easier to write off depreciating assets - furniture and equipment. Sales soared.
    • Copycat versions of the action office had unforeseen effects: making workplaces more regimented. Ex. walls that were too high, made people feel trapped.
  • 1968
    • Robert Noyce and Gordon Moor founded the Intel Corporation, were “one of the first companies with a nonhierarchical, open-plan office, replete with secondhand metal desks.”
    • Produced worlds’s first microprocessor three years later.
  • Early 1970s
    • IBM engineers tries a “radically new” thing they dubbed the “non-territorial office”. Accommodated motion between different kinds of work setups based on the task. Common tables and work benches scattered around, included quiet areas to escape to for focused work. Goal was better interactions between isolated people. Research said it was a success, well received and data suggested that internal comms improved. (77%)
  • By mid-1970s
    • Action office had been reduced to sea of cubicles
  • In 1970s
    • Feasibility study for L.A. insurance firm about “telecommuting” by Jake Nilles (American researcher / rocket scientist)
    • Study was successful, showed telecommuting was viable.
    • Project shut down because managers felt threatened (couldn’t control employees)
  • 1975
    • BusinessWeek reported on the “office of the future”, people predicted computerized office and communication in an electronic form.
  • 1975 - 1979
    • European office workers realized this bad direction, formed “councils” demanding end to Bürolandschaft. They wanted to decide for themselves, not imposed on by designers. Laws passed “mandating that employee representatives were allowed to sit on the supervisory boards of companies” in Italy (1975) Germany (1976) Sweden (1977) Netherlands (1979).
    • From this point, European and American office design diverged. But European offices didn’t get more rigid - they got more daring. “Stricter regulations led to better and more humane forms of experimentation.” (cubed loc 3616 65%)
  • 1980s Europe
    • Worker comfort prioritized in the 1980s, scandinavian airlines building (1988) in stockholm. Like a small “city” - central street running through the office branching into neighborhoods that contain private office spaces.
  • 1980s tech scene in America
    • Cubicles
    • Growing sense of counter-culture, innovation, etc.
    • Apple: by late 1980s dealing with “chronic absenteeism” - noisy cubicle environment harmful to concentration.
  • Mid 1990s - growing tech companies
    • Microsoft added more closed offices
    • Apple added more closed offices, used “cave and common” approach.
    • Most other tech companies copied Intel - cubicles
      • “Intel did not pretend that the cubicle was a great place to be; instead, it pretended that it could foster an egalitarian work environment by insisting that even the staff of upper management work in cubicles….everyone would be starved of beauty equally”.
    • Growing hatred of “traditional offices” in the valley in 1990s
  • 1993
    • Chiat/Day design agency, very prominent, decided to implement an open office. Took away all personal space, people got lockers but didn’t have set work stations.
    • Business work was very excited, employees didn’t like the lack of personal/private space .
    • Within a year, it was failing - office politics got worse, people were too crowded, didn’t know where to work, people using car trunks to store things, absenteeism, managers didn’t know where people were.
    • Chiat blamed it on the workers, said that it was because people have been conditioned to want the corner office.
    • Cleared out office in 1998
  • 1994
    • Herman Miller produced the Aeron chair - for extended hours that tech company workers were working.
  • 1995 and later 1990s
    • In 1995, economic growth rates surged
    • Venture capital flooding into the valley
    • Companies growing so quickly, need to accommodate 15 people one week and 60 the next.
    • Also needed to invite a good “company culture”, backlash against letting designers intentionally design that, wanted it to happen more organically. Designers had to adapt, because more frantic/fast like the dot-com environment. Had to work quickly, without much intentionality. More and more tech companies adopting open plans in this environment.
    • Also continued to believe in the Bürolandschaft idea of “spontaneous encounter”.
      • “Yet another spin on the human relations school of management, whereby “culture” could solve any potential conflict in the workplace and produce benefits in productivity”.
  • 1998
    • New Chiat office: enclosed spaces for meetings, workers had own desks crowded together in low-partitioned stations. “cavernous” space. Pool tables, espresso bars, basketball court.
    • A campus office
  • 2004
    • Google inherited campus from Silicon Graphics.
    • Idea to make transition from university to corporate life easier.
    • A “main street” and “neighborhoods”, the idea of circulation. “hot” (collaboration) and “cold” (seclusion) areas. 2 - 3 person tents for engineering.
  • 2012
    • Melissa Mayer tried to do the Google thing (no remote work) with Yahoo! - said there could be no more telecommuters.
    • Wanted more “control”
  • 2013
    • GitHub - managerless, mostly distributed. Conversations take place online.
  • Now:
    • Google doesn’t say it allows remote work, although at least 1-day a week is common for employees.
    • Google talks about employee wellness and productivity a lot, but the actual execution is kind of haphazard.

Robert Propst and good intentions

Story:

Robert Propst invented the Action Office. Had the best of intentions. Was optimistic about their use, couldn’t fathom people using them in a deviant way. Designed the action office without any market research (did talk to some people, but only those sympathetic to his views and with a series of leading questions). Ended up designing something with only bodily concerns in mind - didn’t take full human needs into consideration. What he didn’t anticipate was how executives would use his design. First Action Office was seen as too expensive, with its use of quality materials. Even though it was well received by the press, basically no adoption. When re-imagined with lighter, reusable materials, took off and created copy-cats at other architecture (?) companies. Executives liked the concept of “flexibility” for its cost saving options - so while the Action Office II was advertised with the rhetoric of better worker conditions, more aligned with knowledge workers, it was sold for it’s ability to provide cost savings. It only took a minute for executives to realize that the larger 120 degree angle was unnecessary, and create the box-like cubicle that would go on to dominate American workplaces. Copycat companies built versions with extra high walls, etc. etc… European workers realized this direction, and didn’t like having these designed imposed on them by designers who didn’t understand them as full humans. Laws passed “mandating that employee representatives were allowed to sit on the supervisory boards of companies” in Italy (1975) Germany (1976) Sweden (1977) Netherlands (1979). Rather than stymie innovation, out of the regulations came better versions. “Stricter regulations led to better and more humane forms of experimentation.” (cubed loc 3616 65%) Ex. Centraal Beheer office building in Netherlands designed by Herman Hertzberger in 1972: balance openness with privacy/ownership over own space. open office areas for 10 people connected by walkways and common areas. Concrete - an “aura of permanence”. Ex. worker comfort prioritized in the 1980s, scandinavian airlines building (1988) in stockholm. Like a small “city” - central street running through the office branching into neighborhoods that contain private office spaces. “’I saw it happen … there was a moment when the orthogonal came in. Someone figured out that you didn’t need the 120-degree [angle], and it went click. That was a bad day,’ Francis Duffy told me in an interview. ‘It took only five seconds for Action Office to turn into a box. Such a nice guy, Robert Propst. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.’"

Why is this important?

Tech companies are building with the idea that it’s better to think quickly, and build fast. It’s generally taken as an objective truth that this leads to more innovation, and more beneficial outcomes for society as a whole. It’s common to believe that your experiences are universal enough to apply to what you’re building, with companies still wildly under-investing in qualitative studies and ethnographic research to better understand the people and society they’re having an impact on. While companies have long received an enthusiastic pass by both the public and government for their promise to change the world for the better, this well-intentioned mission is starting to show cracks. As tech has started to show signs that its judgement is flawed - as we grapple with privacy violations, the undermining of democracy, online harassment, and the complicated reality of content moderation and free speech - there’s a lot of head scratching and falling back on the idea that you can’t blame tech, because everyone was really trying their best. Their intentions were good. By releasing things into the world without an informed viewpoint, it’s sometimes too late to get them back.

Quotes

"I’ve looked around … and I can see, not malevolence, not conspiracy, not a sinister force operating in the world for its own hidden purposes or trying to bend the public to its will nor, on the bright side, as so many would have you believe, a hard-working fulfilling existence, a set of challenges and excitements that can command the best of truly good men, but a trivialization of human effort and aspiration in a chaotic and mindless drudgery, a sidetracking of valuable human resources, and, for most truly intelligent men who have so much to offer, as I once did, in the end a career in a wasteland." - Cubed reference 14, 67%

"For it turned out that companies had no interest in creating autonomous environments for their “human performers.” Instead, they wanted to stuff as many people in as small a space for as cheaply as possible as quickly as possible. By 1978, Propst was composing memos on repositioning his design, panicked over the obsession with “easily defined and accountable cost savings.” “Meanwhile, other matters of more profound influence on the real productivity of organizations have slipped into the background,” he worried. “Action Office, which was conceived as a tool for managers, now has lost much of its initial broad dialogue with management.” 45 Action Office had been meant for flexibility; instead, a new rigidity set in—though it was wrapped disingenuously in humanistic fabric." (cubed 64% loc 3593).

“And ‘flexibility’—not by accident still one of the key words of the office environment—was the appeal to executives who otherwise had no interest in giving up their generous corner offices for a desk out in the open. For a flexible office was above all a cheap office.” Cubed, 61% loc 3402

"And with the mass flirtation with a cheaper office came the first hint of danger. Very small status symbols began to reappear in office landscapes: upper-level managers were given more space and better partitioning than junior people; a supervisor might have the benefit of two potted plants shrouding his desk, whereas secretaries had none at all. And then there was the noise. The Quickborner people had foreseen the problem of noise in an open plan—it was after all a constant threat in “American plan” offices as well—and for that reason insisted on carpeting and sound screens. But this failed to counter the problem. In the DuPont offices, people speaking in low tones managed to sound muffled enough, but higher-pitched noises, such as ringing telephones or the unending whir of typewriter strokes, carried unimpeded throughout the office. In the end, noise would always be a problem, when quiet was not placed at a premium. Interaction and communication were conceived of as norms in the landscaped office; introspection and concentration were sidelined. In the rush to open-plan the world, some crucial values for the performance of work were lost." Cubed, 61% loc 3402

Could also have been the cynicism of executives that led to low adoption of the Action Office. - too expensive, offices growing too fast. “something faster was needed, something more easily reproducible.” (cubed 62%)

Why was this happening? “"For it turned out that companies had no interest in creating autonomous environments for their “human performers.” Instead, they wanted to stuff as many people in as small a space for as cheaply as possible as quickly as possible. By 1978, Propst was composing memos on repositioning his design, panicked over the obsession with “easily defined and accountable cost savings.” “Meanwhile, other matters of more profound influence on the real productivity of organizations have slipped into the background,” he worried. “Action Office, which was conceived as a tool for managers, now has lost much of its initial broad dialogue with management.” Action Office had been meant for flexibility; instead, a new rigidity set in—though it was wrapped disingenuously in humanistic fabric." (cubed 64% loc 3593)

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