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Book Review: 'Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace' by Nikil Saval

Although published in 2014, Nikil Saval’s ‘Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace’ is very relevant in the current conversation surrounding the future of the workspace. In this revealing and thought provoking read, Saval looks into the evolution of workplace design and the factors that led it to where it is today to ask the question “Why have the best intentions of planners and architects, designers and executives, fallen short of producing a happy environment for the American worker?” Saval suggests that the key lies in understanding human biology.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Apodaca via Unsplash Images


The introduction of factory jobs changed the nature of work and since then the workplace has been reinvented time and time again, however it appears we are still not quite there when it comes to designing offices properly tailored for the needs of the modern worker.

Why have the best intentions of planners and architects, designers and executives, fallen short of producing a happy environment for the American worker?

In Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace Nikil Saval tries to pinpoint where the design of the office space went wrong. Towards the end of the book Saval takes a tour with a Google representative who shows him Google’s juice bar and tells him that it is where all the Googlers like to hangout. When asked by the rep why this may be, Saval assumes it is the juices served. The rep points “to the floor-to-ceiling windows, letting in a glimpse of green and late afternoon California springtime sun. ‘It’s the proximity to nature,’ he said.”

Social ecologist at Yale - Stephen Kellert is in agreement. He argues that what we have gotten wrong is our perception that we are not animals, and how “The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from [it] and transcending nature - becoming independent of our biology.” This is evident in that we are happy to imprison ourselves in tall buildings located in ‘concrete jungles’ of our own invention - without a tree in sight. Ironically we are quick to protest the capture and enclosure of wild animals and campaign for them to be released into their natural habitat. Are these cubes we choose to work in and reside in our natural habitat?

“The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from [it] and transcending nature - becoming independent of our biology.”

Our world today hardly resembles our ancestral environment, however our biological rules still apply- we crave nature and the freedom to roam. Driven by this knowledge, in the 1960s, Robert Propst invented the Action Office for Herman Miller. He conceived of it as a “liberation”: a desk nestled between three walls, which the worker could arrange to their liking. The worker could alternate between sitting and standing, foreshadowing today’s standing and walking desks. In Cubed, Saval writes, “[Propst] stress[ed] the danger to one’s mental and physical vitality, of sitting too long at one’s desk.” Unfortunately Propst’s invention turned out not to be the liberation he intended. Ignorant to Propst’s vision, executives saw the Action Office as an opportunity to cram as many workers as possible, eliminating opportunities for movement and making the spaces smaller and extremely uncomfortable to work in. This not only went against Propst’s vision - but againsts our nature as humans, as it has been proven that we need exposure to nature in order to thrive.

In Eva Selhub and Alan Logan’s book Your Brain on Nature, the authors discuss a 2005 study that found that participants reacted faster and made fewer mistakes after viewing images of nature. Similarly, a study of over 100 schools in Michigan showed significant gains in academic performance on standardized tests in classrooms that had views of green vegetation. Most simply put, this research suggests that thinking is best suited to natural environments. A California study found that those who worked with desirable views of nature showed less stress levels.

Another factor to consider in the design of the optimal working environment is that the nature of the white collar worker has changed. Gone are the days of the baby boomers in the 60s, where a person would work in a company from a young age up until retirement. Nowadays employees make erratic shifts between jobs and careers therefore creating a need for the workplace to be diverse and offer flexibility to accommodate the ever changing dynamics of the staff. As a response to the slippery nature of staff, the planners of “revolutionary offices” in places like Silicon Valley have attempted to create complete ecosystems. Office campuses have become something of a workplace village, enticing employees by combining labour and leisure. In so doing, they have created the culture of work being the ‘second home’ and your office team being ‘family’ when perhaps our most enduring desire for the office is, (and should be) to be there less.

Saval, who’s book is essentially advocating for the better working conditions for the white collar worker believes that “white collar workers are an oppressed class” and that they should resist these advances by the corporate world. The modern playful workplace with all of its amenities is yet another Cube keeping people away from their natural habitats.

In an example of progressive office design, Patricia Fox, a London-based designer, premiered her outdoor office, which she dubbed “The Rooftop Workplace of Tomorrow” at the Chelsea Garden Show. The rooftop office features lush greenery, WiFi, tablet charging stations, and a tea wall where office workers can pick their own fresh teas. This kind of environment could provide rejuvenation and inspire creativity and Patricia rightfully sees this workplace model as scalable. Offices like hers could conceivably be built anywhere with a roof that could structurally support a garden. Could this be the answer Saval was looking for?

“Design only does so much”

When asked whether the solution was to build cubes with visual access to nature, Nikil expressed that “Design only does so much” explaining that moving to a shorter or more flexible workday, allowing the worker to properly indulge in nature could be the answer, as the endless hours spent enclosed like an unwilling wild animal is what is detrimental to the well being of the white collar worker.

Kellert, however believes that given that we do spend too much time in our workspaces, the answer lies in making work environments as naturally appealing as possible. What is your take? Order yourself a copy and let Saval take you on a trip down memory lane to help you carve out a better path into the future of the workplace environment.

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