Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Life at the Nowhere Office

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 “dynamic” workplace has arisen at a time when professional work has become increasingly insecure.

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. (...)

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.

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. (...)

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. (...)

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.

by Miya Tokumitsu and Joeri Mol, TNR |  Read more:
Image: Rakic / Shutterstock