Beige partitions have given way to napping lofts, lunch gazebos and lots of open space. But are employees any happier or more productive?
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,’’ begins Theodore Roethke’s ‘‘Dolor,’’ the best poem in English about the grayness of the office. ‘‘All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,/Desolation in immaculate public places,/Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard.’’ For a century or more, office design has been our most useful metaphor for workers’ frustration. The color-sapped tedium of office life runs like a flickering current through the warrens of white-collar fiction — from Bartleby impassively facing his brick wall to Frank Wheeler caged in his dark cubicle in ‘‘Revolutionary Road.’’ The fluorescence, the screens, the fabric-wrapped plywood dividers: They’re demoralizing, humiliating.
The sudden efflorescence of the tech industry in the late ’90s took us from the desert of cubicles to the milk-and-honey offices of today. Many of the dot-commers had graduated from (or, very often, dropped out of) cozy university campuses to toil in big corporations. Starting their own companies, they recreated the effortless drift between work and play that characterized their college lives. The cubicle walls came down, and in the wide, open warehouse and loft spaces they occupied, exceptionally long workdays would be punctuated by frenzied Mario Kart races or fierce Ping-Pong battles. Creating a playful office became one of the standard ways of attracting skilled employees in a competitive environment: The hope was that a talented engineer wouldn’t leave a tech behemoth for the dinky start-up next door that didn’t have a gym and a resistance pool. Thus has the ‘‘fun office’’ spread throughout the world.
Ultimately it’s not clear whether the new offices work in the way they’re advertised. Even when common spaces are covered over in beautiful, bright plywood paneling, as with Lenne in Tallinn, Estonia, the actual desks are often in open-plan setups. The move to take people out of private offices, the better to improve collaboration and productivity, has little empirical justification. Most widely cited studies of employee satisfaction tend to run against such trends in office design. A study from The Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013 indicated that 50 percent of workers in open-plan spaces suffer from a lack of sound privacy, and 30 percent complain about a lack of visual privacy.
In 1980, the futurologist Alvin Toffler predicted that with increases in telecommuting technology, offices would soon become irrelevant. Downtowns would be emptied, and everyone would be connected through ‘‘electronic cottages’’ dispersed throughout the countryside. Digital advances in the years since have constantly threatened to make Toffler’s fanciful vision a real one. It has come true in one sense: We do often work at home. But we also work at work, before going home to work more. Commuting and telecommuting exist in an unholy alliance. The office has persisted, becoming even bigger, weirder, stranger: a symbol of its outsize presence in our lives.