Open offices

From "Wife vs. Secretary" to "Silicon Valley," and everything in between. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I had a story on that went viral over the weekend — not really the things I write about here, but about how Colorado Springs lobbied Southwest Airlines for 17 years to offer service to their airport, and finally found out they’re getting it.

Anyway, a lot of people read it—and many of them tracked me down here and signed up for Understandably as a result. Welcome! If you like this newsletter, please share it and encourage others to subscribe, too!

The Wall Street Journal had a quick little retrospective over the weekend, tracking the development of the American office through TV and movie portrayals—from the “industrial factory floor” era through the “cubicle farm” and the more modern “open office.”

Even just the names of the movies and TV shows tell a bit of a story, including:

  • Wife vs. Secretary (no joke, that was the title, 1936)

  • Nine to Five (1980),

  • Office Space (1999),

  • The Office (USA version, 2005-2013), and

  • Silicon Valley (2014-2019).

What comes next in terms of office layouts is a bit of a mystery, of course, but open offices seem like the last thing you’d want to work in, post-pandemic. And with the assumption of that upcoming upheaval, it might be a good chance to say farewell to the open-office plan—and remember who brought it to us in the first place.

The credit or blame, depending on your point of view, goes to Italian architect Gaetano Pesce and his client, Jay Chiat, the late head of ad agency Chiat/Day. 

Here's how the New York Times described their creation, still new at the time, back in 1994:

People are calling it the virtual office—a workplace designed for the age of the cellular phone, the computer modem and the mobility that such devices have made possible.

Lodged high up in a glass tower in lower Manhattan, Chiat/Day has opened its wacky new doors at a time when there is talk that technology is making the urban workplace obsolete. 

Before long, many people will telecommute from home along the information highway. Will it even make sense to keep an office?

Will it even make sense, indeed?

It's fun to consider that a quarter of a century ago, people were predicting the change we're only seeing now.

As for Pesce, NPR's Planet Money tracked him down a few years ago. There were a few differences between his early version of the open office and the more modern sort.

Almost nobody had Internet access at home back then, and cell phones weren't anywhere near as ubiquitous as they'd be a few years later. So, employees would come in each morning, and check out a laptop and a phone.

But other than that, Pesce described something pretty similar to what the open office became—or at least what it aspired to. 

“It was like a huge living room,” he said. “It was an open space with sofa, comfortable chair, a coffee shop.”

But, the bad and the ugly came with the good. It was hard to get work done, with so many people walking around, and the distraction of the hard, bright, colorful floor.

“Like, if you could climb inside a migraine headache, that's what that felt like,” recalled Shalom Auslander, a creative director who worked there. 

Over the years, science backed up the critics of the open office. And while tastes and fashion are cyclical, it's hard to imagine when it might come crashing back into vogue.

Now, thanks to the fallout from a global tragedy, its time may have finally run out. I just hope we don’t go back to “industrial factory floors.”

There are 8 days left until the U.S. presidential election. As of last night, 59,035,218 Americans had already cast their ballots. Texas is by far the leader; we’re already at 80 percent of the total number of votes in Texas in 2016. North Carolina, Georgia, Florida are all above 60 percent, too. Have you voted yet?

7 other things worth your time

  • I know I mentioned above how many people have voted in Texas, but it’s really pretty staggering. Some election observers/analysts/experts (honestly I’m not sure what to call them) say they’re on track for 12 million ballots, which would mean almost a 33 percent increase in the total number of voters over 2016. (Texas Tribune)

  • Zoom is being accused of shutting down a series of events meant to discuss what organizers called “censorship” by the company. (Buzzfeed News)

  • Barring, say, an asteriod destroying the planet, Judge Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court today, after an extraordinary Sunday session in the U.S. Senate. “One of the first cases she could hear … could decide who wins the White House,” reports Fox News, as she’s widely expected to break a 4-4 tie on the court, and order a crucial swing state, Pennsylvania, not to count thousands of mail-in ballots. (Washington Post, Fox News)

  • If Joe Biden does win the presidency, however, Sen. Bernie Sanders apparently wants a new job, too: cabinet member, specifically secretary of labor. (Politico)

  • After months of resisting the idea, Dr. Anthony Fauci is now calling for a nationwide mask mandate, after a group of researchers said U.S. death toll could surpass 500,000 by February unless nearly all Americans wear face masks. (CNN, Reuters)

  • The Pope named 13 new cardinals. Among them: Washington D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who will be the first Black U.S. cardinal. (AP)

  • I would gladly work in an open office again, over having to be on the team with these guys vacuuming a swarm of “murder hornets” from their nest. Actually, it’s pretty cool how they found them to begin with—trapping a few of the hornets and strapping tiny radio transmitters to them with dental floss. No joke. (MPR News)

I wrote about the history of the open office on previously. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to And now, you can also get it by text at (718) 866-1753.

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