Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

The Way We Work Now

(Charles Platiau/Reuters)

I have a friend upstate whose tech job brings him once a week to the city. His urban workplace embodies the very latest theories of postindustrial aesthetics and worker productivity. The room has no drop ceiling; up there all the pipes are exposed. The floor plan is open, the tables communal. The floor is concrete, with no carpeting. The bareness, the acoustic brightness, and the abolition of privacy are meant to encourage interaction, spontaneous teamwork, and intellectual stimulation. Inspiration and ideas will zip back and forth, frictionless, just as they did at Menlo Park, Renaissance Florence, and Socrates’ Piraeus.

All my friend’s colleagues wear noise-canceling headphones so they can get a little work done.

I once gave a talk at the very model of the modern workplace, the campus of a great tech Oz (you use it every day). Inside, the buildings seemed composed of nothing but endless irregular hallways. Strung along these were a multitude of carrels, with here and there a snack bar. All the food on offer appeared to be cereal, as if the ideal worker was supposed to have three breakfasts a day. There were also laundry bins, in which you could deposit dirty clothes when you pulled (not that your bosses required it!) all-nighters. There were three classes of employees to be seen. The great majority resembled bright college kids, cleansed and slightly aged. They wore bland, sensible clothing, informal but neat, and all looked the same, despite slight differences in race (white, Asian) and sex (M, F — this was before T). A second class, a small minority, were all men, perhaps 15 years older. They had long unkempt hair and beards and looked like Orthodox who had been living on the tundra because they would not cross themselves with three fingers. The final class contained a single individual: a dapper older man wearing a suit, necktie, and pocket square, with a trim beard. He seemed like the man behind the curtain. I learned later that he was one of the inventors of the Internet.

So much for the corporate workplace. Recently I have noticed, even in my neighborhood, a spin-off: the pop-up workplace. These appear in spaces once occupied by other businesses, which have been sitting vacant for a while. One popped up in the site of a vanished Asianish restaurant; another, where a bicycle-rental shop had been. From the street, these places look like knockoffs of the new corporate office: white, empty walls; scattered tables, as in a food court in an airport. Thermoses of coffee stand ready to keep the synapses firing. Seated at the tables — one place had stools, the other actual chairs — are people bent over their laptops. From day to day the people working are different, yet similar, much like the pigeons in the gutters outside.

You wonder: Why aren’t these people working at home? Are they traveling (but wouldn’t their hotel rooms have desks and outlets)? Do they need a simple change of ambience from familiar apartment walls? Or, sober thought, do they live in apartments so subdivided — this is the island at the heart of the city, not the dependent territories across the river — that there is no space bigger than a lap on which to work at home, and so they must flee here? One day the space in the former restaurant was dark, disarrayed: no more work there. Where did its frequenters go?

There was, of course, the empire of workplaces that crashed and burned when it tried to go public. Its founder seems in retrospect to have been obviously bonkers, a person you would not trust to take a package to the post office, much less run a multibillion-dollar business, though since great wits are sure to madness near allied, it can always seem worthwhile to throw start-up money at someone beyond the fringes of normal, in the hope that he strikes it rich. This business model failed, but the workplace template that justified the model marches on. It touches, sad to say, the only job I have ever held, the only job I have ever wanted. The offices of this magazine are currently in by far the handsomest building we have ever occupied, a century-old fortress smack in Midtown, with a view looking down at the roof of the Harvard Club. Yet my heart sinks a little whenever I look in the main room and see my younger colleagues, strung out in rows as if waiting to take an eye exam for a driver’s license or be summoned for a voir dire. When I first came to work here, three workplaces and four decades ago, I sat at a desk wedged between a filing cabinet and a bookshelf. But I occupied a room to myself, with a door that closed and a window that looked on an airshaft (at midsummer the sun paid it a brief visit). If I needed to wash my hands, I could step down the hall, without fetching a key with an idiot-proof fob. There was no cereal on offer, but there was a deli around the corner one way, and a bar that served burgers and chili around the corner the other. The bar displayed regimental paraphernalia behind the cash register; if you had been at Imjin River (which I had not), you drank for free. Some of the offices at the old workplace, it is true, were more crowded than mine, containing as many as two people.

All nostalgia of course, for a world that is both vanished and partial. Men and (lucky you!) women have worked together like sardines in tins for millennia. Galleys, quarries, cotton fields, factory floors: “Poor children,” snorted Gouverneur Morris, “can be pent up, to march backward and forward with a spinning jenny, till they are old enough to become drunkards and prostitutes.” Even a pencil-neck profession like journalism had bullpens. Typewriters when they all clacked together gave adrenaline shots.

But, but . . . those weird white walls.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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