Will the pandemic change capitalism? Our eventual return to the office may give us the answer
The workspace has always been a mirror of our conception of capitalism, and the pandemic may force capitalism to evolve yet again
One of the trends making headlines these days is the “Great Resignation,” as workers leave their jobs in unprecedented numbers. As a recent HBR piece noted, the pandemic has radically shifted the way in which people see work, and many have simply decided to leave—or not return to—their pre-pandemic jobs. Reading about the shift in the way office work is being seen in 2021 reminded me of Scott Beauchamp's 2018 analysis of workspace history. Beauchamp's piece was an attempt to connect historical developments in workspace design with changing conceptions of capitalism, and it inspired me to reflect on how our offices mirror how we see work and the capitalist system in which most of us function. As the author noted:
The currently fashionable open-office plan—a design which attempts to incorporate the creative fluidity of a tech start-up with the stability of the “traditional” office—is only the most recent example of conflicting motivations inhabiting the workplace (or workspace, as they’re now called). The layout of such an office isn’t new, nor are the general conceptual arrangements associated with it. But the context has changed. Technology is shifting. New management styles have developed. The notion of the company itself is already different from what it was even a generation ago. To understand where we are and how we got here requires rummaging through office spaces of the past and reading them like hieroglyphics. It requires an archeology of the present.
Beauchamp begins his analysis by citing one of the earliest descriptions of office space, found in Herman Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” The office in the story, which is set around 1853, was a dark and dingy place, whose main purpose was to “separate the clerks from the laborers.” Of course, at this time most people were still farmers, and the idea of the industrial worker was just being born. In Melville's story, the firm's manager wants Bartleby (a writer of hand-written documents and records in an era before typewriters were invented) close but not actually visible:
I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.
In this mid-nineteenth century form, the office was a place of drudgery, one step removed from a factory floor, in which the first generation of professional industrial managers kept workers under close inspection to ensure that work was completed and that workers, whom they probably did not trust, delivered the labor for which they were paid. Capitalism, at this stage, was crude and coercive: it was a simple exchange of toil for wages, and no one expected more from an office than a place in which to work under strict supervision.
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