Tag Archives: office

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team – The New York Times

New research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter.

Source: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team – The New York Times

Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).

The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as well, like ‘‘It’s better to put introverts together,’’ said Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, or ‘‘Teams are more effective when everyone is friends away from work.’’ But, Dubey went on, ‘‘it turned out no one had really studied which of those were true.’’

In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. Dubey, a leader of the project, gathered some of the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers. He also needed researchers. Rozovsky, by then, had decided that what she wanted to do with her life was study people’s habits and tendencies. After graduating from Yale, she was hired by Google and was soon assigned to Project Aristotle.

Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.

No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. ‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’

As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.

Project Aristotle’s researchers began searching through the data they had collected, looking for norms. They looked for instances when team members described a particular behavior as an ‘‘unwritten rule’’ or when they explained certain things as part of the ‘‘team’s culture.’’ Some groups said that teammates interrupted one another constantly and that team leaders reinforced that behavior by interrupting others themselves. On other teams, leaders enforced conversational order, and when someone cut off a teammate, group members would politely ask everyone to wait his or her turn. Some teams celebrated birthdays and began each meeting with informal chitchat about weekend plans. Other groups got right to business and discouraged gossip. There were teams that contained outsize personalities who hewed to their group’s sedate norms, and others in which introverts came out of their shells as soon as meetings began.

After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams. But Rozovsky, now a lead researcher, needed to figure out which norms mattered most. Google’s research had identified dozens of behaviors that seemed important, except that sometimes the norms of one effective team contrasted sharply with those of another equally successful group. Was it better to let everyone speak as much as they wanted, or should strong leaders end meandering debates? Was it more effective for people to openly disagree with one another, or should conflicts be played down? The data didn’t offer clear verdicts. In fact, the data sometimes pointed in opposite directions. The only thing worse than not finding a pattern is finding too many of them. Which norms, Rozovsky and her colleagues wondered, were the ones that successful teams shared?

Imagine you have been invited to join one of two groups.

Team A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful. When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who wait until a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak at length, explaining what the group ought to do. When someone makes a side comment, the speaker stops, reminds everyone of the agenda and pushes the meeting back on track. This team is efficient. There is no idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as scheduled and disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.

Team B is different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk about their lives.

Which group would you rather join?

In 2008, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon and M.I.T. began to try to answer a question very much like this one. ‘‘Over the past century, psychologists made considerable progress in defining and systematically measuring intelligence in individuals,’’ the researchers wrote in the journal Science in 2010. ‘‘We have used the statistical approach they developed for individual intelligence to systematically measure the intelligence of groups.’’ Put differently, the researchers wanted to know if there is a collective I. Q. that emerges within a team that is distinct from the smarts of any single member.

To accomplish this, the researchers recruited 699 people, divided them into small groups and gave each a series of assignments that required different kinds of cooperation. One assignment, for instance, asked participants to brainstorm possible uses for a brick. Some teams came up with dozens of clever uses; others kept describing the same ideas in different words. Another had the groups plan a shopping trip and gave each teammate a different list of groceries. The only way to maximize the group’s score was for each person to sacrifice an item they really wanted for something the team needed. Some groups easily divvied up the buying; others couldn’t fill their shopping carts because no one was willing to compromise.

What interested the researchers most, however, was that teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on all the others. Conversely, teams that failed at one thing seemed to fail at everything. The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.

But what was confusing was that not all the good teams appeared to behave in the same ways. ‘‘Some teams had a bunch of smart people who figured out how to break up work evenly,’’ said Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author. ‘‘Other groups had pretty average members, but they came up with ways to take advantage of everyone’s relative strengths. Some groups had one strong leader. Others were more fluid, and everyone took a leadership role.’’

As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

In other words, if you are given a choice between the serious-minded Team A or the free-flowing Team B, you should probably opt for Team B. Team A may be filled with smart people, all optimized for peak individual efficiency. But the group’s norms discourage equal speaking; there are few exchanges of the kind of personal information that lets teammates pick up on what people are feeling or leaving unsaid. There’s a good chance the members of Team A will continue to act like individuals once they come together, and there’s little to suggest that, as a group, they will become more collectively intelligent.

In contrast, on Team B, people may speak over one another, go on tangents and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While Team B might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘‘team leader has poor emotional control.’’ He added: ‘‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well.

Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’’ Rozovsky said. ‘‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the norms — the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique — put her on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team — enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun — allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized.

For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

‘‘We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments,’’ Rozovsky told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do that. ‘‘People here are really busy,’’ she said. ‘‘We needed clear guidelines.’’

However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.

In late 2014, Rozovsky and her fellow Project Aristotle number-crunchers began sharing their findings with select groups of Google’s 51,000 employees. By then, they had been collecting surveys, conducting interviews and analyzing statistics for almost three years. They hadn’t yet figured out how to make psychological safety easy, but they hoped that publicizing their research within Google would prompt employees to come up with some ideas of their own.

[…]

Sakaguchi was particularly interested in Project Aristotle because the team he previously oversaw at Google hadn’t jelled particularly well. ‘‘There was one senior engineer who would just talk and talk, and everyone was scared to disagree with him,’’ Sakaguchi said. ‘‘The hardest part was that everyone liked this guy outside the group setting, but whenever they got together as a team, something happened that made the culture go wrong.’’

[…]

When asked to rate whether the role of the team was clearly understood and whether their work had impact, members of the team gave middling to poor scores. These responses troubled Sakaguchi, because he hadn’t picked up on this discontent. He wanted everyone to feel fulfilled by their work. He asked the team to gather, off site, to discuss the survey’s results. He began by asking everyone to share something personal about themselves. He went first.

‘‘I think one of the things most people don’t know about me,’’ he told the group, ‘‘is that I have Stage 4 cancer.’’ In 2001, he said, a doctor discovered a tumor in his kidney. By the time the cancer was detected, it had spread to his spine. For nearly half a decade, it had grown slowly as he underwent treatment while working at Google. Recently, however, doctors had found a new, worrisome spot on a scan of his liver. That was far more serious, he explained.

[…]

After Sakaguchi spoke, another teammate stood and described some health issues of her own. Then another discussed a difficult breakup. Eventually, the team shifted its focus to the survey. They found it easier to speak honestly about the things that had been bothering them, their small frictions and everyday annoyances. They agreed to adopt some new norms: From now on, Sakaguchi would make an extra effort to let the team members know how their work fit into Google’s larger mission; they agreed to try harder to notice when someone on the team was feeling excluded or down.

There was nothing in the survey that instructed Sakaguchi to share his illness with the group. There was nothing in Project Aristotle’s research that said that getting people to open up about their struggles was critical to discussing a group’s norms. But to Sakaguchi, it made sense that psychological safety and emotional conversations were related. The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.

‘‘I think, until the off-site, I had separated things in my head into work life and life life,’’ Laurent told me. ‘‘But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?’’

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

[…]

The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

[…]

‘‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’’

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A Rare Look at Apple’s Design Genius Jony Ive — Vogue

A Rare Look at Apple’s Design Genius Jony Ive — Vogue.

Jonathan Ive

Ive has a calming presence, like the Apple campus itself, whose very address, Infinite Loop, lulls you into a sense of Zen-ness. In the courtyard, trays of beautiful food—grass-fed steaks and fresh-made curries and California-born hot sauces—lead Apple employees out toward the open-air seating, away from the white cafeteria that might be described as a luxurious spa for the terminally nerdy. White is the color of choice at Apple HQ as in the Apple product line. It is through this white, with its clarity, its dust-hiding lack of distraction, that you have already met Jonathan Ive.

[…]

he is passionate about things, as in things, literally. “So much of my background is about making, physically doing it myself,” he says. In other words, the secret weapon of the most sought-after personal-electronics company in the world is a very nice guy from Northeast London who has a soft spot for woodworking and the sense that designers ought to keep their design talents backstage where they can do the most good.

[…]

“I wish I could articulate this more effectively,” he continues, addressing his ambitions as a designer. “But it is to have that sense that you know there couldn’t possibly be a sane or rational alternative.”

[…]

It may be easier to sneak into a North Korean cabinet meeting than into the Apple design studio, the place where a small group of people have all the tools and materials and machinery necessary to develop things that are not yet things. Reportedly Ive’s wife, Heather Pegg, has never been—he doesn’t even tell her what he’s working on—and his twin sons, like all but a few Apple employees, are not allowed in either. Work is conducted behind tinted windows, serenaded by the team’s beloved techno music, a must for the boss. “I find that when I write I need things to be quiet, but when I design, I can’t bear it if it’s quiet,” he says. Indeed, the design team is said to have followed an unwritten rule to move away from their work whenever the famously brusque Jobs entered the studio and turn up the volume so as to make his criticisms less audible, less likely to throw them off course.

[…]

“if you tasted some food that you didn’t think tasted right, you would assume that the food was wrong. But for some reason, it’s part of the human condition that if we struggle to use something, we assume that the problem resides with us.”

[…]

His father, Michael Ive, is a silversmith, and his grandfather was an engineer. When Ive was a boy, his father worked with the British government to develop and set the standards for design education. When he made things with his son—a toboggan, say—he would demand that Jony sketch his design before commencing construction.

[…]

Five years later, a disenchanted Ive was about to leave when Jobs returned to reboot the then-floundering Apple, which happened, by most analyses, when Jobs enabled Ive. By Ive’s account, the two hit it off immediately. “It was literally the meeting showing him what we’d worked on,” Ive says, “and we just clicked.” Ive talks about feeling a little apart, like Jobs. “When you feel that the way you interpret the world is fairly idiosyncratic, you can feel somewhat ostracized and lonely”—big laugh here—“and I think that we both perceived the world in the same way.”

[…]

Design critics now look back at the birth of the Jobs-Ive partnership as the dawn of a golden age in product design, when manufacturers began to understand that consumers would pay more for craftsmanship. Together Jobs and Ive centered their work on the notion that computers did not have to look as if they belonged in a room at NASA. The candy-colored iMac—their first smash hit—felt to consumers like a charming friend, revolutionary but approachable, and appealed to both men and women.

[…]

Throughout, Ive has refined Apple’s design process, which, he argues, is almost abstract in its devotion to pure idea: Good design creates the market; ideas are king. And here’s the next irony that defines Ive’s career: In the clutter of contemporary culture, where hits and likes threaten to overtake content in value, the purity of an idea takes on increasing currency. “I think now more than ever it’s important to be clear, to be singular,” he says, “and to have a perspective, one you didn’t generate as the result of doing a lot of focus groups.” Developing concepts and creating prototypes leads to “fascinating conversations” with his team, says Ive. “It’s a process I’ve been practicing for decades, but I still have the same wonder.”

[…]

“My boys are ten, and I like spending time with them doing stuff that I did, which is drawing and making things—real things, not virtual things,” he says. Easygoing Ive morphs into Serious Ive on this point: He sees design schools failing their students by moving away from a foundation in traditional skills. “I think it’s important that we learn how to draw and to make something and to do it directly,” he says, “to understand the properties you’re working with by manipulating them and transforming them yourself.”

[…]

On a recent birthday, Tang received two finely crafted wooden boxes containing large, engraved, Ive-designed ashtrays—Tang loves cigars—constructed from the next-generation iPhone material. “It was like getting the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Tang says. Ive likes nothing better than to come up with mischievously inventive ways to use the technology at his fingertips. When a presenter from Blue Peter—Britain’s longest-running children’s TV show, known for encouraging kids to craft utilitarian designs from household objects—came to present him with its highest honor, a gold Blue Peter badge depicting a ship in full sail, Ive was delighted. In repayment, he fired up a Mikron HSM 600U, a computer-controlled machine that can cut up a chunk of aluminum like an origami flower, and in a mere ten hours created a Blue Peter badge that looked a lot like a not-so-distant cousin of the MacBook Air.

[…]

“Shit we hate,” says Newson, includes American cars. “It’s as if a giant stuck his straw in the exhaust pipe and inflated them,” he adds, “when you look at the beautiful proportions in other cars that have been lost.”

[…]

The watch underscores the fact that Ive is first and foremost a masterly product designer; technology almost comes second. It’s a beautiful object, a device you might like even if you don’t like devices. “Everything we’ve been trying to do,” he says, “it’s that pursuit of the very pure and very simple.”

[…]

“You just press this button and it slides off, and that is just gorgeous,” he was saying. He encouraged you to pause. “But listen as it closes,” he said. “It makes this fantastic k-chit.” He was nearly whispering. And when he said the word fantastic, he said it softly and slowly—“fan-tas-tic!”—as if he never wanted it to end. Aside from all the ways the watch connects to your phone, Ive is very interested in how the watch can connect to another human. “You know how very often technology tends to inhibit rather than enable more nuanced, subtle communication?” he asks. This is the question that haunts the son of a craftsman: Is he making tools that improve the world or shut people down? “We spent a lot of time working on this special mechanism inside, combined with the built-in speaker” —he demonstrates on his wrist. You can select a chosen person, also wearing the watch, and transmit your pulse to them. “You feel this very gentle tap,” he says, “and you can feel my heartbeat. This is a very big deal, I think. It’s being able to communicate in a very gentle way.”

An Idea Whose Time Has Come – Metropolis Magazine – June 2013

An Idea Whose Time Has Come – Metropolis Magazine – June 2013.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

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Living Office concept by Herman Miller

In Billy Wilder’s 1960 comedy The Apartment, an anatomization of sex and power in the white-collar workplace that anticipated Mad Men by half a century, the great director offered a brutally funny, spot-on portrait of the postwar office, depicting the fictitious Consolidated Life of New York as a cornfield-size, perfectly rectilinear grid of anonymous, identical desks. How long ago and far away that seems. Though in places the old model still prevails, today’s ideal office paradigm could not be more different: fluid rather than fixed, less hierarchical and more egalitarian, and encouraging (mostly) of individuality, creativity, and choice.

A new story requires a new stage, and into this brave new world comes Herman Miller’s Living Office, the initial components of which the Zeeland, Michigan, furniture company is introducing at this year’s edition of NeoCon. The first wave of an anticipated two-year rollout, the Living Office’s first three product portfolios—called PUBLIC Office Landscape, Metaform Portfolio, and Locale, and designed, respectively, by fuseproject, Studio 7.5, and Industrial Facility—represent the company’s carefully considered response, not only to the ways in which a changed business culture has transformed workplace design, but to where our personal aspirations may be headed, and how the office can support them.

It’s a resolutely forward-looking vision. Yet this emphasis on what the company calls “human-centered problem-solving” has been the hallmark of Herman Miller since 1930, when Gilbert Rohde, its first design director, famously declared, “The most important thing in the room is not the furniture—it’s the people.”

In fact, the past is prologue to the Living Office in a central way—specifically, a slender, significant book, published in 1968, called The Office: A Facility Based on Change, by Robert Propst, at the time the company’s head of research. Under George Nelson, the second design director, Herman Miller had produced many of postwar America’s most iconic objects, by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and others, including Nelson himself. But by the late 1950s, the residential and commercial businesses had plateaued, and the company’s out-of-the-box-thinking president D.J. DePree began casting about for untapped revenue streams. DePree discovered Propst at the 1958 Aspen Design Conference, and was immediately taken with the artist/teacher/inventor. “Propst was truly brilliant, an innovative thinker,” explains Mark Schurman, Herman Miller’s corporate communications director. “D.J. figured, ‘We’ll set him up with a research division, and he’ll find new opportunities.’ One of his first directives was, ‘Anything but furniture.’”

Despite the company’s mandate, Propst became increasingly absorbed by the idea of reinventing the office, an interest that dovetailed with Nelson’s, who as early as 1948 had talked about the ideal working environment being a “daytime living room” that would be welcoming and humane. Propst, too, concerned himself with the human factor—specifically how flexible floor plans and porous, intercommunicating spaces might empower both the individual and the organization.

[…]

Action Office II’s 12 “principles of operation,” encouraged a workplace in which “the individual can participate in goal setting and thus behave like a manager at any level.” Propst’s environment remained “responsive to the goals of the user,” changed gracefully and with minimal disruption, and enabled rapid replanning. It also thrived on contrast: between neatness and chaos, sitting and standing, solitude and collaboration, privacy and community, and, critically, “geometry versus humanism”—that is, a traditional, grid-based floor plan versus a more organic layout.

[…]

Alas—and despite Propst’s injunction against the “four-sided enclosure”—by the late 1970s, the dominant application of the Action Office (and its multiple imitations) had become that most despised of office conditions: the cubicle. Propst, who died in 2000, had sought to liberate humankind from the grid, but his invention wound up locking the worker even more tightly into it.

Yet good ideas die hard, and the Living Office—which expresses Propst’s vision in a new-century way—suggests that, 45 years on, it’s an idea whose time has come. For one, when the Action Office appeared, the world depicted in Wilder’s film had its roots in the blue-collar assembly line, an essentially Victorian model. “There was a small group of people who made decisions, and a whole lot of people lined up executing,” says Greg Parsons, Herman Miller’s vice president of New Work Landscape. Today, Parsons points out, “the office is a facility based on creativity, and we need an organizational structure that reflects that.” As well, the anchoring effects of technology, which worsened in the 1980s and 1990s as ever more devices appeared, have been swept away in our wireless world. Both philosophically and physically, the office is far more flexibility-friendly than it was a half-century ago.

No less important is what might be called the Marissa Mayer Effect. Though the Yahoo! CEO’s ban on work-from-home may have been poorly handled, according to Gary Smith, director of design facilitation and exploration at Herman Miller, her point was powerful. “We’re talking about a shift of emphasis, away from housing and technology, capabilities that could exist only in the office,” Smith explains. “Now there’s a different thing that can exist only in the office, and that’s my access to you. I want to tap your potential, because what humans do best is connect and communicate”—something the Living Office is meant to encourage, by creating a multiplicity of differently scaled settings and making the connections between them more logical, adjustable, and fluid.

In keeping with its people-first philosophy, the company focused its predesign research on gathering insight, not information. “Research will expose the manifest behavior of a population, but it won’t reveal innovation,” observes Smith. Instead, Parsons says, “We asked, ‘What’s going on in the world? What’s fundamental about all human beings, and what do they really want to do?’” Toward this end, Herman Miller engaged in a process that Maryln Walton, of the insight and exploration group, describes as “informed dreaming.” Since 2001, the company has completed three rounds of scenarios, in which it looks five years ahead at potential futures; these enable the company to think about how the world might change, and adjust its product development and business strategies accordingly. The brainstorming process begins with a dozen people from different parts of the organization, followed by a two-day “expert workshop” with six individuals representing multiple disciplines—the most recent, which looked ahead to 2018, included two cultural anthropologists, a specialist in Asian HR policies, and a political science professor—to challenge the in-house assumptions.

The team then takes what it’s learned and imagines (and reimagines) the future until it arrives at three possible scenarios. For 2018, these include Datasphere, which looks at how the digital information generated by individuals worldwide can be innovatively repurposed; New Normal, a consideration of potential push-back against organizations, institutions, and governments; and Polarized World, in which the U.S. and China emerge as the two great economic powers. “We ran workshops with groups of people thinking about each scenario,” Walton says. “Then we spent a lot of time synthesizing the results, and developed what we believe are likely workplace realities in 2018.”

These realities— called propositions—are the gold nuggets sieved from the sand of the scenarios. “We don’t think any one of the three stories will come true,” says Walton. “But the eight propositions are things that we really believe.”

[…]

PUBLIC Office Landscape
Yves Behar & fuseproject

We found this statistic: 70 percent of collaboration happens at the workstation. This hit me like lightning, and I wrote on the project wall: “THE MAJORITY OF COLLABORATION HAPPENS AT THE DESK, YET DESKS HAVE NEVER BEEN DESIGNED FOR INTERACTION.” Our approach became to think of every place in the office, including one’s individual desk, as a place for collaboration. We came up with the notion of Social Desking.

[…]

We believe collaboration doesn’t just happen in conference rooms—it happens everywhere. PUBLIC Office Landscape supports fluid interactions and spontaneous conversations. The seating elements flow into desk surfaces, the fabric elements flow cleanly into hard surfaces. The result is a visual connection that encourages new functionality and casual postures.

[…]

“We’re trying to create Living Office products that function in group and community as well as individual zones,” Katie Lane, Herman Miller’s director of product development, tells me as we tour the cheerfully cluttered, bustling obeya space, the company’s fancy name (obeya is Japanese for “big room”) for the R&D skunkworks in its Design Yard, one of several facilities scattered around Zeeland. PUBLIC Office Landscape, the first system Lane showed me, supports areas in which two to six people typically cluster, and is designed specifically “for knowledge transfer and cocreation to occur,” she says. The heart of PUBLIC is the Social Chair, which supports the casual nature of the contemporary workplace by elevating the ergonomic levels of what looks at a glance like hip lawn furniture. Equally suited to perching, slouching, or sitting on the arm rests, the Social Chair, which can be easily pulled up to a desk or arranged in clusters, invites the quick chat or collaborative bull session, and supports what fuseproject principal Yves Behar (noting that “70 percent of short meetings happen at a person’s desk”) calls “collaborative density.” PUBLIC Office Landscape also speaks to one of the most compelling of the 2018 propositions: Swarm-Focused Work, in which—like bees—groups of individuals quickly zoom together to one spot to accomplish tasks.

Metaform Portfolio
Studio 7.5

Our approach was based on our observations in American offices: We saw a shift from individual to collaborative work patterns, we saw the walls being lowered to 42 inches to introduce natural light to the floor plan. We observed a huge amount of content and the transactions associated with work moved to the digital realm, leaving drawers and cabinets empty. We were looking for an environment to support the creative class.

[…]

Metaform Portfolio addresses a proposition called Hackable and Kinetic Nodes, a vision of the workplace as a campsite that can be arranged opportunistically and moved when necessary. The design challenge, according to Studio 7.5’s Carola Zwick, involved achieving “an architectural quality that can still be transformed by the inhabitants, since traditional planning cycles miss the needs and dynamics of today’s knowledge workers.” Accordingly, Metaform’s core element is a tiered block of polypropylene, weighing about 18 pounds, which can be combined with identical units to create a semi-enclosed space. The arrangement Lane shows me is formed into a half-circle, with squiggly shelves called Centipedes cantilevered off the tiers, and magazines and work displays tucked into the narrow spaces between them. An adjustable-height table, large enough for small-group collaboration, bisects the half-circle. Vertical versions of the shelving—called Vertipedes—are connected to the top tier and provide light visual screening.

Locale
Industrial Facility

In our office, we all travel from our own neighborhoods to a place where we can collaborate in person, so we thought: Why not design an office landscape that behaves like a good neighborhood? In our first thoughts we talked a lot about how social networks behave. Locale is a physical version of how social networks function; the most relevant participants are kept close so that communication is easy, fast, and frequent.

Locale works like a small high street where everything you need is clustered together. The architect or specifier can build small clusters out of different functional modules to form what we call a Workbase, so that the disparate functions of the office reside comfortably together. The library, social setting, working desk, and meeting table are al formed into an architectonic line.

In Sam Hecht and Kim Colin’s Locale, “individual work areas mix with group and collaborative elements to give a high-performance team everything it needs within a neighborhood on the floorplate,” Lane explains, leading me into a zone shaped by standing-height screens, storage/shelving units incorporating sliding easels, and with a low circular coffee table, stand-alone refreshment center, and a row of curved adjustable-height desks. Locale grew out of what Hecht calls an “autobiographical approach” to design, wherein he and Colin thought about how unnatural it felt to have an impromptu get-together in their own office. “You’re sitting, they’re standing, it’s not very productive,” he explains. “We wanted to create a system in which people would collaborate very naturally—every table can be a meeting table.”

[…]

Greg Parsons recalls, “We came up with ten modes of work that are repeated in virtually every organization”—including “administer,” “contemplate,” “create,” “quick chat,” “converse,” “warm up/cool down,” and “gather and build”—“and tied them to the kinds of settings we can create,” he says.

Once an organization’s programmatic needs are understood, and what the mix of work modes might be, Gee’s group develops study plans that suggest how an office’s square footage can be best apportioned. The ones she showed me resemble urban site plans, which seems appropriate: A well-functioning business environment, after all, is akin to a neighborhood, different parts of which cater to varying needs and interactions. “Our team uses a lot of urban planning metaphors when we talk about this,” Gee says. “Because getting the settings right is just part of the equation. That would be like getting one building right in a whole city.”

The Cubicle You Call Hell Was Designed to Set You Free | Design | WIRED

The Cubicle You Call Hell Was Designed to Set You Free | Design | WIRED.

Action Office I promotional image

Action Office II

In 1964, the iconic furniture design company Herman Miller unveiled an office plan unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Called Action Office, it was the brainchild of Robert Propst, who 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 capabilities. Rather than a furniture item or a collection of them, Action Office was a proposition for an altogether new kind of space.

Most office designs at the time were about keeping people in place; Action Office was about movement. Advertisements for the system show workers in constant motion; indeed, the human figures in the images often appear blurred, as if the photographer were unable to capture their lightning speed.

[…]

The items Nelson had designed for Action Office were beautiful, at once homey and utterly modern, nostalgic and forward thinking. His desk surfaces rested on cantilevered die-cast aluminum legs; for the standing desk, a chrome brace doubled as a footrest. A “communications center” with a telephone was acoustically insulated.

There were many idiosyncratic touches. Because Propst had convinced himself that work out of sight was work out of mind, there were no large desk drawers. Instead, there was a movable display surface, from which items could be retrieved and replaced at ease. A standing rolltop desk not only kept workers on their feet but also allowed them to leave work out overnight, securely closed.

Above all, it was colorful: green, bright blue, navy blue, black, and yellow. Like bright magazine advertisements, or the Pop Art of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Action Office proclaimed its allegiance to the new spirit of the age: rich, advanced, potentially liberating.
In this sense, the Action Office that Propst had conceived and Nelson designed might have been the first truly modern idea to enter the office—that is, the first in which the aesthetics of design and progressive ideas about human needs were truly united.

[…]

Despite the rapturous reviews, Action Office didn’t sell. Office managers complained that the entire system was too expensive, because the furniture was made of such quality material. And the space that Action Office created was too vaguely defined, its borders too porous.

The product won a few awards within the industry but otherwise saw little actual adoption in the workplace.

[…]

Propst had run up against a classic problem of design. Office planners and architects tend to imagine that the setup of their own offices should be the way that everyone should work. They pretend that their own subjective methods are objective empirical results.

The failure of the first Action Office on the market might finally have been due to another factor: the cynicism of executives. They had the final say on how their offices looked, since they controlled the bottom line, and the last thing they were going to drop a ton of money on was a set of fancy chairs and desks for their junior and middle managers, let alone the steno pool. And office space was growing at too fast a volume for anyone to be concerned about niceties. Something faster was needed, something more easily reproducible.

[…]

The concept that Propst came to reiterate again and again was that office design needed to be “forgiving.” That is, overly designed and stylized spaces were “unforgiving,” barriers against change, and change was coming into the office one way or another.

Computers were automating more and more processes, allowing office workers to reduce routine tasks to focus more on “tasks of judgment.” What an office design had to do was anticipate these changes as best as it could, through modularity and flexibility. It had to be adaptable, movable. This meant that “design” itself had to be tossed out: anything that made his concept more expensive and less “forgiving” to user needs was against the concept.

[…]

The predilection for beauty of the object was an obstacle in Propst’s eyes; it detracted from the beauty of the office worker’s motion in space.

By the end of 1967, Propst had made significant improvements. The space was smaller; the interlocking walls were mobile, lighter, and made of disposable materials; storage space was raised off the ground.

Action Office II was Propst’s attempt to give form to the office worker’s desire. A “workstation” for the “human performer,” it consisted of three walls, obtusely angled and movable, which an office worker could arrange to create whatever workspace he or she wanted.

The usual desk was accompanied by shelves of varied heights and variable placement, which required constant vertical movement on the part of the worker. Tackboards and pushpin walls allowed for individuation. Intentionally depersonalized, the new Action Office would be a template for any individual to create his or her own ideal work space.

[…]

Steelcase’s 9000 series and Knoll’s Zapf System soon followed.

But the copycat Action Offices were starting to have strange, unforeseen effects on other workplaces. Rather than making them more flexible, they in fact appeared to be making them more regimented.

Douglas Ball, a designer for the rival furniture company Haworth, came up with one of the many knockoff designs for the Canadian company Sunar. Initially excited, he emerged from the completed space utterly depressed. “I went to see the first installation of the Sunar system, a huge government project. The panels were all seventy inches tall, so unless you were six-foot-three you couldn’t look over the top. It was awful—one of the worst installations I’d ever seen,” Ball said. “We thought it was extremely flexible in the plan view, but we had never considered the vertical elevation.”

And it was too late to fix the problem. He had trapped people in giant fabric-wrapped walls, when he had meant, like Propst, to free them.

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 had been meant for flexibility; instead, a new rigidity set in—though it was wrapped disingenuously in humanistic fabric. Propst’s memos seemed to have no effect. Soon the designs for Action Office in the Herman Miller brochures began to seem more box-like. They were selling what the companies wanted.

[…]

“The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive,” Propst says. “Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes.”

Propst noted that his design proved irrepressibly popular: 40 million employees in America alone worked in 42 different versions of the Action Office. But he failed to note that by that point they were all known by the same name: the cubicle.

Action Office – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Action Office – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Action Office II by Herman Miller

The Action Office is a series of furniture designed by Robert Propst, and manufactured and marketed by Herman Miller. First introduced in 1964 as the Action Office I product line, then superseded by the Action Office II series, it is an influential design in the history of “contract furniture” (office furniture). The Action Office II series introduced the concept of the flexible, semi-enclosed workspaces, now better known as the cubicle. All cubicle office designs can be traced back to Herman Miller’s Action Office product lines.

[…]

Herman Miller Research Corporation’s mission was not to address problems with furniture itself, but to solve problems related to the use of furniture. The corporation’s first major project was an evaluation of “the office” as it had evolved during the 20th century — particularly how it functioned in the 1960s.[1] Propst’s studies included learning about the ways people work in an office, how information travels, and how the office layout affects their performance. He consulted with Joan Evans (scholar of ornament and pattern), Terry Allen and Carl Frost (Michigan State University psychologists), Robert Sumner (who investigated the effects of different spaces on mental health), Edward T. Hall (anthropologist and author of the 1959 book, The Silent Language[2]), as well as with a number of specialists, including mathematicians and behavioral psychologists.[1]

Propst concluded from his studies that during the 20th century, the office environment had changed substantially, especially when considering the dramatic increase in the amount of information being processed. Despite the change in what an employee had to analyze, organize, and maintain on a daily basis, the basic layout of the corporate office had remained largely unchanged, with employees sitting behind rows of traditional desks in a large open room that was devoid of privacy. Propst’s studies suggested that an open environment actually reduced communication between employees, and impeded personal initiative. On this, Propst commented that “one of the regrettable conditions of present day offices is the tendency to provide a formula kind of sameness for everyone.“ In addition, the employee’s bodies were suffering from long hours of sitting in one position. Propst concluded that office workers require both privacy and interaction, depending on which of their many duties they were performing.[1]

[…]

Action Office I

Propst and the Herman Miller Research Corporation formulated a plan to address the problems plaguing office workers of the time, which George Nelson’s team realized in the form of the Action Office I. It was introduced in the Herman Miller lineup in 1964.[1][3] Action Office I featured desks and workspaces of varying height that allowed the worker freedom of movement, and the flexibility to assume the work position best suited for the task. Action Office I was ideally suited to small professional offices in which managers and employees often interacted using the same furnishings. However, Action Office I was expensive, difficult to assemble, and wasn’t suitable for offices at large corporations.

[…]

Action Office II

Propst was free to explore his concept of an office that was capable of frequent modification to suit the changing needs of the employee, without having to purchase new furnishings. He wanted to allow the employee a degree of privacy, and the ability to personalize their work environment without impacting the environment of the workers around them. Propst recognized that people are more productive within a territorial enclave that they can personalize, but also require vistas outside their space. His concept was the “back-up,” a two or three sided vertical division that defined territory and afforded privacy without hindering the ability to view or participate in happenings outside the space.[1]

Action Office II was based around the mobile wall unit that defines space. The unit also supported multiple workstation furnishings that benefited from the vertically oriented work space. The components were interchangeable, standardized, and simple to assemble and install. More importantly, they were highly flexible, allowing the company to modify the work environment as needs changed.[1]

The Action Office II lineup was an unprecedented success,[according to whom?] and was quickly copied by other manufacturers.

Despite the Action Office II line becoming Herman Miller’s most successful project, George Nelson distanced himself from any connection with the project.[2] In 1970, he sent a letter to Robert Blaich, who had beome Herman Miller’s Vice-President for Corporate Design and Communication, in which he described the system’s “dehumanizing effect as a working environment.” He summed up his feeling by saying:

One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO-II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for “employees” (as against individuals), for “personnel,” corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.[2]

Scornful as he may have been, Nelson was correct in stating that there would be a “larger market” for Action Office II. By 2005 total sales had reached $5 billion.[2]

Coherent Structures

Propst’s last contribution to the Action Office lineup was a series of furnishings designed specifically for the hospital and laboratory setting. Known as Coherent Structures, the series of highly mobile containers, frames, carts, storage devices, and rails were introduced in 1971.[1] Designed to streamline the service functions of a hospital environment, they were highly successful until the advent of centralized computer systems made such portability of documents obsolete.

Ethospace

Designed by Jack Kelley, who worked on the design of both Action Office I and Action Office II, Ethospace enhanced the wall elements of the Action Office II system. Kelley changed the wall units to highly varied — but standardized — tiles that could simply slide into a frame and be finished with end caps. By selecting new Ethospace tiles, one could quickly change the color, texture, function, and character of the workspace without dismantling the frame or disrupting work flow.[1]

[…]

In 1997, Robert Propst said that he had hoped that his idea would “give knowledge workers a more flexible, fluid environment than the rat-maze boxes of offices,” but regretted that his idea had evolved to some extent into just that, saying that “the cubicle-izing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”[5]

[…]

Action Office furnishings have appeared in many films released within the last thirty years. The first film to feature Action Office products was Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. In the film a white Action Office I roll-top desk is used in the space station reception area.

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.