It seems like every time I've turned on my radio in the last week, I've heard Daniel Pink, author of the new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, explaining how we can all be happy and fulfilled at work. Turns out you need three things: autonomy (making your own decisions about what to do), mastery (having challenging tasks), and purpose (feeling like your work accomplishes something meaningful). Since I haven't actually read Pink's book, I don't know if he tries to determine how many people actually have these things in their work. If I had to guess, I'd say it's around 5 percent.
Which is why it reminded me of this fascinating 2008 piece in The New Atlantis titled "The Moral Life of Cubicles," wherein author David Franz explains the countercultural roots of that emblem of corporate soullessness. It turns out that when it was introduced, the cubicle was designed to enable us to work in our new collaborative, open offices, fostering teamwork and rewarding creativity. In other words, the cubicle was going to be the sled on which we'd ride to just the kind of fulfilling work Pink is talking about:
Architecture textbooks and journals in the 1960s and 1970s began to talk about a new "cybernetic" idea of the office. Starting with the assumption that offices were fundamentally places for the exchange of information, advocates of the cybernetic office aimed to eliminate walls that stop the "free flow of ideas," replacing them with cubicle workstations. If the pictures in cubicle advertisements of the time are any indication, cubicles helped ideas flow quite freely indeed. Employees in these ads lack computers, to say nothing of e-mail and the Internet, yet they always seem caught in moments of frenzied, often low-tech, information exchange: pointing to each other across the room, handing papers over and around the burnt orange ("aesthetically pleasing and humanly satisfying") partitions, all while talking on the phone and jotting down notes.
I've worked in offices where people did a lot of pointing at each other across the room, but not necessarily in a good way. In any case, somewhere along the way, cubicles came to embody soul-sucking corporate culture, rather than a rejection of it, and today they are ubiquitous. "According to Steelcase, one of the largest cubicle manufacturers," Franz writes, "nearly 70 percent of office work now happens in cubicles." Egad.
But is the cubicle itself really the problem? If your work was challenging and rewarding, whether you sat in a cubicle instead of an office with walls higher than 4 feet would seem to make little difference. The problem is that the kind of workplace where employees are treated like drones fit only for doing repetitive tasks also happen to be the kind of workplaces where management sees cubicles as a good way to hold down costs. Correlation, not causation. But by this time, the cubicle has accumulated so much psychological baggage that it has become a message from your employer telling you that you really are nothing but a drone. You've been primed by a hundred movies and TV shows to associate it with boredom, drudgery, and meaninglessness.
Of course, these days, there are about 15 million people who would be more than happy to sidle into their very own cubicle, so long as it came with a paycheck.
-- Paul Waldman