The workspace has always been a mirror of our conception of capitalism, and the pandemic may force capitalism to evolve yet again

It’s not often that I come across great workspace insights in a political journal, but that’s exactly what happened when I read Scott Beauchamp’s outstanding analysis of workspace history in American Affairs. Beauchamp’s well-written piece was an attempt to connect historical developments in workspace design with changing conceptions of capitalism, and it made me reflect on how our offices mirror how we see work and the capitalist system in which most of us function. As the author noted in 2018:

The currently fashionable open-office plan—a design which attempts to incorporate the creative fluidity of a tech start-up with the stability of the “traditional” office—is only the most recent example of conflicting motivations inhabiting the workplace (or workspace, as they’re now called). The layout of such an office isn’t new, nor are the general conceptual arrangements associated with it. But the context has changed. Technology is shifting. New management styles have developed. The notion of the company itself is already different from what it was even a generation ago. To understand where we are and how we got here requires rummaging through office spaces of the past and reading them like hieroglyphics. It requires an archeology of the present.

Beauchamp begins his analysis by citing one of the earliest descriptions of office space, found in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” The office’s first incarnation, set around 1853, was a dark and dingy place, whose main purpose was to “separate the clerks from the laborers.” Of course, at this time most people were still farmers, and the idea of the industrial worker was just being born. In Melville’s story, Bartleby’s manager wants him close but not actually visible:

I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. 

In this early form, the office was a place of drudgery, one step removed from a factory floor, in which the first generation of professional managers kept workers under close contact to ensure that work was completed and that workers, who were probably not to be trusted, delivered the labor for which they were paid. Capitalism, at this stage, was crude and coercive: it was a simple exchange of toil for wages, and no one expected more from an office than a place in which to work under strict supervision.  

 At the start of the 20th century, some 60 years after Bartleby’s world, we find what Beauchamp considers the first corporate headquarters in our current understanding: the Larkin Building built for the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, NY. As Beauchamp noted, this new workspace reflected a maturing model of capitalism, replete with clerks and specialists, all getting their allotted space in line with their contribution to the enterprise: 

The unavoidable intimacy of Bartleby’s office had been replaced by a bland anonymity, an atomization that was only amplified by banal corporate team-building activities. There’s a YWCA on-site, as well as the opportunity to write for the employee-run newspaper. There are places in the building for employees to relax and rejuvenate. And the building itself, with its open central atrium rich with natural light, is as conducive to worker morale as it is useful for employers to observe and measure their employees’ every move. Every major aspect of the burgeoning spirit of twentieth-century capitalism coalesced in the Larkin Building, including the fact that it was more than a building. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it was also a work of art, and an integral part of Larkin’s brand.

For Beauchamp, Larkin’s capitalistic ideal was a paternalistic one, filled with managers who “knew best” and who created a world in which all employee needs were met within the workspace, and through which all employee actions could be monitored and corrected as needed. Larkin was not alone in this view, of course, and this was the great age of the “company town,” which gave rise to the idea of a “job for life,” a concept whose demise at the end of the 20th century continues to reverberate through our socio-political discourse.

By the 1960s, of course, the paternalistic capitalism of the Larkin era had been replaced by a modern version, shaped by the aesthetic and social aspirations of the space age, the rise of global brands, and the need to have offices reflect social, as well as capitalist, changes. As Beauchamp notes, the 1960s workspace was a reflection of Western society’s sleek new self-conceptualization:

Machine-crafted objects, sleek with minimal lines, embodied an ethos of modularity. Drop ceilings, developed to hide the raw innards of wires and beams, were industrial Mondrian. Cheap fluorescent lights flickered over cubicles deep within the windowless center of the building. And the file cabinet was itself a kind of office building in miniature. “Each office within the skyscraper is a segment of the enormous file, a part of the symbolic factory that produces the billions of slips of paper that gear modern society into its daily shape,” wrote C. Wright Mills. The modularity and order imposed on the office by the grand architectural minds of Europe perfectly suited the mid-century zeitgeist, and the new orthodoxy of office architecture theory proliferated in only slightly modified form in a million American office parks.

This version of capitalism, of course, was modern and optimistic, obsessed with trans-national conceptions of cool, and workers were given much more freedom to shape their spaces. Conference rooms proliferated, lounges and flexible spaces entered the workspace, and the idea that workspace should shape, much more than reflect, corporate culture began to take hold. In a transformational change, the first computers entered the workspace, initially in government and academia and then in the private sector, and their arrival challenged workspace designers to integrate people and machines side by side. Thus, an automated form of capitalism was born, and workers began to think of their work as tied to, and enhanced by, machines. Capitalism itself, the shiny new IBM machines told everyone, would from now on require not just human labor and intellect but “smart” machines that made us better and more powerful. 

With the social and media revolutions of the late 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the next reinvention of the workspace would be made by an advertising mogul and would involve the demolition of what was left of the walls that separated most workers. Legend has it that one day Jay Chiat, then-CEO of the advertising agency Chiat\Day, “had a vision on the ski slopes of Telluride.” On the basis of his vsion, Chiat hired designer Gaetano Pesce to build a new office space in 1994, and, notes Beauchamp:

The result was something that resembled a cross between a warehouse, a conference room, and a college rec center. Without a need for walls, desks, offices, or file cabinets, employees seemed to “move through an improved dimension in a radically fluid arrangement of space” designed to keep the firm in a “state of creative unrest,” the New York Times reported.

Thus, the floor-plan office was born, and two decades later it was — pre-COVID at least — the dominant workspace concept across most of the Western world. Ironically, just as the pandemic emptied office spaces, more and more research pointed to its negative effects. A study from Steelcase, for example, highlighted the flaws inherent in most open floor-plan designs. As the report noted:

A constant din of sound serves as the backdrop to conditions in which workers are observed more intrusively than even the Taylorists could have imagined. And yet, contrary to what the Taylorists might have predicted, these panopticon offices are actually counterproductive in the literal, economic sense of the term as well. A growing body of research describes their deleterious effects on workers’ efficiency, with one study estimating that open offices cause a 15 percent reduction in productivity.

The authors added that:

More than ever before, workers are going public with complaints about their lack of privacy at work. Blogs and online chat rooms are chock-full of soliloquies about what everyday life in an open-plan workplace is like: how easy it is to be distracted, how stressful the environment can be and how hard it is to get any individual work done. Many say they literally can’t hear themselves think.

The open office, said its critics, had become a cacophony of voices and sounds. Workers were inundated with noise, so much so, said the Steelcase report, that many respondents “say they literally can’t hear themselves think.”

Perhaps in response to these complaints, the latest offices from the likes of Google, Facebook, etc., have returned to a modern version of the Larkin ethos. Daycare, recreation spaces, parks, etc. are an attempt to de-stress the open office, much as Larkin’s then-revolutionary laundry and atriums was an attempt to de-stress the corporate building. These new conceptualizations of workspace, shiny and new as they are, have as much to say about our version of capitalism, notes Beauchamp, as the workspaces of Bartleby and the Mad Men eras.

For Beauchamp, the implications of pre-pandemic office design were at once subtle and disturbing. To explain why this is so, he cites the South-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who believes that work has changed from a dialectic around what I, as a worker, am allowed to do by my company, to what I, as a worker, am capable of doing through my own efforts. In Han’s view, companies replaced a workspace shaped by a “disciplinary” society, in which bosses set rules and workers were measured by standards of conformity, with an “achievement” society, in which workers are measured by their self-induced productivity. In other words, for Han, the victory of the open office space is one that signals a total internalization of capitalism, in which employees no longer need to be boxed, segmented, and monitored in the office to perform. Freed from their physical spaces and constraints, employees are left only with themselves as motivators and judges, pushed by their fellow workers/competitors — and increasingly AI  to meld personal and work lives into one unified, always-on/always-working, existence. As the author concludes:

An attention economy dissolves the separation between the personal and professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality that is inherently and inescapably 24/7. What this suggests is that as the office walls come down, so will the temporal and ideological barriers separating work from nonwork. The office of the future, in other words, won’t be a place, but an identity. The office of the future will be your most intimate conceptions of self, somehow put to work.

The pandemic, of course, made Beauchamp’s conception into a global reality. The office of 2021 is indeed an identity, a state of mind, enabled virtually through technology and completely integrated not just into our minds but into our private lives and homes. We now, as Han predicted, work at home and live at work. The pandemic has brought about the ultimate fulfillment of Chiat’s desire that workers live in a constant state of creative unrest.

This is a gloomy outcome that has led to feelings of exhaustion and isolation all over the working world, but there is hope on the horizon. Increasingly, research indicates that people feel a need to reclaim a clear demarcation between work and home as the pandemic ends. This dissociation of two worlds the pandemic fused may, in turn, force us to reconsider the version of capitalism that dominated before the COVID crisis. Indeed, a new report from Steelcase suggests that the most important change the pandemic brought to workers is an increased desire for autonomy.

Most people want a hybrid model to stay and to hold on to the autonomy over work-space and work-time that the pandemic gave them. Moreover, as AI technologies increasingly threaten white-collar work, those workers are starting to wonder about life outside the full-time capitalist system, moving to gig work that allows them to shape their own lives independent of a single company or employer.

In Beauchamp’s dystopian present/future, capitalism was, in 2019, making the leap from a system to a mindset, from a conceptual commercial framework to a holistic way of life. In our future, then, managers would be obsolete, as workers merged their private and work lives completely, immersed in a capitalist system that was with us from sunup to sundown. Ironically, in some strange way the pandemic may have stopped that dark vision from becoming a reality.

Workers have had over a year to contemplate where capitalism was headed pre-pandemic, and many did not like what they saw. As they return to their offices throughout 2021, perhaps they will do so with a different concept of what work means to them. Indeed, in a recent article Han notes that the origin of the word crisis is the Greek term krisis, meaning a turning point. Perhaps, writes Han, the pandemic may “allow us to reverse our fate and turn away from our distress.” If so, this will require a radical redesign not just of workspace but of work itself. Hopefully, capitalism is capable of yet another evolution through which we regain our independence, both physical and psychological, from those spaces that can so easily come to reflect, and even define, who we are.

Posted by:Carlos Alvarenga