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Cubed

A Secret History of the Workplace

By Nikil Saval
10-minute read
Audio available
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval

In Cubed (2014), you’ll discover that what you know as your office cubicle – that beige box so many workers worldwide toil in each day – is a fairly recent invention, despite its long history of development. These blinks will explain how the modern office came to be through a detailed account of the evolution of the workplace.

  • Historians or sociologists interested in the evolution of the office-worker
  • Employees and employers interested in management and workplace science

Nikil Saval is an American writer based in Philadelphia. He is an editor at n+1, a New York-based literary magazine for culture, politics and literature.

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Cubed

A Secret History of the Workplace

By Nikil Saval
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval
Synopsis

In Cubed (2014), you’ll discover that what you know as your office cubicle – that beige box so many workers worldwide toil in each day – is a fairly recent invention, despite its long history of development. These blinks will explain how the modern office came to be through a detailed account of the evolution of the workplace.

Key idea 1 of 6

Industrialization inspired the rise of the clerk and a distinct workplace, separate from manual workers.

You know how receipts and personal documents often pile up on your desk? It takes a lot of work to keep track of all that paper, even when it belongs to just one person.

Now, imagine the amount of work it would take to organize documents for multiple employees, or even keep track of every business transaction within an organization!

Administrative jobs that deal with filing papers, paying bills and organizing accounts are common, so much so that they’re considered a standard, entry-level position in any firm.

Historically, however, it wasn’t until the advent of industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century that such positions became required posts in the workplace.

The people assigned to these jobs were called clerks. Initially, clerks worked alongside their bosses in so-called counting houses. These “offices” consisted of nothing more than a dark, tightly packed room. As a clerk, you were lucky if you even had a window!

One New York office, for example, housed ten people, six of which were clerks, in an office of 25 square feet – that’s the size of a modest bathroom by today’s standards.

By 1855, clerks had become New York’s third-biggest group of workers. The sudden growth in the number of clerks meant people needed more space to work, a development which coincided with a spacial separation between manual and non-manual workers.

For instance, you’d often find non-manual workers in a separate office space downtown, apart from a factory where manual workers toiled. Or, if a business was under one roof, the physical separation of clerks and manual workers would be distinct, such as by having separate entrances for each.

Another key factor about the workplace in this era was that clerks and bosses usually worked together in close proximity. Consequently, they often developed good relationships with one another, with a clerk often becoming a trusted, “right-hand man” for a boss.

This workplace model wouldn’t last long, though. We’ll explore what happened as businesses grew in the next blink.

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