The Last Days of Cubicle Life

Thursday, May. 14, 2009


By Seth Godin


When Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled the Johnson Wax Building in 1939, it showcased a new way of looking at work. One room, covering half an acre (0.2 hectare), was filled with women, lined up in rows, typing. Work didn’t necessarily mean loud, dirty factories, but it still involved sitting in orderly rows, doing orderly work for a finicky boss.

In order to understand what your workplace is going to be like in five or 10 years, you need to think about what your work is going to be like. Here’s a clue: employers no longer need to pay you to drive to a building to sit and type. In fact, under pressure from an uncertain economy, bosses are discovering that there are a lot of reasons not to pay you to drive to a central location or even to pay you at all. And when work gets auctioned off to the lowest bidder, your job gets a lot more stressful. (See pictures of cubicle designs submitted to The Office.)

The job of the future will have very little to do with processing words or numbers (the Internet can do that now). Nor will we need many people to act as placeholders, errand runners or receptionists. Instead, there’s going to be a huge focus on finding the essential people and outsourcing the rest.

So, are you essential? Most of the best jobs will be for people who manage customers, who organize fans, who do digital community management. We’ll continue to need brilliant designers, energetic brainstormers and rigorous lab technicians. More and more, though, the need to actually show up at an office that consists of an anonymous hallway and a farm of cubicles or closed doors is just going to fade away. It’s too expensive, and it’s too slow. I’d rather send you a file at the end of my day (when you’re in a very different time zone) and have the information returned to my desktop when I wake up tomorrow. We may never meet, but we’re both doing essential work. (See pictures of office cubicles around the world.)

When you do come in to work, your boss will know. If anything can be measured, it will be measured. The boss will know when you log in, what you type, what you access. Not just the boss but also your team. Internet technology makes working as a team, synchronized to a shared goal, easier and more productive than ever. But as in a three-legged-race, you’ll instantly know when a teammate is struggling, because that will slow you down as well. Some people will embrace this new high-stress, high-speed, high-flexibility way of work. We’ll go from a few days alone at home, maintaining the status quo, to urgent team sessions, sometimes in person, often online. It will make some people yearn for jobs like those in the old days, when we fought traffic, sat in a cube, typed memos, took a long lunch and then sat in traffic again.

The only reason to go to work, I think, is to do work. It’s too expensive a trip if all you want to do is hang out. Work will mean managing a tribe, creating a movement and operating in teams to change the world. Anything less is going to be outsourced to someone a lot cheaper and a lot less privileged than you or me.

Godin is a popular blogger (sethgodin.typepad.com) and the author of 12 international best sellers. His most recent book is Tribes

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