When I first started working in offices back in the mid seventies all office space was open, unless you were literally in an office with a door. There was no email then anyway. All communication was done on the phone, by memo, verbally or whispered. People sat at metal or wooden desks and there were big metal file cabinets everywhere to store all the papers, as everything was done on paper and filed. Every desk had in and out boxes, and inter office mail came through twice a day at the very least. The clatter of dozens of typewriters filled the air like machine guns. Phones rang like fire alarms. Every office looked like a microcosm of the agoraphobic expense of desks and adding machines in The Apartment.
I first remember cubicles in the 80’s though they were pretty open still, three sided and often only waist high between neighbors. That was essential because there was no other way to communicate with the people around you unless you called them on the phone which was weird, as they were just a few feet away. I began to see floors full of three and four walled cubicles five feet high as the eighties went on. Once email and intranets became standard business practices in the late 90’s offices grew weirdly silent and the employees mostly invisible. They padded about on the wall to wall carpeting and even the chairs rolled silently on casters, with none of the squeak of wooden legs across wooden floors of the old days.
In the early 2000’s instant messaging (as they called it then) made it possible to hide in your four walled cubicle and gossip relentlessly and have virtual affairs and talk to corporate head hunters. And everyone had access to the internet, not just the company intranet, so an employee could surf away an afternoon if no one was looking. No one ever was. You really had no idea what your fellow employees were doing. Floors could be eerily silent. You’d walk around a couple corners and discover entire departments you didn’t know were there, people in cubicles hunched over computers typing silently on lap tops. The rat a tat of work station keyboards was becoming a thing of the past. Sometimes on a stroll you’d uncover the eerie remains of departments suddenly vanished, artifacts scattered about like something awful had happened and the people had fled, leaving behind pads of paper and office art and an Alice Cooper’s greatest hits cd.
Cubicles had evolved into these towering things so high you could look across your office and have no idea if half the cubicles were occupied at all. The last job I had I was specifically assigned to a floor to bring it back to life, my boss told me, get them talking, make them laugh, to see if I could get them to communicate with each other. It was a rough assignment. The last thing people wanted was to actually talk to each other, or let HR see them them there, ripe for a lay off. But I succeeded, and when I left what a happy bunch they seemed. Most of them had not even realized most of them were working in the same department. It was seen as a major achievement. It was my final culminating achievement of nearly four decades spent in offices. Then, beaten down by a life of epilepsy, I retired.
Last I heard the top brass was still discussing an open workspace. It seemed inconceivable to the employees, a crime against nature, a violation of basic human rights. It just sounded like 1975 to me, but with computers. I was gone before any of that happened. My last cubicle had the walls six feet high, and the lady next to me would come by and whisper about everybody else.