The rise and fall of the filing cabinet as critical infrastructure

Even before computers and the Internet, the world was awash in information. The filing cabinet provided a way to get a handle on all of it:

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It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” 3 The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment. In countless movies and television shows, one or more filing cabinets line the walls of newsrooms and advertising agencies or the offices of doctors, attorneys, private eyes, police inspectors. Their appearance defines a space as an office but rarely draws attention to the work it does in that office. Occasionally, the neatness or disorder of a filing cabinet gives us an insight into the mental state and work habits of the office’s occupant. Sometimes, the filing cabinet plays a small but vital role in dystopian critiques of bureaucracy.

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. 4 But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. 5 Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored. 6

One thing that humans do, particularly in the modern era, is try to bring order to the world around them. This can come out in physical changes – such as remaking nature or creating megacities – or in discovering and working with knowledge and information in new ways. The filing cabinet is an object that helps with distributed cognition, storing and sorting information for people so that they do not have to keep the thoughts in their own heads.

This history would fit well alongside the history of the modern office as told in Cubed. Alongside arrangements of desks and other equipment and ideas about what offices should accomplish are the humble and essential filing systems. They may even require a lot of space to hold all that important paper but they would rarely feature on an office tour or be the subject of excited conversation.

Can workers collectively fight against back-to-the-office plans?

Some employers want workers back in the office and at least a few employees do not like that idea:

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After a year of working from home, most workers feel the same way. Vaccinated or not, more than half of employees said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home even after the Covid crisis subsides, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Far fewer look forward to returning to the office full time…

And yet, in a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70% said they plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of this year — if not sooner — according to a report by staffing firm LaSalle Network…

The majority, or 58%, of employees said they would look for a new position if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position, according to a recent report by FlexJobs, which surveyed more than 2,100 people who worked remotely during the pandemic.

Ultimately, however, “nothing will change,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Employers have virtually unlimited power,” he said.

Both sides can justify changes. Employers want to recreate office culture and conversation plus see people face to face. Employees want flexibility, no commute, and assurances of safety.

The quote at the end above suggests workers do not have much leverage. They can complain about changes. They can say the world has changed significantly. They can say that the prior system did not provide benefits long-term.

But, what if large numbers of workers in significant companies refused to go back to the old office-based systems? Could leading firms afford to have large numbers of workers quit? Could these workers afford to quit and know there is work elsewhere? Not all workers could do this and it might not matter at a lot of companies. If something started in the tech industry where more workers work from home for the long-term, would this spread? Or, if some business saw this as an advantage – get better employees by letting them work from home – this might encourage some others.

A mass labor movement over working from home may not materialize. Yet, COVID-19 could at least change the thinking about offices and doing work from home. Under conditions of a pandemic, at least some work got done. Perhaps such arrangements will continue for some but it could also extend to many more workers.

Reconsidering the need for faculty offices after COVID-19

With more faculty and college instructors working from off-campus during COVID-19, does this mean faculty offices can be done away with in the future?

Many campus planners have long advocated for fewer traditional, individual, closed-door offices, and more shared workspaces for faculty and staff members, like what many private companies have. The idea is that open, common work rooms will foster collaboration and make instructors more visible and less intimidating to students. A few phone rooms, meeting rooms, and lockers could serve for whenever somebody needed quiet, privacy, and somewhere to store belongings.

Having fewer private offices could also save on heating and electricity costs. On average, 19 percent of campuses’ indoor square footage is dedicated to offices, according to a 2007 survey (the latest available) of 276 institutions that are members of the Society for College and University Planning. (Only housing, at 20 percent, commands a larger area.) Using that much space more efficiently could make a big difference to a college’s bottom line.

Especially if faculty and staff members will continue to work from home more often, leaving their desks unoccupied some days of the week, colleges could save by having people who come in on different days share the same private office. As Paul Dale, president of Paradise Valley Community College, in Phoenix, Ariz. put it, it’s a way of fitting “30 pounds of potatoes in a 20-pound bag.”

Faculty members accustomed to their own offices can be loath to give them up, however. Private faculty-office space is a marker of accomplishment and prestige, said Luanne Greene, president of Ayers Saint Gross. Sometimes it’s even written into tenure contracts. But with the pandemic-driven increase in working from home, Greene and her team have seen a shift.

These arguments mirror those from corporate world where the open office emerged in recent decades: efficiencies in how space is used plus possibilities for collaboration and quick interactions. Yet, open offices are not embraced by all workers.

From my own studies of spaces plus my experiences as a faculty member, here are at least a few reasons why offices are valuable:

  1. A sense of space that is yours. College classrooms are often impersonal, spaces meant to be used by instructors from a variety of disciplines. They contain the tools necessary for teaching and learning – projectors, computers, whiteboards, desks or tables plus seating, etc. – but they often have little character. In contrast, offices are spaces where instructors can customize their surroundings to fit their personality and their needs for work (conversations, study, writing, etc.).
  2. A permanent place to store books and other materials. An open work space has little room for this and the assumption may be that we are living in a paperless world. This is not true for many scholars.
  3. A place of solitude that is conducive to the kind of creativity and study that scholars need to do. Putting on headphones in a busy area or working from home may not be able to approximate the way that an office can provide the solitary setting that is often needed.

Of course, not all college instructors might see this the same way. But, as the article notes, faculty would have concerns. And the solution presented at the end of this section – smaller individual offices with more space that could shared by all – is an intriguing compromise for settings and instructors where that collaborative space would be valued.

If workers can live anywhere, does this increase or decrease placelessness?

A theme is emerging: today’s workers with technology and COVID-19 might be able to avoid going to an office. But, if they can live anywhere, what does this do for a sense of community and connecting to a particular place?

young male taking boxes out of luggage boot of car

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The coronavirus is challenging the assumption that Americans must stay physically tethered to traditionally hot job markets—and the high costs and small spaces that often come with them—to access the best work opportunities. Three months into the pandemic, many workers find themselves in jobs that, at least for now, will let them work anywhere, creating a wave of movement across the country.

Recessions tend to damp migration. Americans typically move with a new job already in hand, and hiring plummets during downturns. The 2008 financial crisis limited Americans’ mobility because millions of homeowners found themselves underwater on their homes, unable to sell without taking a loss.

But this time might be different. Home prices haven’t yet taken a major hit. And the forces at play are novel. Confronted with the prospect of not being able to easily fly in for a visit with an elderly parent, grown children are suddenly questioning why they live so far away in the first place.

Many newly remote workers are finding they prefer somewhere closer to family or fresh air. Others are giving up on leases they can’t afford, chasing opportunities in states that are reopening faster or heading back to hometowns.

On the side of more community and rootedness:

1. People can live in places they want to live rather than choosing a place for a job. Whether they live somewhere to be near family, find housing, enjoy the outdoors, or some other reason, workers will be inclined to invest more locally.

2. Working from home schedules can offer more flexibility, freeing people up to participate more in local activities.

3. The commute is eliminated, freeing up time as well as getting rid of the illusion that driving through an area is the same as knowing it.

4. People might stay longer in places if they can simply change jobs from afar rather than having to move when they switch jobs or careers.

On the side of less community and rootedness:

1. Spending time at a workplace can build community, both in the building as well as outside the workplace.

2. Corporate actions at the local level will connect less with employees who are not physically there and involved.

3. More businesses may have headquarters in one place (often desirable for big cities and high-status suburbs) but workforces – and all the benefits that come with it such as their spending or jobs numbers local politicians like – will be elsewhere.

On the whole, this could be good for employees who can invest more time in places of their choosing while businesses then have more tenuous connections to the places where they are officially located. In a country of suburbia (often considered non-places) and relatively easy travel, anchoring employees in places for longer could help lead to more rootedness.

Making the case for the return to an office

As employers and employees embrace working at home, how hard will it be to convince people to return to an open office? There are physical solutions as well as a larger underlying issue:

There’s a deeper question that needs to be solved at the heart of this effort to virus-proof the open office. What, exactly, is so valuable about working together in the same physical space? If the goal is to again nurture in-person collaboration, office design will have to find ways of making such face-to-face interactions feel safe and comfortable again.

The article has a lot of interesting suggestions about how the spaces can be altered to space people out or separate people. But, I think the larger question is more important: what will be appealing about the open office going forward that employees need a good answer for? If they can be productive from home, why do they need to go to the office?

There is a good argument to be made here for physical space. Social interaction builds up trust and familiarity. People talking with each other in informal settings can exchange ideas and spur creative thinking. Managers and companies may be better able to see what employees are doing and provide help and resources when needed. In general, good spaces matter.

It will be interesting to see how different organizations and sectors tackle this. I would imagine those that already have a looser corporate culture or different expectations pre-COVID-19 – think creative industries, some white-collar places, high concentrations of younger workers – will be more open to avoiding the office. Public health and perceptions of it will also play a role as employees and employers consider the risks of traveling, congregating in one place, and anxieties about all of that.

What will happen to those large, all-encompassing tech headquarters if employees can now work from home?

Employees in the tech industry may have more ability to work from home in the future:

Now that a large company like Twitter has announced the option to not return to the office, it will likely “drive momentum across the industry,” says Aaron Levie, the CEO and cofounder of Box. “Other companies look to those events as a signal for what they should do in their organization.”…

Not all companies are so eager to extend the work-from-home life. Employees at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino have been told they will start returning to Apple Park in phases, starting in late May. Apple’s security policies, meant to protect the company’s internal work, have reportedly made it difficult for employees to do their jobs while at home, especially if their jobs are related to building hardware….

Of course, Twitter is not abandoning the office altogether. In the wake of the pandemic, Box CEO Levie thinks bigger tech companies are more likely to take what he calls a “hybrid approach,” blending remote teams with in-office ones. “We’re still far from saying, ‘We’ll shut down entire offices,’” Levie says, adding that the realities of childcare would make it difficult for all employees to enjoy working from home permanently. “There’s a lot of power in people coming together, certain types of functions being able to collaborate in person, but there’s equally power in the flexibility and convenience of no commute and being able to work in a more efficient way.”

But other companies may reconsider the expense of office space, or at least downsize it, if enough employees choose to work remotely going forward. In 2017, Automattic—the company that owns WordPress—decided to give up its sprawling 15,000-square-foot office in San Francisco, because its employees never came in. For some smaller startups, this massive work-from-home experiment has made it obvious that they don’t need offices at all.

What does all of this mean for offices and headquarters and big campuses? The big office or work campus, such as those for Facebook, Apple, and Google, offers multiple advantages: the ability for people to meet, gather, and interact formally or informally face-to-face or in the same room; the company can know where everyone is; the ability for the company to control the work environment; and they are status symbols both for the companies and their communities.

But, working from home or away from the office also offers advantages: the employee is more in control of their immediate surroundings; there is limited commuting time; workers can connect via technology when needed and shut that off or limit contact when needing to focus; and expenses related to a big building are reduced.

And, as the article notes, the implications are huge for how organizations operate, what it means to be an employee, and for communities where businesses use land and pump money into the local economy. A more decentralized landscape for companies might reduce the need for cities to compete for headquarters (Amazon example) or even make the competition more cutthroat fighting over scraps. What happens to all that office space and how can communities fill vacant space in an era of budget issues?

For the record, I do not think the big offices will go away. At the least, they provide a physical reminder of the company and social interaction is different in-person than through technology. But, if a significant number of companies allow more employees to work from home, this could transform many physical locations.

Open offices might be pushed out by COVID-19

Open offices have provoked a lot of reactions. One CEO thinks COVID-19 might help them meet their demise:

Carol Bartz, who led the architectural and engineering software maker Autodesk Inc. for a decade before heading up Yahoo Inc. during a turbulent period that began with the last recession, is known for being direct and speaking her mind. In a recent telephone interview with MarketWatch from her home in Silicon Valley, Bartz described the current age of COVID-19 as a “new game,” with “new rules” for everyone, and made a few predictions about how she expects life to change, especially at work.

“I think office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people,” she said, adding that, while she realizes this in the grand scheme amounts to minutiae, this is one of the many kinds of changes that CEOs are going to have to address in the future, in what will be the new life of the CEO. “We have to take the fear away from people,” she said, noting that this will probably be the first time offices will have to be designed around health factors.

Instead of the old office cubicles separating desks, “They probably will be clear, you will not sit there in that big open space. I think people are going to want protection, plexiglass or whatever. There will also be more teleconferencing, absolutely less flying — you will teleconference with customers,” Bartz said. “Tthey don’t want to see you in person, and you don’t want to see them.”

Office spaces change in response to a variety of factors. With health as a concern going forward, it will be interesting to see how companies and leaders discuss the possible changes: how does health interact with wanting to promote collaboration or cutting costs by not having a lot of cubicles and private offices?

More broadly, this goes beyond just personal workspaces. How will employees gather together? The proverbial water cooler (or break room or coffee station) is an important feature of workspace, whether it provides a break or encourages conversation among employees. Is holding meetings in conference rooms also off the table if social distancing is required or helpful?

I would also imagine that whatever changes in physical office space occurs because of COVID-19 might need to be highly adaptable to future changing conditions. Cubicles or plexiglass might be needed for months but what happens after that point when people and organizations are less fearful? Cubicles tend to be modular and can be reconfigured. Just how many shifts can a typical organization go through?

The backup offices for businesses and organizations to weather crises, disasters

Maintaining essential operations for a business or organization might be easier if they have a “ghost office” available:

Terrorist attacks. Natural disasters. And yes, pandemics. These are just a few of the events that might cause a company to abruptly ditch their usual building and relocate staff to a backup office – also known as a “disaster recovery” or “business continuity” site…

Not all businesses can afford to have these dedicated facilities at their disposal, but backup offices can prove crucial to the survival and safety of certain companies whenever crisis hits. Often, disruptive situations only last a few days or weeks. But with coronavirus potentially lasting well into 2021, firms may find themselves relying on backup offices much longer than ever before…

By spreading workforces across a greater number of sites, businesses are clearly hoping that they can mitigate some of the risk presented by Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But some observers say working from home is better than opening up more offices, since any shared workplace could become a hotbed for virus transmission. Morley says Sungard’s clients are indeed thinking about hygiene. “Customers have actually said, ‘Look, before we come in can you do a deep clean?’” he explains…

Such backup offices are termed “hot sites” in the industry because they can be used immediately and don’t need to be kitted out or “warmed up” first. “Cold” sites, by contrast, could be as simple as an empty warehouse to which equipment can be shipped during a crisis.

Even if the majority of the workforce could work from home, how many organizations can move everything out of the office or online? The article presents such locations as a luxury – maintaining sites for long periods without using them could be very costly – but it is hard to imagine that many organizations or businesses can work fully off-site. There might be access to vital equipment (servers? files? machines?) as well as a desire for important personnel to gather and make decisions. At the least, I imagine many organizations have and/or will reconsider disaster/crisis plans.

The article hints at this and I am not sure how physical spaces could help much here: a pandemic crisis is much different than a natural disaster. With nature interfering with business, the needs might be to have electricity, Internet, access to workers and clients spread out over distances. Putting people in a centralized backup office makes a lot of sense for this. On the other hand, a pandemic means that a centralized location might be even worse for maintaining operations. The actual physical office space becomes less valuable or helpful in some disasters compared to others. Will some companies move to having separate safe offices for pandemics and natural disasters? Or, will the popularity of these sites decrease as organizations focus more on equipping individual employees and arms of the organizations to work from remote locations if needed?

The advantages McMansions may offer for working from home

With coronavirus pushing more people to work from home, I have seen more advice about setting up a home workspace. I found one example that suggests workers in all kinds of homes face similar challenges:

First things first: As we’re learning, there’s no “normal” with the coronavirus. But that also applies to where you live. “Home workers” now include apartment dwellers, Millennials who share a house, Midwesterners with basements, suburbanites in McMansions, and more. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, within your own unique environment. Still, some rules apply to just about everyone.

Is this true? Do McMansion-dwellers have any advantages in working out of their large homes? A few ideas:

  1. All that space means McMansion occupants have plenty of options to choose from regarding where to work. They could even rotate (though these articles tend to emphasize making one space a clearly delineated work space).
  2. All that space also means they can keep their distance from all other occupants.
  3. Although the McMansion might have a lot of open common space, there are likely parts of the house that can be pretty quiet and separate from other activities.
  4. Related to #1-3, who likes open office plans?
  5. If a worker needs to bring lots of materials home, the McMansion likely has a lot of storage space. A temporary home office might barely be noticed.
  6. Because of the size of the home, the walk from the office space to the kitchen or bathroom could be a sufficient break or help the worker acquire their needed steps.
  7. The McMansion home worker pressed for cash could rent out a room or create a coworking space (while attending to local zoning codes, of course).
  8. There could be enough space to recreate the spaces in a large office building, ranging from a workout room to a large eating area to spacious bathroom to room to spread out one’s work.

Americans like their private spaces but being confined to one’s home for a few weeks may just reinforce the desire of some to have plenty of space.

Open office arrangements may not work for getting work done

An evaluation of the implosion of The We Company highlights the importance of physical space for accomplishing tasks in the workplace:

Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees. But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.

The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the last decade, American offices got more and more stuffed. On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8 percent since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space

But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work…

The scourge of open offices is not a new subject for ranting. Open offices were sold to workers as a boon to collaboration — liberated from barriers, stuffed in like sardines, people would chat more and, supposedly, come up with lots of brilliant new ideas. Yet study after study has shown open offices to foster seclusion more than innovation; in order to combat noise, the loss of privacy and the sense of being watched, people in an open office put on headphones, talk less, and feel terrible.

This moment might just a tipping point in the evolution of office space. Cubed suggests office layouts do change over time. What seems to be next is a mixing of older models and the open model: different spaces that range from very private (think soundproof booths or offices away from activity, sound, and eyes) to very open (think couches and play areas for activity). How exactly the imperative to save money or be efficient remains to be seen.

Hinted at in this opinion piece is another interesting idea: could truly private spaces only be available to certain classes of workers or certain people? The office has long been symbol of more power and/or responsibility. Imagine a workforce or a public where the majority of people operate in common spaces that are semi-private, with privacy usually obtained though the actions of individuals (headphones, focus on screens, etc.). In contrast, those with power and resources have access to distraction-free spaces.

Another big issue could be this: how much work these days is truly distraction-free and are we moving toward less deep work? Again, this might different by field or role. But, the rise of smartphones and the Internet means people are highly distractable from work, even in very private settings. American adults on average are consuming 11 hours of media a day, some of this which must happen at work for many.