The Future (and Past) of the 'Office of the Future'

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of my first book. Titled, Office Hazards: How Your Job Can Make You Sick, it chronicled the transformation of office environments and office-based work that was taking place at the time. Looking back three decades later, a lot has changed — and some things haven't.

(The book, long out of print, can be found online from anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars. See herehere, and here, for example.)

First, some context. When I wrote the book, in 1980-81, several trends were taking place in offices. Buildings were being sealed tight to save energy; windows were no longer operable. Interior walls were being demolished to make way for "systems furniture," the open offices that derisively became known as the "cubicle culture." Synthetic materials were being introduced: carpeting, wallcoverings, particleboard furnishings, and more. Computers were being introduced (primarily as workstations connected to mainframe computers; personal computers would come along shortly).

The result: Workers could no longer open or close doors or windows, or turn on or off lights. The temperature was controlled by a computer in the basement. Workers were adjusting themselves to accommodate the newfangled computer terminals, rather than the other way around. (Ergonomic furniture was just being introduced.) Some of the work itself was becoming machine-paced, broken down into "processes," much like in a factory.

The impact of all these changes was being felt increasingly on office workers. As I wrote in the book's intro:

The nature of the problem is such that the individual hazards in offices are often rather small, seemingly trivial things. Office workers rarely drop dead or lose limbs on the job. An uncomfortable chair does not seem like a major calamity; neither does stuffy air or a few ringing telephones. But put an office worker in a bad chair in a noisy, stuffy office, require that worker to perform a dead-end job for low pay on a video display terminal with a dirty screen made worse by the harsh glare from fluorescent lights, add a dash of pressure — a ruthless supervisor, for example, or economic pressures or family problems — and you’ve got an explosive situation, the stuff from which headaches and heart attacks are made.

OK, three decades later, I’ll admit to a little hyperbole. But the overall trend was unmistakable. Companies were beginning to offshore data processing and other rote chores to office factories. Office workers, overwhelmingly female, were beginning to organize. The movie Nine to Five, starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton, came out as I was writing the book. The first office workers union — Local 925 — was formed in 1982 by the Service Employees International Union. (The woman who would become president of Local 925, Karen Nussbaum, wrote the foreword for my book while she headed the working women's group 9to5.) It was time to reexamine what had become known as the “cushy office job.”

Thirty years later, much has changed. Indoor air pollution (or, in its extreme, "sick building syndrome"), while still a problem, especially with legacy buildings, is being addressed through more effective and energy-efficient heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning equipment. (Also from office smoking bans: According to research I cited in 1981, fully 35 percent of office employees still smoked at their desks.) The aches and pains of computer work have been partially mitigated by ergonomic furniture and, in some companies, preventive wellness programs that train employees how to work more comfortably. Office furnishings are much more flexible; some workstations have controllable lighting and air conditioning.