Most of us spend upwards of eight hours a day, five days a week in an office. Shaped by everything from sexual politics to management theory, offices evolved over more than a century from the counting-houses of nineteenth-century clerks to the open plans and cubicles we love to hate. Author Nikil Saval traces how utopian design ideas became the soulless offices of today.


  • Nikil Saval Editor, n+1; Author, "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace"

How Have Our Offices Changed?

Nikil Saval traces how our office layouts and politics have changed over the years. These photos offer a glimpse of office life from the early 1900s through today.

Read A Featured Excerpt

Excerpted from Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace Hardcover by Nikil Saval. Courtesy of Random House. Copyright 2014. All Rights Reserved.



  • 13:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The misery and drama of office life has sparked much onscreen fodder, including the scathing British satire "The Office" and the stylist '60s TV show "Mad Men." And no wonder, 60 percent of us spend upwards of eight hours a day, five days a week in an office. And for many, a good part of that time is spent complaining about those workplaces.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, there's a history behind the cubicles we love to hate and the white collar jobs we do. Today's fluorescent mazes and the paper pushers who labor in them had their beginnings in the clerks who worked in 19th century counting houses. And since then offices have been shaped by everything from management theory to sexual politics.

  • 13:07:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss all of this is Nikil Saval. He is the author of "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace." He's also an editor with the literary magazine n+1. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:50

    MR. NIKIL SAVALThank you for having me.

  • 13:07:51

    NNAMDIYou can join the conversation with Nikil Saval by calling 800-433-8850. Do you work in an office? What's it like? Love it, hate it, tolerate it, 800-433-8850? You can also go to our website if you have a question or comment. Or if you'd like to see the design idea that evolved into the cubicle or if you'd like to see an actual midcentury Mad Men office, we've got pictures on our website Of course if you'd like to join the conversation you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to So Nikil, what's the origin of the office?

  • 13:08:29

    SAVALWell, you know, there's -- in a way offices are -- you can say that offices are as old as paperwork itself. I mean, as long as people have to do some kind of bureaucratic work there have been office like settings. There's the Uffizi Gallery in Florence for example, was an original office building. The Medici banking operation was run out of there. But I really locate the origins in the contemporary office, and certainly in the United States in the mid 19th century.

  • 13:08:58

    SAVALYou have the -- about that time you have a sudden increase in the number of sort of clerical offices, small -- they called them counting houses at the time and they were just very small affairs. They were two to three clerks, bookkeepers, a partner or two. And these start to grow in cities and people start to notice them.

  • 13:09:19

    SAVALAnd what's more, the people who work in them start to notice themselves. I feel like the fact that there's a spurt in office work at the time and then office workers. And something like you might call it class awareness, not quite consciousness but class awareness, a sense that there's this new group of people and there's this new kind of work. And they have to -- and that's, I think, where you start to see the kind of office emerging...

  • 13:09:46

    NNAMDIKind of office worker self awareness. Office work was new at the time, not fully understood. You quote Walt Whitman on the topic. I'd like you to read a little bit of that for us from the book. The book, by the way, in case you weren't listening before is called "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace." Our guest is the author Nikil Saval.

  • 13:10:08

    SAVAL"It fell to the poet Walt Whitman, bard to the masculine professions, the farmer, the builder, even the loader and lay about to establish that clerking was antithetical to manly American democracy. In a journalistic piece called Broadway the poet turns up his nose at a jaunty group of downtown clerks sauntering down the great avenue toward their cramped rooms in lower Manhattan. He writes, a slender and round-shouldered generation of minute leg, chalky face and hollow chest.

  • 13:10:41

    SAVALAgain, what distinguished the clerks was their dandy-ishness, trig and prim in great glow of shiny boots, clean shirts, sometimes just now of extraordinary patterns as if overrun with bugs, tight pantaloons, straps which seemed coming little into fashion again, startling cravats and hair all soaked and slickery with sickening oils. But, Whitman writes, their sparkling clothes merely hid the truth of their bodies. What wretched spindling forked radishes would they be and how ridiculously with their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stripped naked."

  • 13:11:18

    NNAMDINikil Saval reading from his book "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. It seems as if there was and always is fear of change. And there were big changes taking place in the 19th century world of work. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:11:34

    SAVALYeah, I mean, one of the things that, you know, with a passage that I'm pointing to that Whitman feared was this -- you know, this new group of workers, young men, who rather than moving -- you know, doing farm labor or in a sense sort of factory labor, industrial work, they actually took up these jobs that didn't resemble anyone's idea of work. There was -- you know, bookkeepers sort of were in added numbers to more numbers. Clerks just produced paper. They sort of seemed to reproduce things rather than produce things.

  • 13:12:08

    SAVALAnd what's more, it didn't -- it had no effect on their bodies, right. What Whitman is pointing to is the sense that they're just sort of -- they're not -- the work leaves no imprint. It's not -- they're actually quite -- they grow thinner by being in the office. And they grow, you know, to him, slightly more feminine and eunuch like I think for Whitman.

  • 13:12:27

    SAVALAnd this is really upsetting, the sense that all these people are suddenly engaged in this kind of administrative work that doesn't resemble what Americans thought that work should be. And that starts to grow by the end of the 19th century.

  • 13:12:39

    NNAMDIBut these clerks apparently also want to be seen as, well, manly men. They worry that they are not being seen in that way. And so despite their work they also apparently trained at the first gyms.

  • 13:12:54

    SAVALThat's right. In one -- the diary of one of the clerks I examined, Edward Taylor, he's a tireless evangelist for gyms and for exercise. I mean, I think they were -- clerks were very much aware of the sense that they were not -- you know, they were not manly enough, you know. They were aware of the bards of the press. And so Taylor exercises constantly. He published articles in the newspaper just evangelizing on the benefits of physical exercise.

  • 13:13:25

    SAVALAnd of course this kind of continues to this day. The...

  • 13:13:27

    NNAMDII was about to say, I look at the Gold Gym across the street and the more things change the more they stay the same.

  • 13:13:32

    SAVALRight. You've got all these paper pushers they're called, with just shifting packs of muscle as if they've been breaking rocks all day.

  • 13:13:40

    NNAMDIThe other phenomenon, the term white collar. Where does that term come from?

  • 13:13:46

    SAVALWell, white collar -- you know, the -- it comes from the fact that in the mid 19th century, you know, clerks were different from manual laborers in the sense that they wore the same clothes on the job that they wore off the job. They didn't have work uniforms, they didn't have overalls. You know, they went -- the work was clean.

  • 13:14:07

    SAVALAnd so they dressed in business attire. And companies -- early companies like the company Brooks Brothers was a major purveyor of these shirts with white collars to emphasize the kind of gentile nature of office work. And they even -- I mean, these were kind of expensive and so some companies used to sell detachable white collars, which was a kind of funny...

  • 13:14:28

    NNAMDII love that.

  • 13:14:29

    SAVAL...status marker. But, you know, it comes to be a term of abuse. I mean, when people refer to white collar classes it really -- that comes out of white collar workers. That comes out of the socialist writer Upton Sinclair who derided white collar workers for being too close to business and not considering themselves workers who could be organized.

  • 13:14:48

    NNAMDIToo close to the managers. Another concern about this new class of worker was that they didn't produce anything. And that anxiety persists in many ways today often among so-called paper pushers.

  • 13:15:00

    SAVALYeah, it's a theme running throughout the history of the office that office work is somehow unnatural work. I mean, this is what Whitman points to and then journals at the time say that they should -- real men who do real work, they go into the forest and they clear out woods, they farm, etcetera. But yeah, and if you look at midcentury critiques -- mid 20th century critiques of the office, C. Wright Mills' book "White Collar," he points out that office work is very alienated, I mean, because you're not anywhere near the products of your labor.

  • 13:15:36

    SAVALAnd then as recently as office space, when the office is seen as this kind of excrescence on the landscape. And by the end of the film -- I'm not ruining anything I hope but, you know, the office building is burned down by a disgruntled employee. It's this ecstasy of destruction. So, you know...

  • 13:15:52

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Nikil Saval is the author of "Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace." He's also an editor with the literary magazine n+1. How does your office setup make you feel? We go now to Ben in Berryville, Va. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Ben.

  • 13:16:12

    BENIt just kind of seems like as office works has evolved, first the furniture got more expendable and interchangeable and then that viewpoint seemed to translate to the employees as interchangeable, easily replaceable pieces. Do you see that? I mean, do you see -- I mean, we don't have -- most companies don't have pensions anymore. Most companies don't have, you know, lifetime health care anymore. You're an asset until you're not longer used and you're just put away. And ten minutes later it's like you were never there.

  • 13:16:46

    NNAMDIThe office is assembly line?

  • 13:16:49

    SAVALYeah, that's -- I mean, that's in some ways exactly right. There is this sense that -- I mean, there is a way in which the workplace really reflects the nature of the work being done. I mean, there's -- if you look at the early 20th century, the office was modeled on factory work. They look -- you know, you look at those old films and the desks are arranged in rows and so -- and the work was regimented. People clocked in and out. They sometimes might even be stop watched.

  • 13:17:16

    SAVALAnd then it's true, the later you get into the 20th century you have the furniture changes and the kind of disposability of things. Like the cubicle reflects a -- I mean, I think when people -- it reflects a certain change in the economy, the sense that workers themselves are disposable, interchangeable. They can be -- the rise of a cubicle in fact takes place at the same time that layoffs become common in the workplace. So there is a definite connection between the way the office looks and the way we work.

  • 13:17:47

    NNAMDIWhen we think of women entering the workforce, many of us think of the 1960s and the 1970s. But the U.S. government hired female clerical workers long before that. Can you explain how and why women first came to work in offices?

  • 13:18:01

    SAVALWell, women were first hired in the 1860s. And this was during the Civil War. A lot of -- of course, many men in the north had gone to exchange their white collars for union uniforms. And so there was a shortage of male workers. And the U.S. government needed to hire clerical workers and they hired women. It was this sort of experiment. And they were pleasantly surprised, the men were, that women were not only quite good at their jobs but also could be, you know -- well, rather there were pleasantly surprised that they were not just okay at their jobs but quite good.

  • 13:18:38

    SAVALAnd the kind of plus was that they could be paid a lot less than men. There was a kind of maximum salary cap that was placed on women's employment that was well below, of course, what men were paid. And once this happened it -- you know, the economy changed in the late 19th century when business became big business, agrarian labor started to decline, agrarian employment.

  • 13:19:03

    SAVALWomen were not needed on the farm as much. A lot of them had to go out to supplement incomes. And they went into the workplace. They kind of -- they -- the office sort of chose women and women also chose the office. It became this kind of place of some kind of freedom, although also quite complex in its ramifications. It was a very profound transformation. By about 1920 women were constituting a majority of office workers.

  • 13:19:31

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with Nikil Saval, author of "Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace." He's also an editor with the literary magazine n+1. You can send us an email to Do you enjoy workplace shows like "The Office" and "Mad Men?" And if so, why? How does your office setup make you feel, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:21:43

    NNAMDIOur guest is Nikil Saval. He is the author of "Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace." And apparently along with our engineer Toby Schreiner and amateur actor when it comes to the movie "Office Space," he's also an editor with the literary magazine n+1. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you'd like to see the design idea that evolved into the cubicle or an actual midcentury "Mad Men" office, we've got pictures on our website

  • 13:22:13

    NNAMDINikil, office design is a big part of why we love to hate our work spaces. What's the evolution of what our offices look like today and in particular, the origins of the workplace we love to hate, the work space we love to hate, the cubicle?

  • 13:22:28

    SAVALWell, it's -- the office, you know, up until about -- I'd say about 1950, 1960 was, you know, which is when the cubicle started to enter the workplace, was really about factory work. I mean, it would probably resemble factory work. There was a sense that, I mean, industrial labor was more -- was the model. I mean, that's what people did. That's what an office -- the office was a kind of appendage to it.

  • 13:22:56

    SAVALAnd so they, you know, people know these images from the show "Man Men" now but also from films like "The Apartment" or as far back as "The Crowd" which is row after row of desks and the corridor offices around the side. There was a sense that it was regimented and regulated in a way that factories should be. And this is where the cubicle enters.

  • 13:23:19

    SAVALA designer named Robert Probst, who was hired by the Herman Miller Company in the '50s, this was the office he found. And he was a kind of maniacally inventive figure, a very brilliant mind. And he -- anytime he saw an inefficiency or a failure of design he wanted to solve it. And the office to him was -- he called it a wasteland, this satire for the office. It was all sorts of frustrated hopes of daily defeats, he said.

  • 13:23:46

    SAVALAnd the thing that he hated about it was that it was not actually conducive to work. You know, it -- for example, if you have a corner office or something and you're an executive, you -- this is still true today -- you may not actually need that private space, right. You may not even be at that desk all the time. You're just there because you sort of earned the status privilege. And you may be flying in your corporate jet everywhere. You may not even be there at your desk all the time.

  • 13:24:12

    NNAMDIUp until that time you were -- up until the jet you were describing my office, yes.

  • 13:24:18

    SAVALRight. So, you know, you -- well you got to get the jet...

  • 13:24:20

    NNAMDICorner office, yeah.

  • 13:24:21

    SAVAL...yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, when are you -- and so Probst thought, well why not -- you know, why are the people in the steno pool or the accounting pool who may actually need to concentrate and may need autonomy, privacy, why don't they get a space of their own? And this is -- so he did a lot of research in behavioral science, anthropology. He was a very voracious intellect and reader.

  • 13:24:45

    SAVALAnd eventually the design he came up with, which was called action office II -- there was a previous version that failed in the market -- he -- was an attempt to give form to this concept. It was three walls, obtusely angled, fabric-wrapped wood. They were hinged. It was meant to be flexible. And above all, it was meant to be -- you know, it was meant to encourage movement. There were shelves off the floor so that you would be in action. He saw that physical movement, standing for example, something that we now know today is very true, is conducive to mental effort.

  • 13:25:22

    SAVALAnd this is -- it was -- this debuted in 1968 and it was meant to be an individualized space for the worker, and also to allow for collaboration and interaction. So not quite private, not quite public. What happened is that this debuted in 1968 and it was an immediate success. I mean, no one had ever seen anything like this before. And Probst promoted it tirelessly. Companies began to copy it.

  • 13:25:49

    SAVALAnd it was over the sort of '70s and '80s that it started to morph into the box. It turned out that managers weren't really interested in Probst's ideas about individualism, liberation, collaboration, autonomy. They saw this as an opportunity to cram as many workers as quickly as possible into as little space as possible, as cheaply as possible. It was disposable. It would be written off more cheaply than -- for tax purposes than, you know, more sturdy permanent offices could. And it began to be -- and that's when it sort of took the shape that we recognize today.

  • 13:26:27

    NNAMDIThe endless maze of cubes that we see around offices today.

  • 13:26:30

    SAVALThat's right. Yeah.

  • 13:26:31

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here now is Daniel in Frederick, Md. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:26:38

    DANIELHi, Kojo. Hi, Nikil. How are you this afternoon?

  • 13:26:40

    NNAMDIDoing well.

  • 13:26:40


  • 13:26:41

    DANIELThat's good. So I listened to your commentary a little bit earlier about sort of the social stats of the white collar worker. I'm curious now that you see, you know, the instance that we have that sort of disconnect between Wall Street and bankers and these very definitively white collar jobs from some of the actions that we do. I wonder is the construction, the layout of an office building in that sect contributing in sort of a cultural way to that disconnect, that isolation from them and then sort of the rest of -- I don't want to say the rest of society but that differing morality, if you will?

  • 13:27:24

    NNAMDIBig picture question.

  • 13:27:26

    SAVALYeah, I mean, it's a good question. It's obviously a very complicated issue. I -- you know, layout -- kind of the space of the office is not -- I wouldn't -- I don't want to say that it determines very much but it more often sort of is intertwined or it reflects certain kinds of power relationships. But, you know, if you look at the trade -- like the standard trading floor of an investment bank or, you know, the kind of open plan, desks crowded together, screens everywhere -- I don't know, people probably recognize this from the anchors movies, you know, most recently "The Wolf of Wall Street," there is an attempt to encourage this kind of busy fratty atmosphere.

  • 13:28:20

    SAVALThese places are often very male. There's this kind of gesture towards transparency but actually what it really resembles is just this kind of herding. And I don't want to exaggerate the importance of that but I think what that does is it reflects, you know, a culture that is very much about competition between and around people. So, yeah, I mean -- and, you know, more broadly even just the kind of skyscrapers, the kind of building envelope.

  • 13:28:56

    SAVALOffices announce themselves in certain ways, especially, like, large ones. They do separate themselves in a way from the rest of the world. And so in that sense there's -- they do contribute to white collar workers often being -- feeling distant from say blue collar workers or things like that.

  • 13:29:13

    NNAMDIIn the 1960s a new field emerged, which has also had an impact on most of our lives, management theory. Can you talk about what was envisioned for white collar workers?

  • 13:29:24

    SAVALYeah, I mean, management theory, you know, it -- probably the father of management theory is the figure -- is Frederick Taylor, the early 20th century theorist of efficiency. And he -- you know, his idea was really to separate the execution of work on the industrial shop floor from its -- from the management of it, the knowledge of it. And so he tried to create an ideology where people would study industrial work and then manage it in kind of -- and like, they would -- the control would be separate.

  • 13:30:00

    SAVALBy the '60s this was seen as a little too brutal. People were often -- we'd often talk about Taylorism as byword for, you know, everything that was wrong with work. And so there was more bigger emphasis on psychology figures like Peter Drucker or the author McGregor, the author of "The Human Side of the Enterprise."

  • 13:30:26

    SAVALThese figures thought that you had to encourage workers, you had to -- you couldn't think that workers were to be dominated. They had to be sort of raised up. You had to encourage them by subtle initiatives. So, I mean, management theory, you know, it has always really been about trying to solve the fundamental inequality of the workplace between managers and workers, but also make it feel better for workers, to make it feel like they're part of a larger kind of family or workplace. And to this day, I mean, I think that's the attempt to make workers feel like they're -- you know, they shouldn't say have a union or things like that.

  • 13:31:09

    NNAMDIIf we're talking about the office of the '60s we have to talk about the sexual politics. The television series "Mad Men" made this the central theme. First, why do you think a show about the '60s caught on the way it did?

  • 13:31:23

    SAVALOh gosh, I mean, if the -- "Mad Men" is a very amazing phenomenon. I mean, the -- I mean, part of it is just the kind of -- just the shear visceral pleasure of the design of that show is very -- it's very fastidious and sort of fossil-y appointed, a lot of the -- and it's very, very quite accurate. And the designers work really closely -- I mean, the set designers work really closely with, like, furniture companies to figure it out.

  • 13:31:54

    SAVALAnd in a way some of those -- there's just something fascinating about that. But also I think it's curious to look at an office or a place from that era and feel that it vaguely resembles our own, but in very crucial ways is different, is changed. I mean, there's the smoking and drinking in the office. There's the very clear sexual hierarchy.

  • 13:32:18

    SAVALI think these things both are deplorable to people and also weirdly fascinating. It's kind of anthropological, I think, for people to watch that. And of course, for people like me or, you know, people in my generation, our parents -- or their parents worked. Our grandparents worked in offices like that so it's not too far off in our historical memory.

  • 13:32:38

    NNAMDIWell, let's listen to a clip from "Mad Men."

  • 13:32:41

    UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1Peggy, you are falling prey to a very common situation for new girls. Don't you want to do well here?

  • 13:32:48

    UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2I'm the first girl to do any writing in this office since the war. Marge told me.

  • 13:32:55

    #1Writing? Is that what this is about? I thought you were doing that to get close to Paul.

  • 13:33:00

    #2Thank you, again.

  • 13:33:03

    #1I heard you were being considered for an account because a client's wife saw you and thought it would be okay if he worked with you.

  • 13:33:09

    #2You know, you're not a stick and yet I never wonder what men think of me.

  • 13:33:12

    #1You're hiding a very attractive young girl with too much lunch.

  • 13:33:17

    #2I know what men think of you. That you're looking for a husband and you're fun, and not in that order.

  • 13:33:24

    NNAMDIThat exchange between Joan and Peggy on "Mad Men" pretty nicely sums up the ambiguity of women in the workplace at the time. Can you talk about that and how real women, contemporaries like Helen Gurley Brown, weighed in on the discussion?

  • 13:33:38

    SAVALYeah, I mean, ever since women entered the workplace -- I mean, entered the office, the -- you know, there was a lot of handwringing about sexual politics, about what this would do. And, you know, one of the assumptions constantly was that women were entering -- women who entered the workplace were, you know, not in search of a career. And certainly they wouldn't be given one if they wanted one for many years. I mean, it was not a plausible expectation so that you would rise.

  • 13:34:10

    SAVALWomen often had the sort of most menial jobs in the workplace, the typing, the steno pool, private secretarial work. But the -- you know, the kind of -- there was -- and so a lot of people thought that women should -- you know, basically when women married they were -- you know, they were basically expected to leave the workforce. They were not expected to kind of stay on or seek a career.

  • 13:34:35

    SAVALAnd so with the kind of Peggy Joan conversation reflects, you know, a different aspiration. Obviously Peggy's the figure who resembled a striver, someone who thinks that actually there is no sort of glass ceiling, or she recognizes it but knows how it can imagine herself vaguely getting around it.

  • 13:34:55

    SAVALJoan resembles -- in her sort of strategic use of her sexuality, I think is very close to the figure Helen Gurley Brown -- the late Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, who wrote a book in the '60s -- two books, but one specifically called "Sex and the Office" which was all about this -- how the sexual politics of the office shouldn't be -- you shouldn't be afraid of them if you're a woman. You should actually use them.

  • 13:35:24

    SAVALHelen Gurley Brown was not sort of feminist in the way that we might imagine. She didn't advocate sort of career as for women. But she did -- what she did -- she recognized the kind of barriers that women face in the workplace. But she -- and one of which was, you know, things -- what we now call sexual harassment. But for Brown this was not a problem. She actually thought of it as kind of exciting. She thought that -- she said offices are sexier than harems. You know, like this should be exciting for women.

  • 13:35:55

    SAVALAnd for -- you know, not just the fact that -- I mean, she mentioned that, you know, she was pro -- she was sex positive but she also thought that sex could be used. That women could -- if their boss made a pass at them they could somehow flatter or parry this. They didn't have to turn them down. they had to say yes all the time. They had to kind of take advantage of the situation. So that's the sort of Joan figure, you know, someone who's very canny about how to use her sexuality without losing her freedom.

  • 13:36:23

    NNAMDIAnd the term office wife is still in use today but people might be surprised to learn just how far back it goes.

  • 13:36:31

    SAVALYeah, the office wife as a phenomenon, I mean, that really goes back to the origin -- the private secretary. What happens is that you would have, you know, women who worked as private secretaries were, you know, almost invariably apprenticed in male bosses. And they spent more time often with these men than those men spent with their wives or, you know, what -- if they were married.

  • 13:36:57

    SAVALAnd they often had this -- to be a private secretary, I mean, you had this deep psychological relationship with your boss. You had to -- you often had to get his dry cleaning. You had to handle calls from his children. You just sort of knew everything about him. And so there was the notion that men were really more -- when somebody's more attached to their secretaries and their secretary's more attached to their bosses than actual, you know, familial relationships outside the workplace. And yeah, there still are secretarial relationships like that today. I mean, where it exists I think there's something similar at work.

  • 13:37:35

    NNAMDIOur guest is Nikil Saval. He is the author of the book "Cube: The Secret History of the Workplace." He's also an editor with the literary magazine n+1. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How does your office setup make you feel? Do you work in an office? What's it like? Love it, hate it, tolerate it, 800-433-8850? You can send your email to When we think about offices, our mind goes to design, cubicles, fluorescent light. But the larger issue lurking there is what office workers are asked to do in their cubicles, in their bullpens or whatever setup they have. This is a clip from the movie that you and Toby were acting out previously, "Office Space."

  • 13:38:22

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1Hello, Peter. We have sort of a problem here. Yeah, you apparently didn't put one of the new coversheets on your TPS reports.

  • 13:38:31

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2Oh, yeah. I'm sorry about that. I forgot.

  • 13:38:34

    #1Um, yeah. You see, we're putting the coversheets on all TPS reports now before they go out. Did you see the memo about this?

  • 13:38:44

    #2Yeah, yeah, I have the memo right here. I just forgot. But it's not shipping out until tomorrow so there's no problem.

  • 13:38:51

    #1Yeah, if you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on that would be great. And I'll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo.

  • 13:39:03

    NNAMDIMeaningless work, petty power struggles of middle management. That movie includes a much imitated scene where a group of cubicle dwellers take a baseball bat to the office printer. Why do you think people relate so strongly to satires of office life?

  • 13:39:20

    SAVALOh gosh, I mean, the office is just a tremendous source of black humor. I think, you know, the film "Office Space," which is really just one of the great films I think of the last, you know, 50 years or so, I mean, I think what it captures is -- you know, there's -- what you see in the clip you just played is both the kind of emptiness of the work that he's doing, this bureaucratic form, the TPS reports as well as just the fact that there's no -- there's a psychological relationship between the boss and the employee.

  • 13:39:55

    SAVALI mean, the fact that Peter Givens, the character, his boss hardly listens to him. He's clearly not paying attention. He's just interested in just filling out the forms. He's just interested in getting that and just the protocol.

  • 13:40:10

    SAVALI think people feel that there's just a kind of arbitrariness to a lot of office work. And the fact that, you know, it's very psychologized, the space. You know, there's a lot of sociability. There's -- you're not kind of, you're not often just doing the same thing over and over endlessly for all day. You're -- there's space to kind of interact. You talk to people. You make relationships. And it's so awkward a lot of the time. You're just put in with these people that you spend more time with than your family. And that, I think, is the source of a lot of the humor that -- in offices.

  • 13:40:45

    NNAMDIYeah, calling Dilbert. We got a tweet from Nicolas who posted a picture of his cubicle and says, "Your conversation hits home here at the cube farm." On to the telephones. Here is Alex in Fort Belvoir, Va. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:41:05

    ALEXHi, this is Alex calling from Fort Belvoir. I'm an Army man. I just want to throw out a couple of comments. If they elicit any feedback from you or your guest -- by the way, it's a real honor to be talking with somebody who was at all involved in the film, "Office Space -- if they elicit comments, fantastic. If they don't, I totally understand. Number one, I've been in the Army for as long as "Office Space" has been available for public viewing. I remember the first time I saw this with a bunch of Army buddies, it caught on faster than "Band of Brothers," faster than "The Pacific."

  • 13:41:39

    ALEXIt spoke to us about how people on staff relate to each other. It is, whether you know it or not, it is a military cult movie.

  • 13:41:48

    ALEXThe other thing I'd like to throw out is that television programs such as "The Office," I think "Parks and Rec" to some extent, "Mad Men," and the others -- here's what I think is so vital about them. First of all, they demonstrate that it's really the people that work in those environments that matter. They illustrate how the furniture and the design, exactly what you're talking about, affect how that happens. And I'd like to make a comment. Agree with it or don't.

  • 13:42:24

    ALEXThose programs function in some way as a cautionary tale to people in management. I have noticed, over the last few years, ever since the British version of "The Office" came out, and then Michael Scott became a sort of part of the everyday office jokes, I've noticed improvements in managers' experience -- or their behavior towards workers. Those who haven't seemed to get the "memo," quote, unquote, they don't seem to last very long.

  • 13:42:51

    NNAMDISatire and comedy as cautionary tale, Nikil Saval?

  • 13:42:57

    SAVALThat is a very fascinating comment. I'm very -- it's really great to hear that "Office Space" is sort of a cult film in, you know, outside office settings. That's really, I mean, it's very interesting because, yeah, it's -- well, one, the film, you know, there's also the kind of sub-plot about Joanna the waitress, I mean, which in a way that and the expectations that she should wear more pieces of flare. You know, that's like the sense that that managerial relationship is like an office relationship. And I'm sure there are similar ways that that takes place on an Army base.

  • 13:43:35

    SAVALYou know, I wonder, it's -- I think you're probably right that there is this growing -- you know, "Office Space" was maybe just the start. And then "The Office," the show that David Brent or Michael Scott figure, these represent people who, you know, the kind of typical figure of the boss whose power is not -- it doesn't seem right. It doesn't seem like he deserves it. You know, there's a sense that there's just an arbitrariness to managerial authority, to hierarchies of that kind.

  • 13:44:07

    SAVALAnd I think it's true that, you know, I think in our age, you actually see, you know, in many areas, like just the kind of disaffection with this kind of -- with management and its fiat rules and its arbitrariness. And so, yeah, I suspect that that -- these kinds of satires really do, they really do reflect -- or they may be 'cause, I'm not sure...

  • 13:44:31

    NNAMDIThey raise consciousness.

  • 13:44:32

    SAVALYeah, yeah, of a certain kind. Yeah.

  • 13:44:34

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing our conversation with Nikil Saval. He is the author of "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace." You can still call us at 800-433-8850. How far do you think the sexual politics of the office have come? 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:38

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Nikil Saval. He is the author of "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace." He's also an editor with the literary magazine, n+1. He is our second guest today from that literary magazine. Both he and Chad Harbach are in town for a panel discussion tonight at Politics & Prose. You know, one New York Times reviewer noted that n+1 has so many great writers coming out of it, he likened it to an intellectual clown car.

  • 13:47:07

    NNAMDIWe got this tweet from Scott. "Everyone hates sterile cubicle stuffed offices, yet most organizations continue to favor this arrangement. Why no experimentation?" But hope springs eternal. In the 1990s, more utopian ideas emerged around what an office could be. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:47:26

    SAVALYeah. I mean, this, you know, this -- the 1990s is, I mean, chiefly in Silicon Valley, you had what might be called a kind of generalized revolt against the cubicle. I mean a lot of the people who participated in the first dot-com boom, you know, they probably came out of places like -- they came out of IBM or Microsoft or these, or Intel, or these kind of giant -- a lot of space, Intel, for example, had all cubicles. And they wanted to create these kind of nimble, entrepreneurial -- in their own words, anyway -- more sort of faster, and then more open spaces.

  • 13:48:08

    SAVALAnd I think this is when you started to see some of the things that are actually coming back today. For example, the notion that an office could be nomadic or non-territorial. Like you wouldn't have a desk at all of your own. You would just -- because you would have a laptop and you would roam around with it and sit maybe at a couch, maybe go play some pool, then, like, you know, like, the famous era of the foosball tables and the beanbag chairs. I mean, you know, these were also places, it's important to note, that people worked crazy hours.

  • 13:48:38

    SAVALI mean, the kind of sweat-shop hours of the dot-com boom are legendary and still persist in some startups today. So I think there was an attempt to make -- the basic attempt was to make the workplace seem fun and, you know, to maybe kind of blur the lines between work and leisure, to keep people there and to have them punctuate their day with...

  • 13:49:00

    NNAMDIIn spite of that, a lot of these places have been called white-collar sweatshops, because people, as you pointed out, worked such long hours in them.

  • 13:49:07

    SAVALThat's right. I mean I think that especially in, you know, overwork in these offices -- and it doesn't have to just be in dot-com offices. People work crazy hours in professional jobs, you know...

  • 13:49:20

    NNAMDIIn this town...

  • 13:49:20

    SAVALI mean, there's, yeah, I'm sure. So that I think, that's, you know, it comes from a situation where their overtime is not a very common thing. If you're a salaried employee, the -- you have very few protections against just constant work. And you can be fired easily. So it's -- that's kind of where that springs from.

  • 13:49:41

    NNAMDIHere's Gary in Annandale, Va. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:45

    GARYThanks so much. Back in the 1980s, when Saturn Corporation first started up, I did some consulting for them. And there was this radical idea of making sure that all the outer offices were completely glassed, so the interior was lit. And there were no cubicles. They had white noise distribution above everybody's desk and so forth. And it was supposed to be this radical idea to help productivity and, you know, kind of recover from some of the sins of their conventional automotive industry.

  • 13:50:28

    GARYAnd there's a corollary to this. I just wanted to know what your reaction is to that. Where has that gone? And did that do anything for the relationships you're talking about? And as a corollary to that, the next step of course is virtual work, and how much of that is going on, where you don't even see the other person? And how is that affecting these kinds of dynamics?

  • 13:50:51


  • 13:50:53

    SAVALWell, you know, the attempt to make the sort of example you spoke of -- I mean, the kind of the glass offices, the sort of notion that everything is -- I think there's a symbolism about transparency in a company that you can see everything. I mean the offices of Bloomberg, that company, are also that way. Everyone has -- it's mostly open-planned, but then all the little kind of conference rooms are glass. I think, you know, a lot of these are mostly symbolic gestures. And they may actually -- they often very rarely have a kind of empirical basis.

  • 13:51:32

    SAVALA lot of the office innovations -- they're just sort of, they make gestures. For example, the notion that everyone can see each other or if you have an open-office plan, which is all the rage now, where you have lower walls and everyone -- everyone can sort of see each other. Everyone can collaborate more. What those do is they kind of -- they make privacy and concentration harder. And that's actually what most people need for their work. I mean, it's the kind of emphasis on interaction and collaboration is I think greatly exaggerated.

  • 13:52:05

    SAVALI mean, you know, glass offices -- the other problem with them is that, that too, I mean, that you might have privacy, but you -- you're sort of always being watched, or you can be. And sometimes you don't -- that's not good for what you have to do. When it comes to virtual work, I think, this is, you know, where telecommuting and things like that, that has greatly increased in the last 20 years, obviously just because it's just easier to do it. What that affects, I think, you know, a little bit is management. I think a lot of people, managers in particular, are afraid of having workers offsite.

  • 13:52:38

    SAVALYou saw this in the Yahoo kerfuffle of a year or so ago, where the sense was that workers are better -- more productive onsite. It's not, and which is, again, a sort of thing that's not actually necessarily true. We're, you know, basically you should do work where you need to do work, where it is best. And sometimes that's at home. So, but one of the things it does is it creates this kind of a slight change in the nature of control in the workplace, because managers are not -- you can't quite be watched.

  • 13:53:06

    SAVALI mean, that could change with kind of electronic monitoring and things like that. But I think getting rid of face-to-face interaction or everyday face-to-face interaction, that's -- it does kind of create a subtle shift.

  • 13:53:18

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Elaine who writes, "I work in a great office, lots of very smart people and lots of them are women. Lots of them started in lower level positions and moved up with support and respect from their peers of each gender. I've been here 19 years and it was like this when I started. So my office may be an anomaly." So we are certainly getting that impression here.

  • 13:53:38

    NNAMDIWe also got this email from Philip, who says, "I do not know everything about memes and contagion and the spread of a design concept such as the office cubicle to other settings. However, I wonder, did the first person who saw a set of cubicles on an office floor, who determined that she would duplicate this configuration at her office, say, I'll have what she's having?"

  • 13:53:57

    NNAMDINikil, you write a lot about the utopian idea and the reality. We've now talked about more than a century of innovation in workplaces. So why have the best efforts of designers, architects and executives fallen so short, it would appear for the average white-collar worker?

  • 13:54:15

    SAVALWell, I mean, you know, the trouble with a lot of the design concepts and -- or just plans or management theories, the kind of things, the buzzwords that have proliferated in the office since the origins of the office, you know, a lot of the utopian ideas -- I mean, the important part is that there is the sense that work can be better. I mean, I think that people feel that -- these designers, and they feel that somehow can be ameliorated. But you often find these concepts imposed upon people.

  • 13:54:45

    SAVALYou find them placed on workers. I mean, the cubicle which was in some ways designed to be an individualized space, then became this kind of de facto, rote gesture that was put on people. The same thing is happening with open-office plans today. And that's often why they fail. I mean, you know, one kind of interesting thing to consider is an exception, like Europe. You know, many European offices do not have cubicles.

  • 13:55:12

    SAVALAnd they kind of escaped the open-office cubicle plan of the '60s, because in the 1970s, workers had sort of organizations -- they either had unions or they had works councils, co-management structures, co-determination structures, which also affected the design of the office. And they insisted that open-office plans were bad for them and that they should -- and that people should have private offices. And that became the norm in many European workplaces for a while.

  • 13:55:39

    SAVALSo that, you know, in a way, it's -- the reason these things fail is they're not determined by the workers themselves. That often -- I think, where workers have more control, you find better workplaces.

  • 13:55:52

    NNAMDIHere's Mark in Washington D.C. Mark, your turn.

  • 13:55:57

    MARKI just want to say that this is the next book I have to read. As the coeditor of what I believe is the first collection of office humor back in 1985, every time this happens, I feel really vindicated. But what I really love, because I read the review, the fact that the gentleman who designed the first cubicle concept had previously worked in, and I love this, playground design and (unintelligible).

  • 13:56:26

    MARKNow, was just so perfect, you know, as an area to the experience and to design something as absurd as a cube. I go back to the first generation of bullpens back in the '70s. I remember when a cubicle came in. And it is interesting that they're going back to open plans. It's just this kind of ebb and flow of, you know, bright management ideas that consultants make a lot of money off. But basically, the whole thing is like, it's high school revisited. You know?

  • 13:56:56

    MARK(word?) that the modern office does not, you know, resemble high school hierarchies, you know cliques, the dynamics. I don't know if many people talk about that. But, you know, you go into the average office and I'm back in high school, you know?

  • 13:57:13

    NNAMDIThank you. Thank you very much for your call, Mark. We're running out of time very quickly. But we got a tweet from Raymond, who said, "Thinking ahead, how will robots be incorporated into and affect the office? Will they wear white collars too?" Any thoughts on that at all?

  • 13:57:28

    SAVALThis is a very, you know, interesting question. I'm a -- there's a lot -- I'm a little behind on this sort of research into automation and robotics in the office. But, you know, for -- there, I think there is this fear and, you know, there are books about this, like sort of like the book "Mindless," by Simon Head, that just came out, or "The Second Machine Age," which suggests that a lot of office work is going to be automated.

  • 13:57:55

    SAVALYou know, and this is something that has affected blue-collar work very severely. But people always assumed that knowledge work would not -- so-called knowledge work would not. And I don't know, that may be the kind of future.

  • 13:58:06

    NNAMDIHave to see. That could be the source of the next book by Nikil Saval. He is the author of "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace." He's also an editor with the literary magazine n+1. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:16

    SAVALThanks for having me. It was a pleasure.

  • 13:58:17

    NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on "The Politics Hour," D.C.'s new trash cans boomerang into a political headache for the lame-duck mayor. Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife lose a bid to be tried separately. And Maryland's Health Exchange Board is slammed for violating transparency laws. "The Politics Hour," tomorrow at Noon on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at And for listeners in Ocean City, Md., it's "Coastal Connection" with Bryan Russo.

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