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Life at the Nowhere Office

Today's workplace design asks us to be permanently on call—and demands that we vanish at a moment's notice.

Rakic / Shutterstock

You wake up and wonder: What time is it? Your little touchscreen says 2:54 a.m. Or 7:21 a.m. Or whatever. It is always anytime. And anytime is check-in time. With one ear on your pillow you check the number of likes your latest Facebook post has harvested, the Retweets of your latest birdsong, and then onto the Inbox. After eyeballing what awaits in the day ahead, you sift through the messages and rank them on importance, returning to them when showered and fully awake.

Wherever you are, you respond to the most urgent requests and make sure to nowhere yourself by deleting your “sent from my iPhone” signature. You could be at your desk already, right? No one needs to know that you are two blocks away. You don’t want to convey that you are on the run and not giving them your full attention. So with some digital camouflaging you say: I am in a place where I can give you due consideration. At no point are we on the train, in a cafe, in bed, in the restroom. Except of course we are.

Many of us recognize this morning routine. It might seem mundane, but like any regime, it is has an aesthetic. In fact, this vignette reflects the ideals of het nieuwe werken, a Dutch term meaning “the new way of working,” a reorganization of the office that promotes flexibility and “efficient” design, combining the fruits of a digitally-connected world and organically-formed social structures. Hailed as a “silent revolution”, it purports to liberate creative and entrepreneurial potential that would otherwise go untapped. The modern “inspired” workspace serves as essential infrastructure to this new organization of work. Not only does it accommodate these new rhythms; it makes them look good.

The interconnected values of “frictionless” dynamism, notional flattening of managerial hierarchies, and sociability that define contemporary professional work are mirrored in the spaces and gadgets that allow us to function in this rootless, diffuse way. A quick trawl through some design blogs or a richly illustrated book like The Creative Workplace quickly reveals a number of conventions of the twenty-first-century inspired workspace: open plans, glass walls, communal table-desks, high ceilings. Likewise, and thanks largely to Apple, we prefer our mobile devices shiny and monochrome. Industrial touches like unfinished plywood, subway tile, exposed brick, and Edison bulbs round out these spaces and imbue them with an aura of artisanal making, attempting to give material form to production that in all likelihood is relegated to computer screens.

Across these diverse spaces, the two most consistent design principles are openness and a banishment of personal clutter. The new office presents itself as the interior design equivalent of everyone’s friend. It is comfortable and always available, a temporary platform onto which workers alight for meetings and some deskwork before fluttering off to another meeting, the home office, another job. But importantly, leave no trace behind. Remember: You have never been here.

The luxury minimalism that defines the inspired workspace is an extension of a broader aesthetic movement that Kyle Chayka has termed Airspace. Airspace is a new International Style of sorts, a set of design conventions that has spread across the globe thanks to the homogenization of taste facilitated by social media. “It is the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go ... Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting,” Chayka writes. Indeed, all of the spaces he lists are, explicitly or not, workspaces for the mobile, constantly collaborating knowledge worker. Airspace is essentially diffused workspace because the office has become a mobile home. We take it with us everywhere we go.

How freeing this increased mobility is remains open to debate. Flexibility is a sharp double-edged sword within contemporary work culture. On the one hand, workers often do prefer the ability to drop in and out of the physical office: Recall the outcry when Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer clamped down on telecommuting at the company. On the other hand, as Nikil Saval and others have noted, it’s no coincidence that the “dynamic” workplace has arisen at a time when professional work has become increasingly insecure. Dynamism and mobility are meant to be liberating, but the darker connotations of cleared desks and ephemeral presence lurk in the shadows of the creative workplace’s imported espresso machines and Aeron chairs.

Fretting about the “proper” environment for intellectual work is as old as mental work itself. From Aristotle and his garden walks to the gleaming white hot-desk, people have always sought to create pleasing spaces that are inspirational but also generative.

In Renaissance Europe, private studies, or studioli, were venues of display as much as enclosures for intellectual work. Inventories and other historical texts list a multifarious array of items kept in these rooms: books, of course, but also gems, chess boards, musical instruments, small sculptures, ancient coins. For a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century member of the social élite, such an assemblage constituted a proper environment for the self-reflective labors of contemplation, reading, and writing. So important was creating the ideal work environment that the owners of studioli poured huge sums into building and adorning them, sometimes even hiring advisors to help outfit them properly. Imaginings of ideal workspaces were hugely popular and became a common visual trope. We haven’t stopped seeking advice and talking about the ideal workspace since.

Today, so-called knowledge work is typically not undertaken while tucked in among cabinets jammed with gems and bronze figurines. Indeed the studiolo, with its hodgepodges and focus on contemplative individuality seems to represent the antithesis of the modern, inspired workspace with its emphasis on worker interchangeability and buzzy, almost entropic collaboration.

The principles of individual power and relative quietude of the studiolo lived on in the traditional, closed-door office. Like the studiolo, individual offices within office buildings allowed for personalization and personal intimacy. As with the studiolo, the private office could also be a social, collegial space, but entry was typically restricted to those of similar rank. There were of course important differences, particularly in the institutional logic behind these spaces. Whereas the studiolo functioned as a kind of miniature throne room, whose owner could order his personal microcosm and, in doing so, develop a sense of distinct selfhood, the traditional office, on the other hand, embodied stable employment and was legitimated by (an ostensibly) meritocratic bureaucracy.

Perhaps no individual did more to dismantle the physical barriers of these rooms than Robert Propst, an energetic American polymath who in the 1960s began advocating for a spatial organization of the workplace that most of us would recognize as the open-plan office, developing prototypes for what he called “Action Offices.” Nikil Saval writes in Cubed: A Secret History of the Office, that “Propst was one of the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to environmental enhancement of one’s physical capabilities.” He essentially pioneered the very idea of the modern creative workspace.

The person Propst had in mind for his new, open, dynamic workspaces was the “knowledge worker,” a social figure newly articulated by management theorist Peter Drucker. As Saval tells it, knowledge workers were defined not only by their white-collar job titles, but also by a strong belief in their own mobility. Of course “mobility” didn’t have the association with precarity then that it does now. At the time, it was an exciting idea; each worker was in possession of his unique intellectual skillsets, untethered from specific institutions and free to pounce after each new opportunity as soon as it appeared.

Actual production requires a jumble of unaesthetic supplies: dry erase markers, cables, sticky notes.
baranq / Shutterstock

This sense of mobility helped undermine traditional bureaucratic hierarchies and meshed perfectly with Propst’s design principles aimed at facilitating democratic, serendipitous encounters through diminished barriers and un-hierarchical gathering spaces like social tables rather than desks. Soon enough, the utopian design philosophy of Propst was co-opted and rationalized by the furniture industry, becoming a goldmine for his employer, Herman Miller. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Propst’s “Action Offices” eventually morphed into the grim cubicle. And yet, with the advent of het nieuwe werken and its accommodating Airspace aesthetic, the twenty-first century has rebooted his dreams of the open, inspirational, social workplace. Propst 2.0.

Our experience writing this article is a case in point. True to the aesthetics and working conventions of our time, we composed the bulk of it together at a shared hot desk inside a glass-walled conference room equipped with ergonomic chairs and a “smart” whiteboard. Unbound by the conventional limits of the workweek (or because our workweeks were already bursting at the seams), we converged on a Saturday, in a space designed to inspire spontaneous idea-spitballing and immediate collegial feedback. The space would ensure that our process was going to be dynamic (the room was up for grabs, not permanently assigned), open (floor-to-ceiling glass windows facing the outside world and the hallway), social, and un-hierarchical (thanks to the shared desk).

Did our co-working space live up to its promises? Yes and no. It did provide a convenient and adequately equipped place for working. But the dynamism was not without hiccups. Almost immediately, a sense of helplessness began to fill our glass and marble walls. Miya’s four-year-old laptop refused to communicate with the building’s wireless router, threatening to derail our brilliant plan to co-compose via Google Docs. We finally came to a work-around by turning an iPhone into a hotspot. Our working day was saved but we had come face-to-face with the tenuous nature of the supposedly frictionless operations of het nieuwe werken. A temperamental laptop, depleted battery, or the wrong cable, and it can all fall apart. And then you are truly alone, cleaved off from the humming, networked hive of production. Even when you are physically in the same room with your colleagues.

The breakdowns were also an aesthetic in and of themselves. The truth is that work, even intellectual work, is typically messy. Clutter is process. Our bright white conference room embodied the materially luxuriant minimalism preferred by institutions seeking to project wealth, professionalism, and seriousness. Yet actual production requires a jumble of unaesthetic supplies, some of which were already out when we arrived: dry erase markers, cables, sticky notes.

Similarly, in a Bloomberg article on The Edge, Deloitte’s hot desk-filled bastion of het nieuwe werken in Amsterdam, an accompanying photo capturing the building’s clean lines and bright rooms is punctuated by employees’ wheeled backpacks as each must tote his own clutter. Along with tech minimalism, modern office minimalism wants to suppress stuff, but stuff almost always manages to intrude.

This tech-dependent minimalism embodies the peer-to-peer “operating systems” and fluid organizational structures of het nieuwe werken. Purporting to topple the centrality and stale hierarchies associated with bureaucracy, new organizational structures such as holacracy advocate clearly defined, self-directed tasks. Given clear briefs, we can remain task-oriented while organically regrowing the organization from scratch every day. The organization becomes an Etch-A-Sketch: Draw. Shake. Begin again. And what better place to do so than the clean canvas of an Airspace? Rather having to deal with the clutter and weight of yesterday, today we have a tabula rasa.

Helped by a specially designed smartphone app, employees at The Edge are on Deloitte’s grid day or night. Streamlining every waking moment of your working day, the app tracks your every movement, be it in your car on the way in, your coffee runs to the kitchenette, even your bathroom visits. What is surprising, however, is that intrusive technologies such as these are often seem to be adopted uncritically. But perhaps there is a resignation that bowing to the surveillance juggernaut is the requisite price for participating in this modern economy. Or perhaps the convenience of outsourcing your memory to iCal is worth granting Apple access to your contacts.

Regardless how we feel about this, there is a shared recognition that if one wants to express oneself in this world of hyped self-management, one needs to be hooked up to the cloud, be it for email, Facebook, or any other social media. This resignation is Heidegger’s technological determinism made manifest. Indeed how helpless we feel when our passwords don’t work and we are locked out of the system. If we want to get any work done, we can only do so on the terms afforded by technology, which includes our ever-dispersing workspaces.

Gilles Deleuze envisioned a transition from Michel Foucault’s enclosed disciplinary societies to “societies of control” that superficially appeared more open and amenable to free movement. Power is no longer only exercised through the top-down power structures, but is increasingly manifested in the cloud’s capacity to include or exclude. In an excellent analysis of round-the-clock capitalism, Jonathan Crary argues that while indeed now that our lives are organized by machines, a perfect storm awaits us; rather than one evil (technological determinism) replacing another (the boss), Deleuze’s society of control actually enhances Foucault’s disciplinary society and accelerates us towards a hyper-monitored world, where the all-seeing, all-knowing managerial dashboard keeps us in check by making use of computerized panopticons.

Jen Pan astutely notes that the cost of having a flat, or bossless, work environment is that the work of management (and attendant surveillance) spreads throughout the workforce; when no one is the boss, everyone is. The office as a cyberized version of Hotel California: You can clock-in anytime you like but you can never clock-out.

The result is that your office diffuses much like a gas following the laws of entropy. This anywhering of the office renders our attempts to disappear by implementing out-of-the-office replies instantly moot and futile. Work will fill the space available to it. And with no space spared, it will find you wherever you are: not just your work office, but also your home, your yoga studio, your children’s kindergarten. And what is more, in addition to our physical selves we now have to manage this professional avatar as well. And due to the ongoing metrification and financialization of work we are increasingly stripped of the clutter that makes us us. All of our quirks and idiosyncratic features have no use, as they can either not be numbered or would just make us look messy and thus unproductive.

It is here that the controlling nature of the new aesthetic becomes most limpid and palpable: the constant sanitization of our digital selves reflects the homogenized minimalism of Airspace. Such thorough self-regulation enacts our—apparently willing—participation in Lewis Coser’s “greedy organizations,” those that sever an individual’s social ties and “can thrive only if they are able to absorb their members fully and totally within their confines.” It is no coincidence that the pursuit of transparency within contemporary management techniques such the 360 performance appraisal is replicated in the new aesthetic of the office. In neither place is there room for “dirt,” or “matter out of place,” as the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously stated. On the CEO’s digital dashboard we are (and want to be) little more than a sanitized number, perfectly ordered in sleek spreadsheets, proving how efficient, valuable and productive we are and how can be deployed as a resource towards our new project.

Yet when we scratch the surface of this new minimalism, there is, of course, plenty of junk, but it is concealed and out of sight. Think of our mazes of files and folders that have become monstrous digital wastelands into which we deploy our bots to fetch the things we need, instructed by a search term. Not to mention the massive server farms that are needed to maintain this ostensible minimalism but which are completely backgrounded in the process. Office minimalism and tech minimalism are deceptively maximalist. The former depends upon us being rabid consumers of expensive gadgets (as well as their incessantly updated versions and accessories of cases, adapters, headphones, external drives) and precious coffees (the standard meeting prop). The latter allows us to be digital packrats who never delete or even organize anything; our messes are just kept invisible, their management outsourced. Most work is dirty; we often make it dirtier by trying to make it look clean.

There may be a way out of this circuit. Yes, the carefully curated spaces of the inspired workspace are extensions of networking technology that keeps us surveilled and working for ever more hours of the day. That they strike us as tasteful testifies to how capable this technology is at transcending ideology and defining the possible: Ardent capitalists and radical Marxists use the same tools to organize, perhaps even over the same craft beer. But what is a clean place except a potential venue for a mess?

The inspired workspace has extended far beyond the physical office building and suffused the commons, expanding possibilities for the fortuitous encounters of Propst’s dreams. The proliferating spaces and networks of modern work regimes have facilitated political work that upends the smooth functioning of commerce and a relatively unruffled social order. For instance, from campuses, homes, and the street, activists have used Google’s cloud and Twitter to crowdsource syllabi covering tactics for avoiding police they don’t trust to putting the Ferguson demonstrations in context.

Indeed, people have begun making some very exciting messes, as Sarah Jaffe recounts in her new book on American social movements. Particularly striking to Jaffe is how, compared to the siloed movements of previous generations, today’s various movements are finding common ground; for instance Black Lives Matter linking up with anti-charter school initiatives and protesting the privatization of natural resources.

Still, despite overtures to “openness” and “transparency,” the comforts of Airspace depend on exclusion; self-directed mobility, tech accoutrements, and $15 fancy porridge remain its steep entry fees. But who knows what can happen if we take “openness” to its logical conclusion. Earlier work enclosures kept us apart. Now we’re increasingly converging in a new, pervasive, always-open workspace. Who else we insist on including and what we choose to do with this new proximity is up to us.