Productivity experts have been trying to solve workplace efficiency for over a century. Why hasn’t it been solved yet?
1980 – 2014 desk comparison. Photo via Harvard Innovation Lab
In 2014, Harvard’s Innovation Lab released a short video called “Evolution of the Desk.” The video opens on a single desk from 1980, cluttered with tech paraphernalia of the time: a fax machine, desk reference books, a Rolodex, and even a hanging wall calendar, among other things. Over the course of 55 seconds, a time-lapse shows how drastically our workspaces have changed over the course of almost 35 years: mainly, the idea that all the desktop detritus of the 80s and 90s has now been turned into an app or program, all accessible by a slim, modern laptop sitting alone on that same desk, its screen filled with almost as many app icons as the desk once had physical objects.
The video quickly went viral, and with good reason – who hasn’t found themselves chained to a desk at some point in their lives? But Harvard’s cleverly titled video is somewhat of a misnomer. While what we place on our desks may have evolved away from the physical, the evolution of the desk itself has far more layers than just clutter management.
Our desks are supposed to be where we do our best work; the advent of the desk was originally intended to find a way for companies to be more efficient and maximize profits. While clearing out clutter is but one part of the productivity equation, watching the constant evolution of the desk still leaves a bigger question in its wake: why haven’t we solved the problem of maximizing efficiency in the workplace, in a way that’s sustainable for both companies and employees?
When Frederick ‘Speedy’ Taylor first began consulting on productivity, the concept of “productivity” hadn’t even come into business vogue at the time. Having forgone attending Harvard due to his deteriorating eyesight, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, the Philadelphia-born Taylor found himself working at Midvale Steel, a small production factory, in a variety of roles including foreman, and later, chief engineer. It was during his time as a foreman in the 1870s that Taylor first began studying human productivity.
While observing the Midvale workmen, Taylor began to notice that workers rarely toiled as hard as they could, which he believed resulted in unnecessarily inflated labor costs for the company. One of Taylor’s most famous experiments – though later denounced for its insignificant sample size, participants cherry-picked by Taylor for the best results – involved another steel company, Bethlehem Steel. Prior to Taylor’s arrival, a team of 75 men was able to load about 12 and a half tons of steel, each, onto a rail car in one day. Yet when he timed a group of 10 workers he thought would perform the best, he found that a “first-class man” was able to load 47 and a half tons of steel per day – a 35 ton difference he attributed solely to worker capability if they stopped dawdling. These observations quickly became the catalyst for what Taylor would dub “scientific management” – a set of scientific principles intended to maximize human efficiency. Taylor used his studies to become the nation’s first management consultant, marketing himself as an efficiency expert to large corporations to help them reduce wasted labor costs and increase worker productivity.
1900s office. Photo via Early Office Museum
While Taylorism, the nickname given to Taylor’s theories, would go on to become the crux of modern business schools, it was his view on office layouts – desks in particular – that have influenced every aspect of office work for well over a century. Though private offices were the standard into the mid-1800s, Taylor believed that modern offices should take a page from the Industrial Revolution’s factory layouts, and opt for an open floor plan with desks facing supervisors, who were able to look onto the whole office at once. Taylor’s views became so popular in the early 20th century that by 1915, the Equitable Life Insurance Company created the “modern efficiency desk” – a workspace with a flat top and drawers below, purposefully designed so managers could easily observe workers [note: no digital citation, from “User Effective Buildings” by Kim Long, 2004]. The modern efficiency desk would go on to become the standard-bearer for deskwork, even as office layouts evolved over time.
As the Industrial Revolution and Taylorism began to gain popularity, the large open-concept office quickly began to take shape, supplanting the then-status quo of smaller buildings with private offices scattered throughout. In America, tax breaks especially helped spur the growth of large office parks and corporations, making large offices ready to be filled with desks the growing norm – so much so that while Taylor’s original vision for an industrial layout with executives on the perimeter and workers in the middle of the room remained popular in the early 20th century, it stopped looking much at all like how we consider open floor plans to look today. Worse yet, Taylor’s pseudo-scientific theories on optimized efficiency were starting to be disproven, as offices became more chaotic and unstructured, the more desks and employees were crammed into a space. Despite the lack of proven outcomes, Taylorist layouts would continue to persist in America for more than half a century.
Burolandschaft layout. Photo via BBC
European workers in the 1950s were the first to truly embrace the idea of an open floor plan that increased collaboration, a natural progression as socialism began to influence even the office culture. Called Bürolandschaft, companies still used conventional modern efficiency influenced desks, but rather than arrange workers in rows like sardines, they were grouped in various organic clusters, intended to encourage collaboration and build a happier workforce. File cabinets and large plants were scattered throughout the layout, giving each cluster a bit of privacy; a value that European offices, who hadn’t adopted the American penchant for sprawling office buildings, still embraced.
It was Richard Propst, a designer at popular furniture company Herman Miller, who first changed how Americans viewed their ostensibly efficient industrial office spaces, back in 1958. Propst, not a designer by trade, was one of the first Americans to champion the idea that Taylor’s one-size-fits-all industrial floor plan wasn’t conducive to an efficient office. Building on the post-war American sentiments of building a utopian society, Propst designed an office layout filled with a variety of workspaces, and a decent amount of variability on desk layout from worker to worker.
His original layout, entitled Action Office I, didn’t simply introduce the idea of balancing an open layout with worker privacy; Propst was also one of the first management scientists to suggest the use of a standing desk in the office, well before the idea began to gain steam. “For [Propst], it wasn’t that you should always stand, it was that you should have the option,” writes Patrick Sisson in Dwell. “That was part of a utopian idea, that you could somehow have the ability to shape your space, have some level of privacy, and be in an open environment.”
While Propst’s Action Office I layout didn’t gain much steam, his Action Office II plan – an adaptation of Germany’s Burolandschaft, but with more autonomy and customizable space – was a hit. Propst’s plan was largely built on the idea of movable walls that office managers could arrange in a variety of layouts, thus taking the best pieces of group clustering from Burolandschaft, but also giving office workers the privacy and autonomy to actually work more efficiently. Though Propst’s designs were intended to spur creativity by arranging cubicle walls like room dividers to give workers privacy without being boxed in, large offices were becoming even more common than they were post-Industrial Revolution. Post-war tax breaks made implementing an Action Office setup cheaper than a private office, and employers began to buy the Action Office layout en masse, cramming nearly as many workers into their open floor plans as Taylorism’s industrial visions espoused, but this time with fabric-wrapped cardboard walls between desks.
Action Office II. Photo via Morgan Lovell
The Action Office II directly led to cubicle culture that became the new normal for the American office – a consequence Propst hadn’t forseen when he designed the system. While cubicle culture would stay the norm for over two decades, its impact on efficiency remained as minimal as Taylorism’s original efficiency claims. It was during this time that cubicles started to become synonymous with the idea of rote office work and employees chained to their identical, boxy spaces.
While Propst’s legacy remains tinged by being the inadvertent creator of cubicles, apathy to cubicle culture and corporate life was less due to poor design, and more to American socio-political sentiment of the time. While Germany’s Burolandschaft capitalized on Europe’s growing socialism in an effort to make the office place better, America’s post-war economic instability only contributed to growing workplace apathy.
Cubicle Farm at The Body Shop in North Carolina. Photo by Mrdorkesq/flickr
“What really made the cubicle the symbol of workplace ennui was the economy. It changed the workplace altogether,” writes Sisson. “The series of crises the economy suffered in the ‘70s, mergers and acquisitions, leveraged buyouts, it all meant the workplace was much more chaotic, precarious and arbitrary. The cubicle became the symbol of impermanence, not autonomy.”
As America continued down its cubicle-lined path, Europe continued to further bifurcate from the American office ideal, with employees insisting on autonomous space, and European countries responding in kind with workplace regulations. There was also far less speculative development in Europe, due to economic regulations, making owner-operated private buildings the norm over the massive air-conditioned box, ready to be filled with desks, that was endemic to the American office culture.
Open floor plan office. Photo by Scott Beale/flickr
By the late 90s and early 2000s, however, American companies began to re-embrace the idea of an open floor plan, expecting that it would lead to spontaneous collaboration and a more democratic office culture. In Japan, where group collaboration is valued at a premium, the open office floor plans were a norm. They were also wildly successful for companies such as Toyota.
As Rochelle Kopp, the managing principal at Japan Intercultural Consulting, notes, much of Japan’s open office floor plan success comes from Japanese cultural preferences – particularly having to get by in small, shared spaces. “Concerns about privacy are minimal in a country where people are accustomed to living in houses with paper walls between rooms, and where it’s considered bad form for people to make personal phone calls during the workday,” says Kopp.
Despite the cross-cultural differences, the open office floor plan was once again popularized in America, a century after Taylorism was first pioneered, for its potential to increase creative collaboration. While the experiment rapidly caught on – especially at tech companies in the early aughts, who saw it as the forefront to innovation while boasting low costs during an economic recession – it wasn’t without its significant problems. Specifically: the lack of privacy and autonomy, and the inability to concentrate on work. Employees at the advertising agency Chiat/Day hated their open office plan – bolstered by unassigned seating, and lockers for employees to keep belongings – so much that they just stopped showing up to work in 1993.
After a decade, the open office floor plan backlash has once again become popular, with multiple studies published proving their lack of efficacy, and breathy articles decrying the practice. In the last few years, forward thinking offices have tried every manner of layouts – unassigned seating, co-working spaces, work from home arrangements, and so on – to try to ameliorate the lack of privacy and increase of chaos that open plan offices tend to bring. Yet all this talk of redesigning layouts has ultimately become a circular loop, with little measurable impact to build upon. What’s been forgotten from the conversation in the last century and a half? How to actually solve the productivity coefficient – the original question Speedy Taylor had intended to solve.
Is there a solution to the efficiency conundrum on the horizon then? Or are we destined to be stuck in an endless game of office Tetris? As it turns out, finding the answer to that question has less to do with the future, and much more to do with the past.
In 1914, Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, the first female management consultant and an early study of Taylorism, posited a different theory in her book The Psychology of Management. As Gilbreth, who ran a consulting firm with her husband Frank, suggested, “The emphasis in successful management lies on the man, not on the work.”
For years, the Gilbreths had been observing the alarming adaptations of Taylorism in the modern workplace, and seen that companies were espousing these changes to office life as a way to help workers be better, when in fact, they were simply intended to pad a company’s bottom line by extracting as much out of an employee with little regard for their later well-being. Taylor’s own study, the one where he observed how quickly “first-class men” could load iron in a rail car, had not only been proven false by its lack of scientific rigor, and as Gilbreth saw, factory workers in the early 1900s were coming home bone-tired, physically incapable of sustaining that level of productivity for lengthy periods of time, much less indefinitely.
Considering how we approach work life balance today, things have not improved significantly in the last century. Hours logged at work have become a humblebrag, while calendars littered with multiple blocks of meetings are common screenshots shared amongst co-workers. Offices may be far more ergonomic and safe for workers today than they were for factory workers in the 1900s, but those changes have largely been engineered to encourage employees to want to stay in the office at all times - not just for ambience and a good Instagram. Not only is the lack of work-life balance having a detrimental effect on employees’ mental and physical well-being even today, it’s achieving the exact opposite of Taylor’s original goals for workplace efficiency.
Gilbreth, alongside then-Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who also was an early study of Taylor, espoused an update to Taylorism throughout the early 1900s: find ways to maximize efficiency, but do so in a way that focuses on the rights of the individual man. From the outset of Taylorism, Brandeis truly believed that scientific management could make the lives of factory workers better, because cost of goods could decrease while wages increased.
Heavily influenced by how strongly unions at the time were rejecting Taylorism, Brandeis realized that worker efficiency could only be productive if employees worked in a way that still allowed them to go home and enjoy a quality standard of living. Gilbreth felt similarly, stating the entire goal of efficiency should instead be to increase “happiness minutes” - doing so would be the only sustainable solution to finding a work life balance. As Jill Lepore noted in the New Yorker, “[For Gilbreth], scientific management wasn’t just a business practice; it was a habit of mind and a way of life.”
Can efficiency and work life balance co-exist peacefully? Or was Taylorism and its later adaptations all just exercises in pioneering the field of management consulting, which some academics have described as “nothing more than a party trick”?
More and more, forward thinking companies are now coming around to Brandeis and Gilbreth’s teachings, even if they don’t realize the ideas are over a century old. Work life balance is being prioritized in a variety of ways, both in regard to office layout and employee happiness. “Hybrid offices” are becoming the new trend, hoped to ameliorate the chasm between open floor plans and cubicle farms. Desks are still scattered through a largely open layout, but companies are now also providing private areas for employees who want to work quietly or need privacy - soundproof cabanas and huddle rooms in the middle of open offices, soundproof and lightproof chairs, and even phone booths and nursing rooms for added flexibility of private workspaces. These new hybrid offices give workers the flexibility they wanted after the days of cubicle farms, while allowing them to avoid the productivity pitfalls of an open office.
But to truly achieve measurable success, it has to go further than layout. Propst’s original Action Plan I, with its adjustable standing desk, was far ahead of its time - addressing not only the physical needs of employees, but acknowledging that those needs don’t just vary employee to employee; they can vary over the course of the day for an individual.
StandDesk, with their push-button adjustment technology that can turn a standing desk into a sitting desk in seconds, is one of the companies that has been embracing Propstian ideals even after most companies had forgotten he once suggested standing during the work day. As ergonomics experts have proven that employees need time to both sit and stand for maximum health benefits, sit-stand desks, rather than static standing desks alone, are making the customizable Action Office I of the early 1900s a reality, by giving workers flexibility even in their own workspace - a step that goes even further than just having hybrid workspaces throughout an office.
While sit-stand desks have begun to become more popular - Propst’s own Herman-Miller has sold a sit-stand model for years - few companies have found a way to make their most versatile product affordable. Most sit-stand desks, especially given their recent popularity, have been priced at a premium - putting the choice between employee happiness and corporate balance sheets at far odds. Yet StandDesk’s affordably priced sit-stand models, that don’t sacrifice functionality or ease of use, have truly embraced Propst’s original ethos of finding a way to make work more productive and efficient, without sacrificing the autonomy or health of its employees.
Ergonomics academics are now largely in consensus that Propst may have had it right all along when he first envisioned his action offices - it’s not just about providing a variety of workspaces to employees; it’s giving them the autonomy to control their own workspace instead of just choosing one. And with all respect to the Harvard Innovation Lab, while the evolution of desks may continue to evolve, autonomy and efficiency are two things that can’t be outsourced into just another app.