2002 - The modern office
Sitting in our offices day after
day, we find it easy to assume that people have
always hunched over desks in rows or cubicles
or in sterile, beige rooms doing what is expected
The office is more than a century
old. Its occupant, the white-collar worker, is
equally antiquated. The phrase "white-collar
worker" was first used by Upton Sinclair,
the American socialist writer. In one of his novels,
The Brass Check, he described the "petty
underlings of the business world, the poor office
clerks ... who, because they are allowed to wear
a white collar, regard themselves as members of
the capitalist class".
Sinclair understood the seductive
appeal of the office to people whose boiler-suited
fathers had known nothing other than the dirty
factory workbench, or whose mothers had contented
themselves with daily domestic work as housewives.
The office offered more than a job; it laid the
foundations for the middle class and millions
of prospective Pooters who could see the potential
of the work space for consolidating their real
or imagined status.
In anew century, the office remains
the bastion of big business and, in spite of attempts
at modernisation, the desk-bound work space appears
as important to the working man and woman as it
was a hundred years ago.
Never mind the trendy experiments
such as Andersen's "Zen Zones" at its
London headquarters, or Thomas Cook's Falkirk
building with a stream running through the office,
or the garden swings for meetings at Digital Corporation's
Helsinki headquarters, or the "Work Yurt"
self-assembly kits that can be bought for garden-based
working; these are the exceptions. The reality
of the office for the vast majority of us is a
box with windows - if we are lucky.
A new report from the UK's Industrial
Society*, based partly on a survey of office workers,
found that more people were dissatisfied with
their working space than with their jobs. While
12 per cent of those working in offices were unhappy
with their jobs, almost twice the number - 23
per cent - said they did not like their offices.
The reason for this dissatisfaction
may have something to do with a lack of interest
in office design among most employers. In spite
of a renewed interest in offices among designers,
reflected in some innovative workplaces, relatively
few work spaces are custom-built. Most employers
base their calculations on the availability of
floor space and rent per square foot.
This general lack of interest
in the work space, however, does not prevent office
dwellers from making the most of their surroundings.
In fact, says the report, the office has become
a battleground as workers vie with each other
for prime window space or the most spacious desk.
As Max Nathan, the report's author, points out:
"The time, energy, effort and creativity
that the UK workforce spends avoiding their places
of work or modifying them to something that fits
their needs, is time that is not being spent on
Yet no one, it seems, is more
intent on preserving the office system than management;
and nothing signals status more than the size
and position of the office, not to mention the
quality of the furnishings.
Although, as the report points
out, "anything can act as a status marker",
where there are no obvious differences people
tend to create their own status symbols. It may
be a subtle change such as placing a desk across
the corner of a room. This is a typical assertion
of control, providing a vantage point. Often the
positioning of a desk is defensive. Many workers,
apparently, like to face the door so they can
see who comes in. In one US office there was significance
in the positioning of exotic plants. Workers with
two plants next to their desks were supervisors.
There is no limit to the pettiness
that some people will display in an effort to
outline a pecking order. One woman interviewed
for the report said that she had arrived at her
office to find the names of its occupants listed
alphabetically outside. Since she was the boss,
she rearranged the list to put her name at the
The more important the boss,
according to those interviewed in the research,
the more ostentatious the use of office space,
often respecting a traditional hierarchical order.
The classic arrangement of offices, typical in
UK government ministries, says the report, places
the most important managers on the top floor with
service staff in the basement and middle-ranking
employees sandwiched in between. "Many of
the vital cogs of the company - postroom workers,
cleaners, care staff," it says, "get
the very worst spaces in which to work".
Most office workers these days
tend to work in partitioned spaces or cubicles,
a layout invented in 1968 by the designer Robert
Propst and mercilessly exposed in the Dilbert
books, notes Mr Nathan, as a focus of "extreme
standardisation, anonymity and isolation".
Even offices that introduce ideas
such as " hot desking " or that economise
elsewhere on office space, tend in many cases
to preserve large private offices for the most
senior managers, often with strategically parked
secretaries to defend their space. These top managers
invariably have exclusive use of their offices,
whether or not they are around in the building.
As one interviewee put it, when the boss is away,
"the door is kept very much closed".
Given the technology that now
allows many of us to work from home, coupled with
the unreliability and expense of railway commuting,
it is a wonder that anyone bothers to go to the
office any more. More and more people appear to
be opting out. The report says that a quarter
of the UK workforce now carries out some work
at home. The average desk, it says, is occupied
for just 45 per cent of office hours. If employers
want workers to spend more time in the office,
says Mr Nathan, they should consult people more
about work space.
The most extraordinary feature
of this report is that it reveals the persistence
of hierarchy and the continuing use of symbolism
to convey status. One area it does not discuss
is the window created by the internet into a world
outside the office. But even this window is now
denied to some, as is the personal e-mail and
private telephone call. Maybe one day, when workers
have voted with their feet, the boss will remain
alone, unloved and stranded in his room with a
view. But don't count on it.
* The state of the office:
The politics and geography of working space, by
Max Nathan, is published by The Work Foundation,
as a pdf file