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April 2014 Issue [Readings]

The Office and Its Ends


By Nikil Saval, from Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, out this month from Doubleday. Saval is an editor of n+1.

The Dutch insurance company Interpolis was doing badly in the early 1990s. It hired the inevitable consulting firm McKinsey to come in, which naturally led to layoffs, but layoffs didn’t solve the problem. In desperation, the company turned to Erik Veldhoen, a design consultant best known for his book The Demise of the Office, which argued, as many others were arguing at the time, that telecommunications would soon put an end to the office as we knew it. Veldhoen and his company came up with a simple plan to increase productivity at Interpolis. They created a variety of work settings on each floor — private offices, partially open spaces, and totally open spaces. Dedicated personal desks were abolished. Workers now had lockers, a “home zone” where they worked each day, and an employer-issued mobile phone. And they were now permitted to work from home as much as they needed — typically one or two days a week.

Management’s fears that workers would simply disappear turned out to be unfounded. According to one study from the Center for People and Buildings, a Dutch research institute, workers at Interpolis sought more interactions with their colleagues, and overall internal communication increased. Years of environmental psychology papers had suggested that the requirements of status and privacy, as well as the desire to personalize the workspace (with photos, for instance), were large barriers to “flexible working” without a desk of one’s own, but after some initial resistance, workers adapted quickly to their new arrangements. Although they tended to sit in the same spot each day, they seemed to like what the “activity-related” layout represented: a belief in their own ability to organize their work, and their workdays, to suit themselves. Here was a notion of self-management at odds with nearly a century of theorizing, going back to the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s carefully choreographed factory floors.

It was a seductive vision of the future of work. In July 2012 Louis Lhoest, a consultant at Veldhoen + Company, gave me a tour of Interpolis’s Tivoli Plaza, a communal space added in the second phase of the company’s metamorphosis. What might otherwise have been an empty atrium connecting the various buildings of the Interpolis complex had been subdivided into seven “clubhouse” areas, each designed by a different architect and connected to the others by “streets.” In one section, Aeron chairs surrounded a large yellow conference table; nearby was a bar lined with stools. This setup was overhung with lamps shaped like bowling pins and carpeted with a light-yellow-and-green pattern reminiscent of a medieval tapestry. Lhoest was particularly proud of a set of “ear chairs,” whose high backs and wide wings guarded the sitters’ heads in such a way that, when two chairs were placed across from each other, most ambient sound was blocked out. It was pleasingly extravagant for a workforce expected to show up only three or four days a week.

Veldhoen, who eventually sold the company he started, insists on the importance of giving workers autonomy to shape their own environments. One of the more famous and oddly charismatic personages in the dense, obsessive world of Dutch design, he has become a freelance consultant, expounding his theories of work at design and technology conferences. Two years ago, I met him at his usual table at Dauphine in Amsterdam — the sort of buzzy, Parisian-style café that proponents of his model often cite as one of the ideal working environments for modern “knowledge workers.” When I asked Veldhoen about the notion of autonomy, he began to hold forth on the future of the digital revolution, which he believes will be as transformative as the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution introduced the error, propagated for 200 years, of requiring people to work every day in a specific place; Veldhoen suggested the new era would return us to a pre-industrial state. “We are at the end of labor,” he said. “We go back to craftsmanship.” Information technology was making work more independent of time and place.

I asked him what would happen to the hierarchical nature of the workplace as a result of this decoupling. “In the future we won’t need managers anymore,” he said. He took off his glasses and self-consciously widened his large blue eyes. He knew he had made a grandiose statement, and he took care to emphasize it. “The labor contract will change dramatically. It’s not, ‘You work for me, I’m the boss, and you do what I say.’ It’s, ‘We have a target in our company, and what can you deliver to reach that target?’ And then we make a deal, but you have to deliver that. You’re organizing your own way to get that result; you’re responsible for that, not the company.” I wondered what it meant that Veldhoen was eliminating managers from his system but not the executives or the forms of ownership that had made the Industrial Revolution possible. Then he offered another semi-scandalous statement. “You know Karl Marx?” he said, eyes again expanding. “His dream comes now. Power to labor, to the people.”

Interpolis’s success has proved difficult to replicate. Several other workplaces in the Netherlands that adopted similar layouts suffered enormous drops in worker satisfaction. At the Dynamischkantoor (“Dynamic Office”) in Haarlem, which accommodates parts of the Dutch Ministry for Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment, the percentage of workers who believed their environments contributed to productivity dropped from sixty to twenty-five after their new “activity-related” layouts were introduced in the 1990s. One study of a media agency revealed that although workers passed frequently through a newly designated shared space, there was too much foot traffic for people to stop and talk, and the agency’s director was often in the space having coffee, which made workers fearful of being overheard.

Findings by the MIT professor Thomas Allen, who noted in 1984 that interactions decrease exponentially the farther people work from one another, have led some office designers to cram people together — which of course decreases costs exponentially — while making nominal gestures toward privacy. The result is noise and distraction. Other designers, following the “cave-and-commons” approach, provide for a central space between private offices, thinking that this would be a great spot for encounters and conversations among colleagues. The result here might be no interactions at all, or at least not meaningful ones. Veldhoen + Company’s diligent surveying and generous resources paid off — but plans drawing on a utopian concept rather than actual experience have often failed for lack of listening; companies have adopted the formal attributes of a permissive, nonterritorial workplace but have had to force them on their workers.

The more radical prediction for the future of the office — that it will disappear altogether — might similarly offer either more freedom or only the illusion of it. Veldhoen’s supposedly Marxist claims for increasing worker autonomy and returning to a pre-industrial model of labor organization mirrored the sorts of arguments I’d heard from another writer on contemporary work arrangements, Richard Greenwald, a professor of labor history and sociology at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. I met him last August in a Williamsburg café, which was full of the laptop-affixed freelancers he’s spent the past several years studying. It’s difficult to come up with an accurate count of how many freelancers there actually are in the United States — filing a self-employment tax form doesn’t mean you don’t also have a permanent job, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics hasn’t done an estimate since 2005 — but Greenwald puts the ever-growing number at anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of the American workforce; in Europe the proportion of freelancers is also expanding, which has led some commentators to speak of a new class, the “precariat.” Some of these workers have chosen to leave the permanent workforce; most have been pushed out. In many cases they lack health insurance and are at constant risk of insolvency.

Yet Greenwald discovered that contract work does offer a kind of freedom. He found in the attitudes of freelancers “a sense of pride and identity with work” that has gone missing from the larger economy. Freelancers who do well have substantial control over their hours and the work they produce. They usually work alone, seeing themselves as “entrepreneurs” and therefore unique. This also means, however, that when they fail they blame themselves rather than the system. Greenwald, in a rather uncompromising phrase, described the bind as “a persistence of the white-collar delusion.” He blamed a whole host of freelancer self-help books for promoting a boosterish attitude toward contract work — one that rarely informs a freelancer of the difficulties he or she is likely to face.

Greenwald, like Veldhoen, foresaw a return of independent entrepreneurs pursuing their craft. He thought the only way to make the precariat less precarious was to create a sturdier safety net — to allow for flexibility while making sure failure didn’t mean catastrophe. He suggested that something along the lines of the old nineteenth-century guilds could serve as greater protection against economic change or crisis.

If the increasing contingency of work could be said to have one bright side, it would be the potential emergence of a workplace defined not by hierarchical management but by the greater control of workers themselves. Management theorists have been prophesying this world for decades; Tom Peters has long urged executives to upend hierarchies, and, in another inversion of Marxism, the consultant Peter Drucker suggested that workers would soon come to control the “means of production” — knowledge — and bring about a new postcapitalist society. The labor scholar Charles Heckscher, meanwhile, has seen a “postbureaucratic” world emerging in the wake of the widespread layoffs of the Eighties and Nineties, characterized more by trust than by authority. One professor of business, Amin Rajan, has proposed that employees need to develop “mind-set flexibility,” or a “self-employed mind-set,” in which they treat their employers as “customers” and strive to retain these customers’ “business” by ensuring satisfactory service. In reality, however, job growth is projected to take place mostly in low-wage clerical sectors rather than among so-called knowledge workers, and the expansion of heavily monitored call centers puts the lie to the idea that Taylorism is coming to an end.

It doesn’t seem impossible that a workplace could broadly reflect the collective will of its employees, with decisions made via cooperation rather than coercion. A rash of new companies, mostly tech, have become known as “bossless” offices — among the most famous are Menlo Innovations and the video-game company Valve — in which hierarchies are supposed to be flatter than usual, work is done in groups, and leadership emerges and subsides organically during each project rather than being apportioned according to function and job title. I visited GitHub, a San Francisco–based company that produces a fantastically popular means of sharing and editing open-source software, in September last year, just after they had moved into a giant new warehouse. Spread out over three stories, the facility seemed to express the power and security of several profitable years, resembling, in its many touches of expensive wackiness, some of the dot-com offices of an earlier boom. The vast reception area had been designed as a replica of the Oval Office. One secret wall opened into a mahogany-paneled library with musty leather furniture; another led to the internal office “speakeasy.” Dismantled shipping containers — a reference to the company’s jargon for “shipping,” or deploying code — broke up the wide loft floors into miniature conference rooms. Some workers had assigned desks; many more were nomadic. Private rooms were available for concentrated work. More than 70 percent of employees worked off-site; important conversations tended to take place online. Yet Scott Chacon, one of the company’s founders and its current CIO, kept referring to the value of employees’ being able to “serendipitously encounter” one another throughout the workday. When I asked Chacon how this was supposed to occur if most of the staff wasn’t actually required to come into the office, he explained that he wanted these encounters to be rare, once every month or two, and to be “deeper interactions.” He suggested that people could run into each other at a company event as well as at the office and have longer, more profound conversations. “That’s way more valuable to me than ‘I saw this person when I was going to the bathroom,’ or ‘I had to wait in line behind them when I was waiting for food.’ ” It seemed to me a valid rebuke to the lazier ideas that proliferated in office-design-speak around the world.

The permissive attitude toward coming into work had its correlate in GitHub’s lightly articulated management structure. The company has been the subject of a substantial amount of press for not having managers. Tim Clem — who was described to me by Liz Clinkenbeard, a GitHub press representative, as being on “our, I guess . . . management team, if you would?” — said it was “a little bit of a falsehood that we have no management. The reality is, we expect most individuals to perform most of those managerial functions.” Chacon described this as having developed from the open-source model: “You have all these projects that you can work on, and people choose the crossover of what they’re good at . . . Leadership can be ephemeral.” Although others at GitHub were hesitant to recommend the practice, Clinkenbeard argued that avoiding the traditionally uneven division of labor could be salutary for other companies. For example, whereas in the past a project would begin with the engineers and involve the P.R. team only at the very end, now it was possible for people from various departments to participate fluidly from the beginning. “It can be frustrating to get things done,” Chacon conceded. “You have to convince people. . . . It’s taken a lot of experimentation and frustration, but a lot of great stuff has come out of it.”

Like other widely admired work environments, GitHub remains an exception. Still, its approach reflects a widespread cultural unease with systems of managerial control, an unease that has developed over the century we have spent in offices. When made its ignominious debut, people suggested that the code should have been released earlier through GitHub, so that its fixes could be crowd-sourced. That response reflects a common Silicon Valley hostility toward the secretive protocols of government, and perhaps even a disregard for expertise. Washington, the thinking goes, ought to emulate the flatter hierarchies and more transparent operations of the dot-com workplace. Whether GitHub represents an emerging postbureaucracy remains to be seen, but its spirit certainly points to the need to change the machinery of work and politics alike. Organizations that insist on hierarchy are becoming harder to defend; the “mind-set flexibility” now demanded of all workers may have been imposed from on high, but it has the potential to transform itself into something resembling autonomy.

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April 2014

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