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The New Office?

June 9, 2008

Many of us dread the office, even worse, the cubicle. Ironically, the cubicle was originally designed to foster human creativity, increase a new sense of success and vocational vitality. According to Nikil Saval, when Robert Propst created the cubicle in the 60s, he declared: “We are a nation of office dwellers. The face of capitalism had changed; the office had become a ‘thinking place’; ‘the real office consumer was the mind.'” Repetitive work was replaced by knowledge work and the cubicle was born to accommodate such work! By 2000, forty million American white-collar employees were using Propst’s “Action Office”–the cubicle.

Times have changed. Sure, there are still plenty of cubicles but in many cities they are steadily being replaced by coffee shops. Unlike the stifling effects of the cubicle, coffee shops and cafes can stimulate creativity . Caffeine, music, good food, other creative people, open-air workspace, people and culture swirling all around you. The new office is the mobile office, a land of open-air, ever alternating cubicles where creativity teems with the steam of each cappuccino. Richard Florida has argued for a next wave of work, seeing creativity, not knowledge, as new economic driver. He defines creativity as “the creation of useful new forms out of that knowledge,” and writes “in my formulation, ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’ are the tools and materials of creativity.

Are we in a creative age? Are cafes the new cubicles? If so, have we reached vocational utopia which all, non-creative work must only aspire to? Or is there a dark side to the new office, a danger in a creative-driven economy? One thing is for sure, firms and office managers are sending freelancers and employees to the cafes with a laugh. Who pays for the expenses? Coffee, internet, space, parking, food, air conditioning, drinks, power? A creative way to make a buck!

See Nikil Saval, “Birth of the Office,” n+1; Richard Florida, Rise of the Creative Class.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2008 8:55 am

    The cubicle does seem to go hand-in-hand with the 60s. Fits so well w/ 60s architecture, the astrodome, artificial turf, etc.

    It def. seems like workplaces are seeing the benefit of coziness (coffee houses, sofas, nap pods–I saw a marketing firm in NYC that had nap pods for their workers’ nap breaks)over cold, sterile workplaces. This seems like the shift going on in other sectors of society too.

    As for the turn from knowledge/information to creativity. It seems to me that when knowledge becomes ample, even overwhelming, creativity must step in to underscore information and knowledge, separating it from the rest. With all our info. and avenues to access it, only the information that stands out from the pack will be acknowledged. What do you think?

  2. June 9, 2008 9:01 am

    Good point about the information that stands out is what is recognized, though with our 2.0 world it seems that the diet of information is also highly selective, personal. Yet, on the broader cultural scene marketing drives common knowledge, which is too bad. The best information and knowledge is rarely found in pop-up adds. We have to dig. But, if that knowledge just rots in our brains, what good is it? Creative use of knowledge seems to be pretty important.

  3. June 9, 2008 9:50 am

    Yes, I concur. And I think creative use of knowledge is always what endures. The timelessness of CS Lewis comes to mind. He said what many before him said, but did so with a creativity that sticks. Some of the images he provided in Mere Christianity regularly pop-up in my thinking. The same could be said of good art, and its ability to persist in our imagination.

    Have I told you that I love your profile picture; the Godfather lurking in the shadows.

  4. June 9, 2008 1:40 pm

    I have been thinking alot about my office space lately. The coffee shop is not proving to be a great place for me to do the heavy lifting of thinking and writing that I would like. Too many distractions going on. I don’t want to cut out the coffee shop but I have thought several times that I would like one of those library study cubicles to do some heavy mental lifting, prayer and writing. That and I have a tendency to stare into space or lay my head on the table in my hands and pray through a thought. It just looks funny in the coffee shop.

    For the purpose of creativity I like two things that are being shaped in Austin right now.

    One is a LaunchPad Coworking coming to downtown: LaunchPad has a monthly fee, conference rooms, shared technology and open space workdesks. It seems like the evolution of the executive suite, but it seeks to intentionally create community and collaboration.

    The other is Jelly Austin. Jelly is much more grassroots and brings the work community to the coffeeshop with others. You sign up each week and they have stickers you can put on your laptop that show you are with Jelly.

    In short, I need a quiet place to work through the information and a collaborative space to implement it.

    My hope in this creative push is that we include an ethical component. As creativity becomes the bigger goal, we have to ask whether something should be created. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

    I can also see where creativity pushes our consumption and I have to ask if that is a good thing. There is such an appetite for the newest and the best. In the past you could learn contentment more readily because you didn’t have the plethora of options. While everyone benefits and has at least limited/delayed access to new creativity, I think it does increase the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ divide. Even so far as to say that as the have not’s get access to it, it creates a push among the ‘haves’ for new creativity to increase the divide again. This is heavily due to the sin of comparison, I am better than that guy because I have the coolest new toy/clothes/car/boat on the market.

    Ultimately as creative beings formed in the image of a creative God, creativity is a good thing. Like other things, its has been corrupted from the fall. As such, creativity, like knowledge, can be used for good or evil and it exposes our hearts. I like your stated goal of redemptively engaging this issue.

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