Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Work In The Precarious Economy

Liberated as Hell

The Autonomous Worker and the Hollowed Workplace

Brent Cebul

Starbucks Man, 2012, by Joseph Peller; courtesy of the artist and ACA Galleries New York, New York.

The quest for personal authenticity and autonomy in the face of unreliable communities and institutions has become a defining feature of the modern working class.

In the early 1990s, Monika Miller was chosen to test-drive the office of the future. An associate media director in the Los Angeles office of the Chiat/Day ad agency, Miller learned she’d been freed of the burdens of her desk, chair, and personal office space. Her boss, Jay Chiat, had had an epiphany while skiing in the Rockies. He would no longer keep his creative workers penned in cubicles. His “virtual office” would be an expression of equality, featuring open, non-hierarchical communal spaces that would inspire creativity, collaboration, and flexibility—even playfulness. Unencumbered workers would sign out the day’s phone or computer from a tech “concierge.” News coverage exalting the firm’s brave new way of work featured photographs of the Tilt-A-Whirl amusement park cars Chiat installed for one-to-one meetings.

For Miller, however, liberation was “like a bad dream.” With nowhere to keep her supplies and files, she bought a Radio Flyer wagon. “Everyone thought it was so cute,” she recalled. “I’d be trudging down the hall,” she said, recollecting the daily search for a free space, “and they’d laugh and say, ‘Oh look, here she comes with that little red wagon.’” But when their turn came to be liberated, there was little laughing among Miller’s coworkers. Soon, the office was a blur of motion, with staff repeatedly visiting their cars in which they stashed papers and pens. Others hid files around the office. “Every day,” Miller said, “there’d be these frantic email messages like, ‘Has anybody seen my binder? Does anyone know where my files are?’” Chiat soon conceded the need for small lockers. There, he offered with unalloyed scorn, workers could “put their dog pictures, or whatever.” For employees newly habituated to turf battles, the lockers simply offered more fodder for jokes that they attended Chiat/Day High School.

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