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Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace [Hardcover]

Nikil Saval

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Book Description

3 Jun 2014

You mean this place we go to five days a week has a history? Cubed reveals the unexplored yet surprising story of the places where most of the world's work—our work—gets done. From "Bartleby the Scrivener" to The Office, from the steno pool to the open-plan cubicle farm, Cubed is a fascinating, often funny, and sometimes disturbing anatomy of the white-collar world and how it came to be the way it is—and what it might become.

In the mid-nineteenth century clerks worked in small, dank spaces called “counting-houses.” These were all-male enclaves, where work was just paperwork. Most Americans considered clerks to be questionable dandies, who didn’t do “real work.” But the joke was on them: as the great historical shifts from agricultural to industrial economies took place, and then from industrial to information economies, the organization of the workplace evolved along with them—and the clerks took over. Offices became rationalized, designed for both greater efficiency in the accomplishments of clerical work and the enhancement of worker productivity. Women entered the office by the millions, and revolutionized the social world from within. Skyscrapers filled with office space came to tower over cities everywhere. Cubed opens our eyes to what is a truly "secret history" of changes so obvious and ubiquitous that we've hardly noticed them. From the wood-paneled executive suite to the advent of the cubicles where 60% of Americans now work (and 93% of them dislike it) to a not-too-distant future where we might work anywhere at any time (and perhaps all the time), Cubed excavates from popular books, movies, comic strips (Dilbert!), and a vast amount of management literature and business history, the reasons why our workplaces are the way they are—and how they might be better.


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  49 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating History Of Work 14 April 2014
By Louis N. Gruber - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is a fascinating treatise on work, particularly office work, white collar work, its history and development, from the nineteenth century clerk who may have worked next to the business owner in a cramped office, to the nameless clerical drones toiling in vast cubicle farms, to the age of the personal computer, to the angst-ridden workplace of the twenty-first century. The author explores not only the changing nature of work, but its architecture, its furniture, its psychology, management fads and foolishness, office politics, office sexuality, the mistreatment of women, the ever-changing fluid boundaries between work and home life, and many other topics. In the final chapter, a glimpse into the future, where a steady job with an office--or even a cubicle--may be increasingly rare.

Author Nikil Saval has incorporated enormous amounts of scholarship into this treatise, exploring great thinkers and outdated theorists of work, of offices, of interior design, of popular culture, the changing role of women in the workplace, the workplace in movies and cartoons, and the recurring struggles of the workers for autonomy and of management for control. Naturally I can't summarize this massive work for you, but it's well worth reading for yourself.

The book is surprisingly entertaining and reads at a brisk pace. It is not light reading but remains accessible. If you have ever enjoyed the tribulations of Dilbert or the ironic despair of Office Space, if you have ever wanted to know more about offices are designed and how they really work, this is a must read book for you. If you want to know what lies ahead for the white collar worker, you may find it disturbing. I recommend this one with five well-deserved stars. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at a major institution in society 17 Mar 2014
By Dr. Cathy Goodwin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Saval's book is a "must-read" for anyone interested in the world of work. For one thing, the author chose a topic that's gotten little attention from researchers or popular writers. He takes us through the history of the office, going back to the days of all-male offices with male clerks. He traces the development of office equipment - not just typewriters, but even desks and filing cabinets.

We also get reminded of past workplace trends.

Remember GIlbreth's Cheaper By The Dozen? This family dynamic was fueled by an offshoot of Taylorism, a system of measuring productivity that seems cruel to many of us today.

And then remember the 40s, 50s and 60s? The world of Mad Men and the movie The Best of Everything? Women dressed up in dresses, hose and heels (girdles, too!) sitting at rows of typewrters. Katherine Gibbs School was the female Harvard MBA, an entry to the most elite secretarial positions.

Cubed then fast forwards to the present, where companies experiment with a variety of formats, including open offices resembling coffee shops and coworking spaces.

Cubed is best read as a series of loosely themed chapters. My only quibble is that the focus of the chapters (what social scientists call the unit of analysis) shifts. Clerks, secretaries, engineers, call center workers, and software developers might work in similar spaces, but their perspectives will be different, as they have widely divergent opportunities for promotion, marketability and day-to-day flexibility. An engineer sitting in a cubicle probably can take off a couple of hours to get a hair cut or run an errand; a clerk or call center worker probably cannot do the same. That's huge.

Ultimately Cubed seems to raise many questions that demand answers in future books and articles. For one thing, everyone agrees that offices are highly stressful places. We didn't hear much talk about stress in the early days of work, possibly because people had lower expectations and less understanding of the impact of stress on health. But today there's a certain irony in the fact that companies gripe about increasing medical bills and pay for wellness centers, while adding to workers' health risks by dialing up the stress levels.

An even bigger elephant in the room is the alliance of government infrastructure to the cubicle world. People who work full time for large companies get access to benefits that are beyond the reach of all but the richest self-employed entrepreneurs. In a world where jobs are becoming obsolete, the next shift needs to take workers out of the "job" mindset. I remember hearing companies described as "little Swedens" back in the day when you were covered for all sorts of benefits and you were rarely terminated except for egregious cause. Now, as Cubed points out, workers can challenge the structure by becoming freelancers. Ultimately, the ability to work on one's own terms will carry the day, not the unions.

Finally, we could take the whole concept one step further and note that every aspect of life in the world today is becoming cubed, including health and education sectors. We look for systems, processes and ultimately uniformity, and we revert to a form of Taylorism as we demand tangible outcomes.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable read that illuminates the history of this place where office workers spend our days.. 27 April 2014
By Rick Goff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It was a pleasure to read Nikil Savan's book. Cubed is a survey of sources from architecture, business, academia and pop culture, organized to resemble a chronological history of the working environment provided to office workers. The tone of the book is collegial and a tad wry, as the topic expects, and the prose is substantial but not at all difficult.

If you're expecting that this title:subtitle will turn out to be ironic, well, it really isn't. This is not the Dilbert attitude in book form. This is a book that distinguishes a topic and gives the topic form. I work in a cubicle in a grid of 300 above two floors of similar grids. I sit 30 feet from a window wall and probably 100 feet from the closest potted plant. The questions and issues defined in this book are directly relevant to the first leg of each of my weekdays, so I had plenty of appetite for the content. If you can relate to office work, then I can recommend Cubed as an enjoyable read that will make you a more aware and informed consumer of the environment you have been provided.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A social commentary on things relating to offices and office workers 5 May 2014
By Debbie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Despite the subtitle about a "secret history," I assumed we'd mostly learn about how offices came about and how they changed over time. And we do get some of that. But more often the topic merely related to offices, and the focus was on what people were saying about that topic. Skyscrapers were used for offices, so the author talked about a few innovative designs for skyscraper offices and told us what people of the time were saying about those designs--"ugly," "art," "beautiful!" People were concerned that having women working alongside men would ruin their morals. So the author extensively summarized and quoted from different novels and movies of that time that were set in offices and then explained what people were saying through or about the novel.

The focus seemed more on what people thought might be happening or on the exception rather than on what office life was like for the everyday man and woman. I really could have lived without the graphic sexual quote. I'm clearly not as interested in the sexual aspects as the author was.

Sometimes the book did touch on things interesting to me, like what cultural changes drove small countinghouses to become large offices located in multiple locations and how the current management structure came to be. However, most chapters jumped from topic to topic and didn't really illustrate the progression from one point to another. You can kind of piece together how the architecture changed, for example, but the author didn't clearly explain architectural development from where he started his history to where he ended it. He'd jump from topic to topic without always clearly tying things together or showing a progression in history. Topics often seemed to be chosen simply because it was what people were talking about at the time.

There were sections on politics (concerns about how the growing mass of office workers would vote), architecture and interior design (different ways offices have been set up), women entering the workforce, and more. But often the focus was on what people thought about the clerk or office worker or what they thought about the building they worked in rather than what actually was true for the everyday worker and how they dealt with it. I simply wasn't as interested in what people _thought_ about office workers as the author was. If you are interested in what people were saying, then you may enjoy this book more than I did.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard to stay focused 2 Jun 2014
By hannah - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I felt as if the author looked up every paper/film/book written with any reference to the office workspace, took a quote from it, and dedicated one paragraph to use the quote and follow up just enough to fill the paragraph before moving on to the next. The subject matter could change in the blink of an eye, and, more often than not, didn't move along the main idea of what I thought the book was going to be about - the history of the workplace - in one smooth narrative. It's more like endless references to things tangentially related to the office workplace. It seemed like an assignment for an undergraduate writing course that the teacher would pass just so they could stop reading it.
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