Skeuomorphic Factories


"Hovering" managers isn't a new concept. Image found on http://historicalphotosblog.com.

“The whole modern office building is pretty much just a skeuomorphic version of the industrial revolution factory.” @johndilworth

A brief history

Before the Industrial Revolution, production work was done by specialists in their homes. Regarded as a "putting-out system," the people doing that work were craftsmen and were paid based on the quality of their work.

When the Industrial Revolution happened, the putting-out system was considered inefficient and wasteful. Instead of focusing on craftsmanship, work was itemized and many workers were brought into central factories where their piecemeal work could be monitored and controlled, all in the name of speed. During this new kind of manufactured work, time really was money. Every second counted. Managers and supervisors were there to make sure the workers were efficient.

Manufacturing discontent

Now we live in a post-industrial society. Most of the work done in office buildings is decidedly not manufacturing. When you consider the people in offices who actually produce products or services, they resemble craftsman, not workers in an assembly line.

So why are we still traveling to a central location to get this kind of work done? Many people argue that it’s for collaboration (I’ll get to that in a later post). But the reality is that our modern offices are relics. They’re holdouts from the days when workers were thought of cogs in the machine. And much of the language and culture of the factory still impacts our office work.

If it talks like a duck

If you work in the tech industry, just consider the following terms, lifted directly from the Industrial Revolution: Workstation, efficiency, monitor, supervisor, manager, production, accountability, lean, alignment, quality assurance, bottleneck, breakroom, etc. In fact, with the rise of lean startup principles, we’re STILL stealing concepts from manufacturing. And while some of these concepts and ideas may be instructive, the work we do still resembles craft more than assembly.

What’s most amusing to me is the way that office culture keeps pushing to feel more like home. From ping-pong tables to beanbag rooms, from kitchens to gyms, the offices that are considered cool are those that resemble a dorm. And don’t get me started on cubicles. Oh ok, just a quick aside.

Cubicles were designed at Herman Miller, initially under the direction of George Nelson. They eventually became Herman Miller's most successful product. However, George disagreed with and eventually distanced himself from the project. Here’s what he had to say about cubicles:

“One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for ‘employees’ (as against individuals), for ‘personnel,’ corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.”

Skeuomorphic is a long word

These are a few quick examples, but there’s so much more to this comparison than I’m willing to bore you with right now. Just know that when you step into an office building, you’re stepping into obsolescence.

More to come.