“The Saddest Office Cubicles”

Wired has a collection of “The Saddest Office Cubicles.”

In 2007, WIRED.com (then known as “Wired News”) asked readers with particularly depressing office cubicles to submit photos of their plight. People hated their cubicles—and rightly so. They didn’t offer any real privacy, but were incredibly effective at communicating office hierarchy. The hatred of this terrible design was clear: Our gallery of “winners” of the saddest-cubicle contest still holds the record for WIRED’s most popular post ever…

The winner — if you can call it winning — of the Wired News saddest-cubicles contest is David Gunnells, an IT guy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His desk is penned in by heavily used filing cabinets in a windowless conference room, near a poorly ventilated bathroom and a microwave. The overhead light doesn’t work — his mother-in-law was so saddened by his cube that she gave him a lamp — and the other side of the wall is a parking garage. Gunnells recalls a day when one co-worker reheated catfish in the microwave, while another used the bathroom and covered the smell with a stinky air freshener. Lovely.

Quite depressing. It is interesting, though, that several of these seem to be the product of what was once a temporary adaptation: because of rearranging or some odd situation, the company threw something together. Perhaps the big problems then come in when these temporary solutions become permanent. I do have to wonder how much these individual workers complained and what responses they heard.

These are the sorts of pictures that probably helped the motivate the writing of Cubed regarding the history and development of modern office settings. Of course, most offices don’t look like this. But, these pictures tend to be popular (the most popular Wired post ever?!?) and it is easy for many workers to see hints of their own workplaces (certain lighting, bland furniture, close quarters, lots of noise, etc.).

 

Quick Review: Cubed

The book Cubedtackles what has become a ubiquitous space in today’s America: the white-collar office. Here are some thoughts about the book:

1. While the book might appear at first glance to be about office spaces, it is largely about the development and evolution of white-collar workers in the United States. This shift from farming and manufacturing in the late 1800s to office and clerical work was a profound shift in American society that affected everything from women in the workplace to educational aspirations to what it means to be middle class to what urban downtowns look like. It isn’t just about cubicles or desk chairs; it is about a shift toward knowledge workers increasingly laboring for big corporate America. It may seem normal now, but it is a remarkable shift over roughly 100 years.

2. While this shouldn’t be surprising given the field of architecture and design, it is still remarkable how much of office design was about trendy ideas and theories than on-the-ground information about what makes offices work. Thus, a history of American offices includes Taylorism, Le Corbusier, and Peter Drucker. Have a new idea about the intersection of work spaces and human interaction? If it is popular enough, it is likely going to going to be translated into office designs. Unfortunately, some of this theorizing comes at the expense of workers who were guinea pigs.

3. The book does well to include plenty of sociology, particularly picking up after World War II as sociologists like C. Wright Mills noticed the big shifts in society. At the same time, it strikes me that there isn’t enough well-known sociology about office life and American businesses more broadly. This may change in the near future with more economic and organizational sociology but it seems like a missed opportunity in the past from a field that focused on other topics.

4. This is the sort of book that would benefit from more pictures and architectural plans. There are some scattered throughout the book but I could easily imagine a coffee table companion book with rich photos and designs of iconic office arrangements. It can be hard at times to visualize the major patterns.

All in all, the book is a nice overview of American offices in the last 100+ years. There are numerous places where this book could have ballooned to many more pages but it doesn’t feel like the author is painting with too broad of strokes. Indeed, if we want to understand America in 2014, perhaps we should look less to Washington, glittering skylines, and the entertainment industry but rather examine what millions of Americans experience regularly in their offices.