Book: Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval, interview by Rebecca Rosen, The Atlantic.

Rebecca Rosen interviewed Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, for The Atlantic. Saval notes in his book that the history of the cubicle is chiefly based on unintended consequences.  The original idea for sub-dividing space was to encourage personal freedoms, but it turned quickly into a tool for conformity.

Over time, as businesses grew in size and complexity, and hierarchies correspondingly increased in layers, space became a means of denoting who was who; a symbol of power, status, and upward mobility.  Therefore, cubicles, devoid of windows, rich wood tones and extra seating, became the symbol of monotonous and fruitless work.

The trend toward open offices seems as much an effort to counter cubicle farm depersonalization as it was to entice open-minded Millennials.  And yet cubicles were the equalizer that helped remove the hurdles of birthright and class.  However, an open office plan makes the same assumption as a closed cubicle farm does, that everyone works the same way.

Rosen and Saval probe the issue, noting that not all work done in cubicles is rote, and the perception of cubicles as oppressive may be bolstered by authoritarian business practices.  To add to the point, they explore recent revelations that a great deal of the workforce is introverted and prefers private space.

Rosen closes the article with a question on individuality, which cuts to the heart of office design, whether it be open, blocked out, or otherwise.  Neither approach address employees motivation, personality type, or work style. “Freedom” means different things to different people, and Saval responds with his impression of the effort companies and designers take to continually pursue workplace freedoms. (image via Shutterstock)

“For years, historians sought to give voice to faceless and often unnamed factory workers, and they revealed not only the essential humanity of those workers, but often the kind of work that they enjoyed, or wanted to door at least control more effectively. I tried in my book to do something similar with office workers, to show not just how people are managed but how they manage themselves, and maybe disclose in the process how we might find a more satisfying, a more humane way of working.” ~ Nikil Saval

At Atmosphere Commercial Interiors, we have partnered with firms who wish to address cultural changes with environmental changes. This type of transition can be aided by the environment, but not driven by it. Saval aptly notes, “Hierarchies don’t disappear when you place everyone at a communal table or ‘superdesk’; they persist in more subtle modes of workplace interaction.”  Corporate culture is a product of many factors including the environment, but more importantly, it involves the ability of business leaders to live and model their business goals.

Source: Rebecca Rosen | Our Cubicles, Ourselves: How the Modern Office Shapes American Life | APR 14 2014

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