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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Office Is an Efficiency Trap

This story is adapted from Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, by Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel.

Right now, whether at home or the office, you are surrounded by everything you need to be an efficiency machine. Never, at least in the industrial age, have there been as many tools, applications, and pieces of technology to help you communicate, collaborate, and get things done. Theoretically, you should be living in a productivity golden age.

So why do you feel overstimulated, burned out, and somehow always playing catch-up? Innovations that were supposed to make the office more humane got co-opted, were put through cost efficiency calculators, and ended up making the workplace feel even more like an overdesigned cage. Even the sprawling, no expenses spared campuses of Silicon Valley share a fundamental flaw with the mundane fluorescent-lit cubicle. With a few utopian exceptions, all of these designs have been oriented toward efficiency and productivity. Not in the service of less work, but in the hopes of fostering a life enveloped by it.

Office technology—and the cult of efficiency in which it is breathlessly adopted—have, since the early 20th century, never been about getting all of our work done in less time. Instead, the ever-accelerating goal of office tech and design has been to clear space in someone’s life, then immediately seed it with the potential for more productivity. This is why our current moment, in which many people are working remotely, feels so full of possibilities and so incredibly treacherous. We’re in efficiency purgatory, caught between all the liberating and oppressive effects of office tech and design. Even from the stifling gloom of the pandemic, we can see the faint outline of a future that makes good on office technology’s grand promise: to actually free us not only form the commute or the tyranny of the open office plan but from the creep of work into every inch of our personal lives.

It’s an alluring vision: What if our tools could actually, legitimately, make us work less? And what if the time we regained from stamping out inefficiencies was truly ours?

Office technology and design are not essentially evil. But we have to commit to using these tools to add dimensionality to our lives instead of further flattening them for the ease of our jobs. In order to realize that vision, we need to understand all the ways that tech and design have successfully beguiled us in the past. We have to know how to spot when a flashy technology or a gorgeous office setup is actually just an invitation for more work in new camouflage.

Over the course of the 20th century, as the manufacturing industry in the US began adopting automation, the office also came to be understood as its own form of a factory—one that produces paper and moves it around from desk to desk. This was first reflected in office design in 1925, when William Henry Leffingwell, a disciple of the Frederick Taylor school of workplace optimization and efficiency, drafted plans for the “straight-line flow of work.” He redesigned the office into a sort of paper assembly line so workers could move documents “without the necessity of the clerk even rising from his seat.” The overarching principle was this: Every time a clerk left their seat, they lost precious seconds of productivity. But these Taylorist reforms of the office were met with resistance—workers hated them. Other efficiency efforts were easier to sell, especially those cloaked in the language of technological advancement: elevators, fluorescent lighting, movable walls, and air-conditioning, popularized over the course of the 20th century, were all means of upping productivity. Same for the open office, which was first proposed by a pair of German brothers, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, in 1958. In place of rows of desks and corner offices, the Schnelles saw dynamic clusters and movable partitions: an office landscape, or Bürolandschaft.

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When the idea for Bürolandschaft was first introduced, it felt scandalous: the same way, say, working from home would later feel in the early 1980s. When the renowned interior designer John F. Pile first encountered the plans in the pages of an esteemed architectural journal, he described finding them “so shocking in character as to make me assume that I was in the presence of some British joke.”

The setup of the Bürolandschaft was designed to follow the natural lines of communication, decrease inefficiencies, and, as an added bonus, cost less: No real hierarchies meant no expensively furnished offices for management. One huge room was far easier to heat, cool, light, and electrify. Yet the design, however well-meaning in theory, was a disaster in practice. Many companies embraced the cost-shaving elements for the “gang” employee spaces—which were loud and antagonistic to anything approximating concentration or privacy—but balked at actually eliminating offices for higher-ups. They were desperate to decrease costs, but they were also fiercely protective of the status quo.

In Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, the experience of working in an open office design was so miserable that in the 1970s local worker councils effectively mandated their removal. But not in the United States, where, as the architecture critic James S. Russell notes, Americans “characteristically reworked” the plan into “something cheaper and more ordered.” The “curvilinear informality” of the Schnelles’ design was formalized into workstations with shelves, cabinets, and dividing panels—what would eventually devolve into the cubicle. (The development, like so many in American history, was facilitated by the tax code: The Revenue Act, passed in 1962, allowed for a 7 percent tax credit on property with a “useful life” of eight years. You couldn’t deduct the cost of a fixed wall. But a partition? Go for it.)

A cubicle offered the illusion of privacy but with little of the reality. You can still hear the conversations of your neighbors; managers still have access to a full view of your current work; you were still hundreds of feet from the nearest window or source of natural light. But these offices weren’t built to make employees’ experience of work better or more bearable. They were meant to match the demands of the “flexible” organization, poised to expand and contract to meet market demands, shedding and accumulating employees as needed.

The open office was celebrated and implemented with a mind toward worker efficiency: a means of facilitating communication and undamming the flows of information, decreasing conflict and competition in the office. And as Nikil Saval points out in Cubed, even the bastardized American version did make some forms of communication easier; you could still talk, after all, even with the sounds of the office in the background. But in so doing, it made concentration and contemplation nearly impossible. “In the rush to open-plan the world” in the 1970s and ’80s,” Saval writes, “some crucial values for the performance of work were lost.” Including, somewhat ironically, the very efficiency and productivity that these designs were intended to create: A 1985 study of offices found that levels of privacy were a primary predictor of job satisfaction and job performance. Designing with a mind toward efficiency, in other words, produced increasingly inefficient workers.

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When you implement a new office design with an eye only to what it facilitates and not to what is lost, you will simply create a new set of problems. Same for short-term strategies to cut tax burdens or real estate footprints: If a technology promises to cut costs quickly and significantly, chances are high that there will be perhaps as-yet-imperceptible effects of those cuts, and they will be absorbed by your already overburdened workforce. New office technologies, including the spaces where we expect employees to work and that determine how they interact with people while doing that work, are never simply “good” or “bad.” But their effects have never been, and will never be, neutral.

In 1983, three employees at Chiat/Day advertising dreamed up an idea that would become one of the most famous Super Bowl ads of all time. A runner, dressed in a tank top bearing a drawing of an Apple Macintosh computer, destroys Big Brother and saves humankind from a future of surveillance and conformity. The ad was hailed as a masterpiece and cemented Chiat’s place as one of the most influential ad agencies of the late 20th century.

A decade later, the cofounder Jay Chiat had a creative revelation, supposedly while skiing at Telluride, that had nothing to do with an ad campaign. It was time, he decided, for an office revolution. He wanted to get rid of not just cubicles but personal space altogether, in the hopes of creating a space of “creative unrest.” In one of the new offices, built in Venice, California, and designed by Frank Gehry, there would be no cubicles, no filing cabinets, no fixed desks. Every employee would check out a PowerBook and portable phone upon arrival and find a place to work for the day. They could even work at home, or at the beach, if they chose: Your office could be wherever your mind was.

None of this will sound wild to anyone who’s visited a startup in the past 10 years, but at the time Chiat’s vision of the first “virtual” office was just as titillating as those original plans for the open office. The receptionist’s desk was framed by the outline of bright red lips. A picture of a man peeing led the way to the men’s bathroom. The floor was covered in a rainbow of hieroglyphs. For meetings, there was a club room, a student union, a romper room, and a series of conference rooms filled with cars rescued from old Tilt-a-Whirl rides.

At first, the Chiat/Day offices were celebrated as the work of a creative visionary: The Manhattan office, designed by the Italian architect Gaetano Pesce, was hailed by The New York Times as “a remarkable work of art.” But as with the original open office plan, workers hated it almost immediately. Employees from the time recalled feeling at once rootless and constantly surveilled; desperate for a space to call their own, many began setting up shop in the conference rooms. In response, Chiat would roam the halls, demanding to know if an individual had worked in the same spot the day before. The company had under-anticipated the plan for everyday demands of PowerBooks, and the lines to check them out were interminable. With no place to call their own, employees resorted to using the trunks of their cars as file cabinets. “People panicked because they thought they couldn’t function,” Chiat later admitted. “Most of it, I felt, was an overreaction. But we should’ve been more prepared for it.”

Chiat sold the company in 1995, and the new owners almost immediately began to soften the most outlandish and unsustainable components of the design. In December 1998, they moved the West Coast offices into a new, equally ballyhooed space in Playa del Rey. The desks were back, and so were the phones, placed in “nests” and “cliff dwellings” divided into “neighborhoods” lined with indoor plants. The message of the office, as WIRED put it, was “Stay a while. Stay all night. Hell, you can live here. Which makes obvious sense in a business that is fueled by twentysomethings pulling late-nighters.”

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In hindsight, the Chiat/Day offices anticipated the “hot desk” gang offices of the pre-pandemic present. But Chiat had misunderstood how to actually unroot his workers from their desks and incentivize productivity and creativity. It wasn’t through art, or Tilt-a-Whirl cars, or flashy graphic design. You just needed to make them want to be there all the time.

Chiat/Day was far from the only company eager to construct an office design that aimed to reflect its iconoclastic mission. If your company was creating truly innovative products, it should follow that it was working out of a truly innovative space. Like the Chiat/ Day Venice campus, these environments were designed as competitive advantages: They’d look cool and attract talent, sure, but the spaces, too, would be generative—a perfect mix of socializing, collaboration, and deep focus.

Of course, none of these companies were any less ruthless about productivity demands on the work, and the nature of work was no less transactional. If anything, organizations actually baked more precarity into workers’ lives in pursuit of growth and shareholder value. But there was a highly cost-efficient, low-friction way to distract employees from this fact: Just group them in inviting environments that fit the company’s projected cultural values of “dynamism” and “community.” The office, in other words, as city—or, even better yet, as campus.

Back in the 1970s, Midwestern corporate giants like 3M and Caterpillar had designed sprawling, bucolic office parks for their thousands of employees, and early Silicon Valley companies like Xerox famously embraced the campus layout. These early campus environments made economic sense: They allowed companies to abandon costly urban real estate, and their location was easier to sell to prospective employees who planned to make their homes in the suburbs.

Corporate campuses were not quite fortresses, but they were private, guarded, and intended to be as self-sufficient as possible. And like a small liberal arts college campus, their cultures were insular, loyal, and generally easy to control. Their skill at innovation stemmed, at least in part, from the not-so-subtle blurring of work and home life: The corporate campus shaped the organization man, and then the suburbs became, in the words of William Whyte, who wrote the book titled The Organization Man, “communities made in [the organization man’s] image.” These workers might not have slept on campus, but office norms extended far beyond the corporate walls, in social structures built to accommodate and reinforce the rhythms of the devoted worker.

The office complexes and campuses of the past 30 years extended this notion even further. They’re even more gorgeous and eminently photographable, but they are also expertly designed by cutting-edge architects to be “cohesive communities.” The goal is not just productivity but, as the architect Clive Wilkinson put it in his 2019 book, The Theatre of Work, something far more aspirational and dignified: In these spaces, “human work may finally be liberated from drudgery, and become inspiring and invigorating.”

Wilkinson, who designed Google’s 500,000-square-foot Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California, says he had his first epiphany about the office in 1995. While reviewing old studies and surveys about worker habits, he came upon a study that measured how office workers spent their time between 9 am and 5 pm. He was immediately struck by just how much “unaccounted” time workers were spending away from their desks—that is, not in meetings or any other explicit work function. But Wilkinson found it hard to believe that all of these workers were taking multi-hour bathroom breaks or simply leaving the office together. They were still in the office; they were just hanging out in hallways, chatting in foyers, clustering around someone else’s desk as the occupant tells a story.

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“It blew my mind,” he told us. “And it made our team realize that the planning of the office was fundamentally flawed.” His realization was straightforward: Office design had long revolved around the placement of desks and offices, with the spaces in between those areas treated as corridors and aisles. But that “overemphasis on the desk,” as Wilkinson recalled, “had worked to the detriment of working life, trapping us in this rigid formality.”

And so he set out to liberate it, shifting the focus of his designs to work that took place away from the desk. In practice, this meant designing bleachers and nooks in places that were once poorly lit corridors, and spacing out desk clusters to incentivize more movement among teams. A kinetic office environment, the idea went, could increase spontaneous encounters, which would then spark creativity. The design also allowed for private areas—many with comfy couches and plush ottomans to replicate a family room feel—to do deep work, away from the noisy bullpen of desks.

Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were especially fascinated with this new brand of office. In early meetings, Wilkinson recalls, the pair’s ideas for design were heavily influenced by their time at Stanford, where engineers tended to gather in small groups and often flocked to far-flung enclaves of the campus for coding binges and study groups. They wanted to merge the traditional office with the university environment, creating a space that would incentivize both collaborative and self-directed work. Wilkinson thus developed a design whose unifying goal—like that of a college campus—was self-sufficiency. That meant flexible work spaces, designed to accommodate constantly shifting teams and new projects, but it also meant abundant green spaces, mini libraries, social hubs, and “tech talk zones,” which Wilkinson later described as “areas along public routes … where almost continuous seminars and knowledge-sharing events would take place.”

In service of this continuous knowledge sharing, the Googleplex was outfitted with a staggering array of amenities. Volleyball courts, valets, organic gardens, tennis courts, and soccer fields dot the campus, which also includes a private park for exclusive Google use. Inside the Googleplex, workers have access to multiple fitness centers and massage rooms, as well as multiple cafés, cafeterias, and self-service kitchens. Unlike traditional company cafeterias, where food items are often gently subsidized, everything at Google is free. In 2011, when the company had around 32,000 employees, the food service budget was estimated at around $72 million per year. Since then, Google’s workforce has more than quadrupled.

In Wilkinson’s recounting, the Googleplex design was meant to allow for “all of your basic work-life needs” to be met within a contained space. As he saw it then, supporting workers with generative, social environments—plus significant perks, like meals and wellness services—was a means to foster true community and sustained creativity. More important, it was a humane, considerate way for companies to treat employees who were working long hours and building products designed to change the world.

Reflecting today, Wilkinson is less sure of that vision. Over the past two decades, his brilliant, innovative designs have rippled through the architecture world, as large-scale tech companies and smaller startups alike have cribbed elements of his team’s dynamic workplaces for their spaces. And Wilkinson is increasingly aware of the insidious nature of those same perks. “Making the work environment more residential and domestic is, I think, dangerous,” he told us in late 2020. “It’s clever, seductive, and dangerous. It’s pandering to employees by saying we’ll give you everything you like, as if this was your home, and the danger is that it blurs the difference between home and office.”

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The danger Wilkinson is describing is, of course, exactly what happened. The new campus design had a profound impact on company culture. Some of that impact was undeniably positive: He created work spaces where people genuinely want to be. But that desire becomes a gravitational pull, tethering the worker to the office for longer and longer, and warping previous perceptions of social norms.

Imagine this scenario: You’re an ambitious engineer, a few years out of school. It’s easy to get to the office extra early and stay late into the night because you can always get a free gourmet meal. You eat with coworkers and talk about a lot of things, but mostly work. To blow off steam, you show up at one of the many company gyms, or you play Frisbee in the company park. When you’re done for the day, you grab a beer on campus before riding the company shuttle back home to your apartment in San Francisco, chatting with your friends as you catch up on back emails using the shuttle’s Wi-Fi connection.

With time, your colleagues become your closest friends and, with even more time, your only friends. Life feels streamlined, more efficient. Even fun! Sometimes you’re just goofing off, killing time, kinda like back in the dorm room in college. Other times you’re working together, like those endless nights back in the library. Sometimes it’s a hazy hybrid of both, but it’s generative nonetheless. It’s the new organization-man-style company devotion, only the country club has moved on campus.

While we didn’t work for a Big Tech company in Silicon Valley, we both experienced shades of this trajectory while working for a media startup in New York City in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. As earlyish employees, we quickly fell into the perks that drew us to the office longer. A weekly Thursday afternoon “brews” all-hands was capped off by free pizza and then a collective call out to the bars. Quickly, our colleagues became our closest friends. (It’s not lost on us, of course, that these events are how the two of us eventually met.)

The company culture’s gravitational pull meant we started dedicating less time to other friends and fledgling nonwork relationships. It was always far easier to transition from the office straight to socializing than somehow planning a meetup halfway across town. We knew all the same people and had all the same conversational shorthand. During happy hours with coworkers, bullshitting could quickly turn into discussions about a work issue. Were we working? Sure. But none of us would have thought to call it that.

We love our old work friends. We’ve been to their weddings; we’re watching their kids grow up; we continue to share our lives with them. Those actual friendships aren’t what we regret, and they never will be. When we moved away from New York, however, we came to realize how work friendships had functioned as Trojan horses for work to infiltrate and then engulf our lives. These relationships didn’t make work-life balance more difficult. Instead, they eclipsed the idea of balance altogether, because work and life had become so thoroughly intertwined that spending most of our waking moments with some extension of our corporation didn’t seem remotely odd or problematic. It was just life.


Excerpted from OUT OF OFFICE by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. Copyright © 2021 by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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