The Sociable Office

From the Pages of “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” [Part 3]

The dominant role of offices over society and over our lives then has been a result of years of planning and chance happenings,

of which you’ll read more of in previous articles of this series. As socially relevant as our offices have always been, Saval does not use the term “sociable office”, until much later in the book, but instead he introduces us to this concept gradually and with restrain, ushering us into the world of new age offices. A world where gossip and politics are found in plenty; a world of after hour drinks and office pranks; one where it is not uncommon to forge a friendship or find a lover. The office that we know today, grew gradually, first with the entry of women into office space and then with radical changes in office design.

The Rise of the Woman

“The offices of our grandfathers were without steel frames and files, without elevators and radiators, without telephones,- and without skirts.”

Saval takes us back to the beginning of the sociable office with this quote by architect Charles Loring, essentially stating that  the birth of the social office started, as most things in the world do, with the entry of women.

And it all started, as Saval says, with the “white blouse revolution” of the mid-twentieth century. Women entered the offices in hordes, as typists and secretaries, so much so that these positions soon became synonymous to the female sex. Women chose the office because it gave them a sense of freedom, the office chose women because they were cheaper to hire. The most ambitious of the women, used their charms to move up the office ladder, as Saval describes in his reminisce of the classic movie, The Baby Face, one of the many movies that explored the mysterious relationship of a secretary with her boss. Women in the office were invariably objects of desire.

social office

They were wooed and sexually harassed, and as most secretarial schools taught their women, they were expected to respond to come-ons with “silent patience or cheerful unawareness”. Yes, there was a time when women went to secretarial schools, the position of a secretary being the highest position a woman could ever hope to hold. Women at these schools were taught to be impeccably dressed, perfectly made up and outrageously well mannered, “no less than office geishas” as an author wrote.

social office

The office weren’t hospitable to women,

but they were undoubtedly the first common space that man and woman occupied together, for several hours a day. “For better or for worse”, Saval writes, “the office engineered so much of the sexual world we now inhabit”.

The Offices of the New World

The interaction between sexes was only one aspect of the sociable office, design was another, and so the concept of the sociable office was further realized with the building of suburban office parks. Saval takes us to 1954, downtown New York, where the earliest of these, the ingeniously designed AT&T Bell Labs was located.

Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey
Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey

A striking feature of the Bell Labs office park was that all long corridors interconnected all its different buildings. As a consequence, “physicists ran into chemists, who ran into mathematicians, who ran into developers.” People who otherwise lived completely different lives were forced to interact with each other and lavishly designed common rooms, cafeterias and game rooms attracted people to these office parks, even though they were situated far away from the city. As suburban office parks became even more common over the years, the sociable office phenomenon spread like wildfire.

Media, however, termed these office parks as propagators of “illusory freedom” and its workers, as “cheerful robots”.

The result of corporate work becoming more social and offices offering a bevy of amenities to its workers, is that the office space became the white collar masses whole world. The world had suddenly taken note of corporate conformity, of how gigantic businesses were overshadowing the individual, and yet, the status and comfort that a cushy office job promised was hard to resist.

The sociable office design was yet to be radicalized further, and this came in the form of open office plans, developed first by Robert Propst, a professor of art. “To change a desk… was to change one’s entire way of being in the world”, Saval writes, introducing the first even standup desk brought into the office space by Propst. Propst’s idea that the environment of a worker affected his/her work was taken up by the Schnelle brother’s in Germany, who designed an office plan that they called “Bϋrolandschaft” or “office landscape”.

“The arrangement of desks seemed utterly chaotic – a mess, like a forest of refrigerator magnets…. And, most startling of all, there are no closed doors in sight, no one boxed in, no executives enjoying commanding views in snug corners.”

Office design, as Saval writes, “had come into its own”.

Breaking Away from Office

Perhaps you have to weave your way through a cluttered mess of an office space every morning, or perhaps you find yourself holed in a cubicle. Maybe you have a friend in that building where all the scientists hide, or perhaps you are married to someone you once worked with. You admire your luxurious mahogany desk, but on some day’s you’d rather work standing up, and you’re incredibly glad for those roll-tops that allow you to do so.

You overheard your boss yesterday talking about your promotion because your open plan office does not afford him a quiet room to whisper in. Even on days when your work is mind-numbingly boring, you still have the lazy coffee breaks, peppy office gossip and weekend office parties to look forward to.

Of course, not all offices are great, most actually aren’t. As Propst had once said about regressive offices, “They (employers) make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat hole places…”

For an office worker in today’s age, to create a life away from the office seems close to impossible. And yet, breaking away from the office may not be a necessity, if corporations could take the best lessons from office history and take the time to create a space that is sociable, warm, and encouraging to the mental work that offices demand.

Offices however are increasingly being designed precisely so that you may never feel the need to leave them. You will read about the fascinating present and future of office spaces and work environments Part IV of this series.

Kajal.

Written By

Kajal

Pursuing an MSc in Geology, apart from science, writing on HR has always been one of my greatest passions.