Tag Archives: freelancing

I Want It, and I Want It Now — It’s Time for Instant Gratification | Re/code

I Want It, and I Want It Now — It’s Time for Instant Gratification | Re/code (part 1)

It Takes a New Kind of Worker to Make “Instant” Happen | Re/code (part 2)

Can “Instant” Become a Viable Business? | Re/code part 3)

Instant Gratification Pioneers Kozmo, Webvan, Pets.com Still Believe | Re/code (part 4)

Living in an Instant World: What’s Next After Now? | Re/code (part 5)

Carrying two iPhones that beep out assignments throughout the day, Lyons works for four different app-enabled bike-courier services: WunWun, UberRush, Zipments and Petal by Pedal. He does about 25 to 30 deliveries per day, which adds up to about 50 miles, including the commute.

When he first got started last year, Lyons tried working for traditional bike-courier services where he would make $3 per delivery. “It was outrageous,” he says. “They treat you like an animal.”

Some of the newer services Lyons works for are subsidized. When it first started, Uber was giving away free courier service for its UberRush local delivery trial. Lyons says that demand has dropped a bit since the initial promos wore out.

WunWun — which has the insane premise of deliveries from any store or restaurant in Manhattan within an hour, for free — keeps Lyons the busiest.

Lyons claims WunWun’s system of working for tips, which are suggested within the app at 30 percent, somehow actually works. “You never really get snubbed out on a tip,” he says.

By literally working his butt off, Lyons thinks he will make between $45,000 and $60,000 this year.

[…]

“If people wanted it so badly, why did it not exist?” he says. “It was too darned expensive, and it was not sustainable. Even in 2010, a business like ours would be incredibly difficult to start because not enough sections of the population had smartphones.”

Still, Xu will admit that Palo Alto might not be the most representative test market in the world. As we drive to pick up the delivery, we pass three Teslas parked in a row in the shopping-center parking lot. “Only in Palo Alto,” he says.

But it’s bigger than Palo Alto. It’s bigger than San Francisco or New York. Take all these stories together and the larger point is: The business of bringing people what they want, when they want it, is booming.

A decade ago, we got iTunes, and the ability to buy a song bought and delivered with the push of a button. Then Facebook helped us stay in touch with our spread-out friends and family from the comfort of our couch. Then Netflix DVDs started coming over the air instead of to our mailboxes. Now it’s not just Web pages that we can load up instantly, it’s the physical world.

Not to neglect the important historical contributions of pizza joints and Chinese restaurants, but the groundwork for what you might call the instant gratification economy was laid by Amazon, which spent years building up its inventory, fulfillment infrastructure and, most importantly, customer expectations for getting whatever they want delivered to their doors two days later.

Then Uber came along and established the precedent of a large-scale marketplace powered by independent workers and smartphones. After that started to work, every pitch deck in Silicon Valley seemed to morph overnight into an “Uber for X” startup.

On the one hand, this is a positive development. As startups merge online expectations with offline reality, the Internet is becoming more than a glowing screen drawing us away from the real world. On the other hand, instant gratification tempts us to be profoundly lazy and perhaps unreasonably impatient.

[…]

As for whether there’s demand, forces are converging to fulfill the notion of what some pundits label “IWWIWWIWI.” That is, “I want what I want when I want it.” It’s not the easiest acronym to get your tongue around — but it’s pretty to look at, and it’s right on the money.

[…]

Yarrow thinks we’ve become conditioned for impatience by technology like Internet search and smartphones. “Today, we have almost no tolerance for boredom,” she told me. “Our brains are malleable, and I think they have shifted to accommodate much more stimulation. We’re fascinated by newness, and we desire to get the new thing right away. We want what we want when we want it.”

[…]

Someone had told me the day before that one way to think about all this instant gratification stuff is that it basically brings rich-people benefits to the average person.

In his view, the magic of Uber and services modeled on Uber is that they help you value your time the way a rich person would, without spending your money the way a rich person would.

[…]

For decades, books and TV shows planted seeds of desire for instant gratification in impressionable minds. But across many of these stories about suburban genies and witches, magic wands and technology of the future, there’s a shadow side to getting what you want when you want it. The princesses always seem to run out of wishes before they get what they really need. Their greed is their doom.

“Don’t care how, I want it nooow,” sings greedy little Veruca Salt, right up until she falls into Willy Wonka’s garbage chute, never to be seen again.

[…]

In Pixar’s wistful animated sci-fi story “Wall-E,” the people of the future zoom around in hovering chairs in a climate-controlled dome, with robots refilling their sodas. Their bodies are so flabby they can’t even stand. It’s the ultimate incarnation of the couch potato.

[…]

The most important reason that this is happening now is that workers have smartphones. After a briefer-than-brief application process, companies like Uber hand out phones to workers — or just give them an app to download onto their personal devices — and suddenly, for better or worse, they’ve got a branded on-demand service.

Over and over again, startups in the instant gratification space tell me that the most crucial part of their arsenal is an app to help remote workers receive assignments, schedule jobs and map where they are going.

In large part because they are powered by a mobile workforce, instant gratification startups avoid much of the hassle and expense of building physical infrastructure.

“Remote controls for real life” is how venture capitalist Matt Cohler described mobile apps like Uber and the food-delivery service GrubHub two years ago — because their simple interfaces summon things to happen in the physical world.

Today, that real-life remote control feels even more like a magic wand. At a lunch meeting, investor Shervin Pishevar pulls out his phone, opens the Uber app and sets his location to Japan. “If I push this button right now,” he marvels, “I’m going to move metal in Tokyo.”

[…]

He describes this as a boomerang back to a village economy. After years of trends toward suburbs, big-box stores and car ownership, smartphones could be helping us get back to where we came from. The combined forces of urbanization, online commerce and trust mean that people can efficiently share goods and services on a local level, more than ever before.

[…]

Caviar, which was founded on the premise that “no good restaurants in San Francisco deliver,” became profitable within three months of launching. It has a much snazzier list of restaurants than GrubHub, including Momofuku in New York and Delfina in San Francisco.

Caviar CEO Jason Wang says his startup plans to soon drop delivery fees to $4.99 from $9.99. It pays drivers $15 per delivery and takes a cut of up to 25 percent of each order, depending on the restaurant. Even after the price cut, “We’ll still make money, because our margins are very good,” Wang says.

[…]

Uber is a company that owns nothing. It connects available drivers and their cars to people who want to be their passengers. By juicing supply with surge pricing and demand with discounts, Uber is able to create — out of thin air — a reliable service that exists in 140 cities around the world.

Without fail, instant gratification startups say they will win because they are smart at logistics.

Describing his business, Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta says, “It really is a data-science problem masked into a consumer product.”

[…]

DoorDash’s Xu describes his purpose as a machine-learning problem: Discovering “the variance of the variance” so his algorithm can reliably estimate prep and delivery time based on factors like how long a type of food stays warm, what a restaurant’s error rate is (the norm is 25 percent) and how fast a particular driver has been in the past.

Uber aims to match up a driver and passenger as quickly as possible. Food delivery is more complicated, according to Xu.

“It’s almost never the driver that’s closest to the restaurant when the order is placed,” Xu says.

[…]

a mobile medical-marijuana delivery startup called Eaze launched in San Francisco. Not only was Eaze open for business, it was open for business 24 hours a day.

It Takes a New Kind of Worker to Make “Instant” Happen | Re/code (part 2)

it can be too easy to forget that people make “instant” happen. And, generally, these people are not a traditionally stable workforce. They are instead a flexible and scalable network of workers — “fractional employees” — that tap in and tap out as needed, and as suits them.

[…]

The smartphone is at the center of the sharing economy. Every company mentioned in this series on the instant gratification economy runs on worker smartphones. GPS, texting and mobile-app notifications are the ways to make flexible work actually work.

[…]

It’s very common for people to pick up gigs from multiple services — in the morning, grab some grocery orders on Instacart; then when you get tired of lifting large bags, run a shift during Sprig’s prime lunch hours; then when you get lonely from ferrying around inanimate objects, sign into Lyft to interact with an actual person.

NYU business school professor Arun Sundararajan’s summer research project is counting the number of jobs created by the sharing economy. He doesn’t have an estimate yet, but he points out that the U.S. workforce is already 20 percent to 25 percent freelance.

Sundararajan says he sees a lot of good in the sharing economy. “It will lead people to entrepreneurship without the extreme risks.” He thinks of platforms like Uber as gateways. “It’s even easier than finding a full-time job, which is easier than freelance.”

Can “Instant” Become a Viable Business? | Re/code part 3).

Redefining delivery for a new era of customers who want everything right away requires rethinking operations. By focusing attention on creating a powerful logistical system, and tying into the “sharing economy,” many of the new crop of startups in the on-demand space are trying to offer faster service at a much lower operational cost.

And so the young players in the instant gratification economy are ferrying cargo across town via crowdsourced workers.

Usually, these are independent contractors, who decide when they want to work, drive their own vehicles, receive directions about where they need to be via smartphone — and cover the cost of their own parking tickets. The new buzzword for this is “fractional employment.”

[…]

Deliv is trying to do deliveries of almost anything and everything later that day, for as little as $5.

[…]

Crowdsourced drivers pick up batches of orders, and then take them out to people’s homes.

“I don’t own trucks, I don’t pay for drivers I don’t use, I don’t pay for hubs,” Carmeli says. “The malls are my hubs.”

[…]

Amazon said last year that more than 20 million members signed up for its two-day delivery service, Prime, which now costs $99 per year. While that’s a small number in the grand scheme of things, the high-spending habits of the group — estimated to be more than twice as much as regular Amazon customers — are having a magnetic effect on the rest of the industry.

A skunkworks team at Google developed what became Google Shopping Express last year, by putting the Amazon Prime model under a microscope. According to a source familiar with the project, the biggest lesson was that it’s worth investing ahead of where the market might be today.

Which is to say, many people still don’t know they want same-day delivery, because today they think same-day delivery means fuss, friction and expense. But if you make something fast and easy, consumers will come to appreciate it — and maybe even pay for it. So the upfront investment is worth it.

“It’s better to build volume first, than to launch with a ‘gotcha,’” the source says.

That’s the hypothesis, anyway.

And Google isn’t testing the last part of that hypothesis — charging people money — yet.

It is currently subsidizing six-month trials of unlimited free delivery. In fact, the company is throwing something like $500 million at Google Shopping Express.

Competing with that kind of budget is a scary prospect for startups.

[…]

The scrum now includes two Ubers for home cleaning, a few Ubers for handypeople, at least three Ubers for massages, five Ubers for valet parking, a couple of Ubers for laundries, an emerging group of Ubers for hair and makeup, and so very many Ubers for food.

[…]

Could you actually make a business out of offering same-day delivery — for free? Permanently, not as a promotion.

[…]

WunWun, promises to buy anything from any store or any food from any restaurant in Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn and the Hamptons, and deliver it to any place in that same zone. It’s free.

[…]

Hnetinka was inspired by an April 2013 investment memo from Jefferies called “Same-Day: The Next Killer App,” which made two big points: 1) Free shipping has become a “must-have” in e-commerce. Half of consumers abandon online shopping carts without it; and 2) there’s the opportunity to improve on that service by making it same-day.

[…]

For today, WunWun is making money by taking a slice of tips, and by getting discounts from retailers it spends a lot of money with that it doesn’t pass along to customers.

Tomorrow, WunWun will try to create the offline equivalent of search advertising, Hnetinka says.

Stores will be able to bid to be the supplier for WunWun orders, whether tennis balls, ChapStick or Yankees hats.

“That’s when WunWun really starts to make a lot of money,” Hnetinka says. “We have created the largest demand funnel. We’ve brought together convenience of ordering online with immediacy of offline. So we’re not talking about profitability margins, we’re talking about marketing budgets.”

Instant Gratification Pioneers Kozmo, Webvan, Pets.com Still Believe | Re/code (part 4)

at that moment in time, it seemed like all you had to do was pick a noun, add “.com,” and you were in business.

As a sign of the times, one company called Computer.com spent half its $5.8 million in venture capital airing Super Bowl ads on the day it launched a site purporting to teach people about using computers.

And there were parties, legendary parties, where the likes of Elvis Costello and Beck and the B-52s played, sponsor banners bedecked the walls, and many of the revelers collected their mountains of swag while having no idea which company was even throwing that night’s bash.

Even if Kozmo and its cohort had a chance at a business model that worked, they were all spending more money than they could possibly earn on advertising and parties and weird promotional tie-ups to return movies at Starbucks.

As we all know, that boom went bust in 2000. The period’s most famous flameouts — Pets.com, Urbanfetch, Kozmo, Webvan, even Computer.com, somehow — were all gone by 2001. What’s left — a cautionary tale and some mascot dolls for sale on eBay.

[…]

Same-day service is the single-biggest wave in e-commerce, Wainwright says. The single best experience she had shopping online was when she forgot to pack a certain special black cashmere sweater before flying to New York for a business trip.

Wainwright says she realized the sweater was missing at 11 pm, when she unpacked her bag at the hotel. But it was still posted on the online retailer Net-A-Porter, where she originally bought it, so she placed another order and it was delivered to her office at 10:30 the next morning by a deliveryman in a bellboy suit bearing an iPad for her signature.

“It was absolutely the most amazing thing,” Wainwright says. “It was like $25, it was nothing. Now, the sweater wasn’t cheap — but it was the exact same sweater I had left on my bed.”

Living in an Instant World: What’s Next After Now? | Re/code (part 5)

Jennings has set up a virtual Google Voice number attached to his doorbell so he can let people into his entryway from his phone when he’s not home.

“Say you run out of toothpaste in the morning, you can order it, and then it’s ready for when you brush your teeth at night,” he says.

“The majority of the time, there’s no interaction,” Jennings says, meaning he doesn’t have to say hello to a delivery person or sign for a package.

And in the future, people may be taken out of the delivery equation altogether.

That future is coming sooner than you think. Two years ago, the geek world went wild for an idea called Tacocopter. “Flying robots deliver tacos to your location,” said its website. “Easy ordering on your smartphone.”

[…]

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see that the regulations that now limit such uses of drone technology will almost certainly remain in effect much longer than the technological limitations remain a hurdle,” wrote Mike Masnick.

Eight months ago, Amazon upped the Tacocopter stakes with a promo video for Amazon Prime Air, showing a hovering robotic aircraft depositing a package on a suburban patio. It was a marketing stunt designed to jumpstart the holiday shopping season.

Or was it?

In July, Amazon wrote to the FAA asking for permission to test flying commercial drones outside at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The company said it hopes to deliver packages weighing five pounds within 30 minutes of orders being placed.

[…]

“A lot of things fundamentally change,” he says. “Does the architecture of homes change because there’s more space when you don’t need garages and kitchens? Do you really need a grocery store? You shouldn’t use all that real estate in a city for giant parking lots, you should push a button and be able to get what you want delivered, like Instacart.”

He continues. “And then you argue, is there a world where you have Munchery [another San Francisco food creation and distribution service] delivered to a restaurant that’s not really a restaurant, but it’s a … it’s a front-end. It’s a beautiful spot with a beautiful view, and it doesn’t need a kitchen, just have a few tables for a sit-down dinner.”

This train of thought has taken him to a new place. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that,” Pishevar says. “It’s just a … a distributed table. And then someone would come serve you.”

[…]

A popular justification for all this food-startup fundraising is frequency: Most people eat three times a day, at least.

No, really, that’s what every venture capitalist will remind you. This market is an opportunity because it ties into existing daily habits. People eat more often than they need to Uber across town. And so, the biggest opportunity in “instant” is food.

[…]

Sure, making food is not novel. The innovation here is making food that ties into smart logistics systems that match supply and demand, and coordinating crowdsourced workers so that meals arrive so fast it seems like magic.

“We’re mass-producing the same meal for all these people. We get economies of scale that no restaurant will ever have because of the physical location. Whereas, we can serve the whole Bay Area with the same supply.”

This is not just a restaurant, says Tsui. Combining the core mobile functions of location and real-time makes for a fundamental shift beyond what other mobile apps — besides Uber — are doing.

[…]

Especially for those who live in the cities well served by these services, it’s probably time to start thinking about what deserves to be slowed down, and what things we’d prefer to wait for and savor. Either that, or the inexorable march toward convenience will bring us ever closer to fulfilling the prophecy of those shapeless “Wall-E” couch potatoes, who have trouble standing up after sitting on the couch for so long.

But beyond instant — what comes next?

It’s probably making those brilliant on-demand logistics systems even more brilliant, anticipating our wants and needs before we even have them, and starting to send things our way before we push the button.

Both Amazon and Google are already working in this direction. Or maybe instead of tacos and drones, we’ll all just get 3-D printers, so we can replicate our meals at the table, just like Jane Jetson.

And maybe then Veruca Salt would just calm down.

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Jenny Diski reviews ‘Cubed’ by Nikil Saval · LRB 31 July 2014

Jenny Diski reviews ‘Cubed’ by Nikil Saval · LRB 31 July 2014.

The story of the office begins in counting houses, where scribes kept their heads down accounting for the transformation of goods into wealth and vice versa. You might go as far back as ancient Egypt or stay sensible and look to mercantile Europe for the beginnings of bureaucracy, and the need to keep written accounts of business in one place. Saval gives a nod to the medieval guilds but settles on the 19th century as the start of the office proper, still in Europe, although this is an overwhelmingly American account of the American office. The closer you get to modernity in Cubed, the more the emphasis is on buildings and the more diminished the figure of the worker inside the buildings (until you get to the end and the buildings begin to disappear, although so too do the workers). It’s not a mystery. The design and construction of entire purpose-built structures for office work is a modern phenomenon. Scribes, to stretch the notion of office work, wrote in scriptoria, rooms in monasteries which were built for the more general purpose of worshipping God and housing those devoted to the various tasks (among which the reproduction of scripture) involved in doing so. Clerks are more likely to be what we think of when we want to look at the early days of office work. They emerged from their religious duties to assist commerce in keeping track of business, where we recognise them as dark-suited, substantially present characters in Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens. The ready-made spaces these clerks worked in became ‘offices’, rather than special buildings defining the work they pursued. They kept their books and scratched out their invoices in regular private houses given over to business, and sat or stood at desks in rooms they shared with their bosses for both convenience and oversight – this too disappears and then returns in postmodernity when hierarchy is spatially, if not actually, flattened.

Proximity has always been an important issue for office workers, so much so that it eventually precluded any form of unionisation. Rather than organise to improve their pay and conditions, office workers chose to keep close to their superiors in the hope, not always forlorn, that they would rise in prominence thanks to patronage. Physical closeness applied in the Dickensian office, but there are other ways to achieve it. In The Apartment (perfectly depicting the apex of the American way of office life in 1960 as North by Northwest perfectly depicts the fantasised alternative), Jack Lemmon gets close to his boss, which gets him ever closer to a key to the executive washroom, by lending his apartment to executives for their extra-marital assignations.

[…]

The pre-20th-century office worker saw himself as a cut above the unsalaried labouring masses, and was as ambivalent about his superiors, who were his only means of rising, as the rest of the working world was about him. Dandyish clerks prided themselves on not being workers, on the cleanness of their job (thus the whiteness of the collars), and on being a step above hoi polloi. They became a massed workforce in the United States, where the attitude towards the scribe and record-keeper changed, so that they came to be seen both as effete and untrustworthy, like Dickens’s Heep, and as ominous and unknowable, like Bartleby, but without receiving the amazed respect of Melville’s narrator. By 1855 in New York they were the third largest occupational group. Their self-esteem as their numbers grew was not shared: ‘Nothing about clerical labour was congenial to the way most Americans thought of work … At best, it seemed to reproduce things … the bodies of real workers were sinewy, tanned by the relentless sun, or blackened by smokestack soot; the bodies of clerks were slim, almost feminine in their untested delicacy.’ In Vanity Fair, the clerks are ‘“vain, mean, selfish, greedy, sensual and sly, talkative and cowardly”, and spent all their minimal strength attempting to dress better than “real men who did real work”.’

 

By the mid-20th century sex had created a new division within clerical labour. The secretary was almost invariably a woman and so was the typist, who worked in massed serried ranks, although (again to be seen in The Apartment) there was also a pool of anonymous desks for mute men with accounting machines, like Lemmon as C.C. Baxter. The secretaries lived inside a bubble of closeness to power, looking to burst through it into management or marriage, most likely the latter, geishas at work whose most realistic hope was to become domestic geishas, while the typists (originally called typewriters) and number-crunchers clattering on their machines on their own floor merely received dictated or longhand work to type or add up, distributed by runners, and so were not likely to catch the eye of an executive to give them a hand up unless they were prepared to wait outside their own apartment in the rain.

The pools of workers as well as the interior design of offices were under the spell of Taylorism, the 1950s fetish for a time and motion efficiency that tried to replicate the rhythm enforced in the factories to which office workers felt so superior. The idea that things that need doing and the people doing them could be so organised that they operated together as smoothly as cogs in a machine is everlastingly seductive. Anyone who spends half a day reorganising their home office, rejigging their filing system, arranging their work space ‘ergonomically’ knows this. It isn’t just a drive for cost efficiency, but some human tic that has us convinced that the way we organise ourselves in relation to our work holds a magic key to an almost effortless success. Entire online magazines like Lifehacker and Zen Habits are devoted to time-and-money-saving tweaks for work and home (‘An Easy Way to Find the Perfect Height for Your Chair or Standing Desk’; ‘Five Ways to Spend a Saved Hour at Work’; ‘Ten Tips to Work Smarter, Not Harder’; ‘What to Think about While You Exercise’). At a corporate level, this meant erecting buildings and designing their interiors and work systems to achieve office nirvana. No time, no motion wasted. The utopian dream of architects, designers and managers comes together in the form-follows-function mantra, beginning with Adler and Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in St Louis in 1891, although, as Saval points out, from the start it was really all about form follows finance:

The point was not to make an office building per specification of a given company … but rather to build for an economy in which an organisation could move in and out of a space without any difficulty. The space had to be eminently rentable … The skylines of American cities, more than human ingenuity and entrepreneurial prowess, came simply to represent dollars per square foot.

The skyscraper, the apotheosis of form following finance and function, appears once the manufacture of elevators allowed buildings of more than the five floors that people are prepared to walk up. It was a perfect structure philosophically and speculatively to house the now millions of workers whose job it was to keep track of manufacturing, buying and selling – ‘the synthesis of naked commerce and organic architecture’ as foreseen by Louis Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. The basic unit of the skyscraper is the ‘cell’: ‘We take our cue from the individual cell, which requires a window with its separating pier, its sill and lintel, and we, without more ado, make them look all alike because they are all alike.’ The International Style reached its glory period with the vertical cities designed by Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Henry-Russell Hitchcock. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, the Rockefeller Center, the UN Secretariat Building, Lever House and the Seagram Building were visually stunning statements of corporate power and prevailed by making the perceived virtues of repetition and monotony in design synonymous with economy and order. Even the need for a window in each cell was obviated with the invention of an efficient air-conditioning system and electric lighting, allowing more rational ways to provide light and air. However beautiful or banal the exterior, curtained in glass or blank with concrete, the buildings served as hives for the masses who performed their varied tasks to produce the evidence of profit. They were Taylorist cathedrals, and new techniques of ergonomics and personality-testing for employees compounded the organisational religious zeal, so that individuals more than ever before became bodies operating within physical space, whose ‘personalities’ were tested for the lack of them in the search for compliance and conformity. Business jargon added mind-conditioning on a par with air-conditioning, keeping everyone functioning optimally within the purposes of the mini-city.

The popular sociology books that began to appear in the 1960s criticising this uniformity were read avidly by the office workers who started to see themselves as victims. The Lonely Crowd, The Organisation Man, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the movie The Apartment itself, described a dystopian conformity that mid-century business America had produced in entire lives, not just in the working day. An alternative was proposed by office designers such as Robert Propst at Herman Miller, who were still working on behalf of the corporations, but who saw Taylorism as deadening the creative forces that were beginning to be seen as useful to business, perhaps as a result of the rise of advertising. Open plan became the solution. The cell opened out to the entire floor space of the building and it became a matter of how to subdivide that space to suit the varied tasks each individual needed to do, while retaining openness; to create office interiors in which workers needed to move around to achieve their goals, ideally bumping into one another on the way to permit the fortuitous cross-pollination of ideas. Cubes arrived, boxes without lids for people, but humane, alterable and adaptable to their needs (or the needs of the business for which they worked). Lots of little adjustable cells inside the main cell. Walls became flexible and low enough to be chatted over. Herman Miller’s Action Office and the concept of Bürolandschaft, the landscaped office, replaced the fundamental lonely cell and created its own kind of hell: ‘unpleasant temperature variations, draughts, low humidity, unacceptable noise levels, poor natural lighting, lack of visual contact with the outside and lack of natural ventilation’. And in addition there was a felt loss of privacy that had people bringing in all manner of knick-knacks to their cubes as self-identifiers and status symbols.

Another kind of office work came along with the arrival of the dotcom revolution. Not paper work but screen work. Like advertising but growing crazily, not humdrum invoice-stamping and letter-writing, but innovative programming that required intense brainwork from young, ill-disciplined talent who needed to be kept at their screens as much as possible while being nurtured and refuelled on the job. Being young and not having any connection with the office work of the past, the new workforce was offered on-site playgrounds that kept obsessive minds refreshed but still focused. Hierarchies were loosened, or more accurately given the appearance of being loosened. Jeans and T-shirts replaced suits, all youthful needs (except sleep-inducing sex) were catered for: pizzas and carbonated drinks, basketball and brightly coloured nursery furniture for the young geniuses to lounge or nap on when they were exhausted with programming. The open-plan office moved towards ‘main streets’ with side offices for particular purposes, often themed like Disneyland with lots of communal meeting and playing places, scooters to get around, and built-in time for workers to develop their own pet projects. The Herman Miller Aeron chair, still so desirable, was a design response to the need to sit for long periods working at a screen. It’s advertised as being ergonomically created for people to sit comfortably on stretchy mesh for up to 12 hours at a time.

In advertising, Jay Chiat decided that office politics were a bar to inspirational thinking. He hired Frank Gehry to design his ‘deterritorialised’ agency offices in Venice, California in 1986. ‘Everyone would be given a cellular phone and a laptop computer when they came in. And they would work wherever they wanted.’ Personal items, pictures or plants had to be put in lockers. There were no other private spaces. There were ‘Tilt-A-Whirl domed cars … taken from a defunct amusement park ride, for two people to have private conferences. They became the only place where people could take private phone calls.’ One employee pulled a toy wagon around to keep her stuff together. It rapidly turned into a disaster. People got to work and had no idea where they were to go. There were too many people and not enough chairs. People just stopped going to work. In more formal work situations too, the idea of the individual workstation, an office or a personal desk, began to disappear and designers created fluid spaces where people wandered to settle here and there in specialised spaces. For some reason homelessness was deemed to be the answer to a smooth operation.

The great days of office buildings dictating where and how individuals work within them may have gone. There are new architects and designers who collaborate with the workers themselves to produce interiors that suit their needs and desires. ‘Co-design’ – allowing the users of a space to have an equal say in how it is organised – is a first sign that buildings, sponsored by and monuments to corporate power, might have lost their primacy over the individuals engaged to work in them. But if the time of grand structures is over, it’s probably an indication that corporate power has seen a better way to sustain itself. The shift away from monolithic vertical cities of work and order might be seen as the stage immediately preceding the disappearance of the office altogether and the start of the home-working revolution we’ve been told has been on its way ever since futurology programmes in the 1950s assured us we’d never get out of our pyjamas within the year.

Fantasies of home-working, as people began to see round the corner into a computerised future, were forever being promised but never really came to anything. The idea made management nervous. How to keep tabs on people? How were managers to manage? And it alarmed office workers. It wasn’t perhaps such a luxury after all not having to face the nightmare of commuting or those noisy open-plan dystopias, when confronted instead by the discipline needed to get down to and keep at work at home, operating around the domestic needs of the family, and having no one to chat to around the water cooler that wasn’t there. Even now, when the beneficial economics of freelancing and outsourcing has finally got a grip on corporate accountants, there is something baffling and forlorn about the sight, as you walk past café after café window, of rows of people tapping on their MacBook Air. There for company in the communal space, but wearing isolating headphones to keep out the chatter, rather than sitting in their own time in quiet, ideally organised, or lonely, noisy, cramped home offices. Cafés with free wifi charge by the coffee to replicate a working atmosphere in what was once a place for daydreaming and chat. The freedom of home-working is also the freedom from employment benefits such as paid holidays, sick pay, pensions; and the freedom of permatemp contracts or none at all and the radical uncertainty about maintaining a steady income. These workers are a serious new class, known as the precariat: insecure, unorganised, taking on too much work for fear of famine, or frighteningly underemployed. The old rules of employment have been turned upside down. These new non-employees, apparently, need to develop a new ‘self-employed mindset’, in which they treat their employers as ‘customers’ of their services, and do their best to satisfy them, in order to retain their ‘business’. The ‘co-working’ rental is the most recent arrival. Space in a building with office equipment and technical facilities is hired out to freelancers, who work together but separately in flexible spaces on their own projects, in a bid ‘to get out of their apartments and be sociable in an office setting’. Office space has returned to what it really was, dollars per square foot, which those who were once employees now pay to use, without the need for rentiers to provide more than a minimum of infrastructure. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that ‘by 2020 freelancers, temps, day labourers and independent contractors will constitute 40 per cent of the workforce.’ Some think up to 50 per cent. Any freelancer will tell you about the time and effort required to drum up business and keep it coming (networking, if you like) which cuts down on how much work you can actually do if you get it. When they do get the work, they no longer get the annual salaries that old-time clerks were so proud to receive. Getting paid is itself time-consuming and difficult. It’s estimated that more than 77 per cent of freelancers have had trouble collecting payment, because contractors try to retain fees for as long as possible. Flexibility sounds seductive, as if it allows individuals to live their lives sanely, fitting work and leisure together in whatever way suits them and their families best. But returning the focus to the individual worker rather than the great corporate edifice simply adds the burdens of management to the working person’s day while creating permanent anxiety and ensuring employee compliance. As to what freelancers actually do in their home offices, in steamy cafés, in co-working spaces, I still have no idea, but I suspect that the sumptuous stationery cupboard is getting to be as rare as a monthly salary cheque.