Could the borderless home be worse than the open office?

At a time when the future of open-plan space is under review, a re-reading of Billy Wilder classic 1960 movie The Apartment reminds us of the dangers of a corporate over-reach into private lives

In a fairly recent lament about conventional accounts of The Office of the Future, a leading journalist in the field remarked upon how much he also hated reading the same old articles about The Office in the Movies.

I know what he means. I’ve written about the office in film myself. But one film I didn’t touch on is an old favourite of office-orientated cineastes: Billy Wilder’s acclaimed comedy The Apartment (1960), with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and a satanic Fred MacMurray. Read right, it illustrates thinking about that the future of the office, and WFH, that’s actually more fertile than common conceptions.

Yes, the infinitely receding sightlines of the film’s 19th floor of the Consolidated Life of New York insurance company reinforce the conformity of the old open-plan office – despite the cellular units, complete with window views of Manhattan, that appear in the movie as the exclusive province of senior management. Yet this is only part of the story. It is wrong to hint that The Apartment underlines the case, even 60 years later, for funkier offices in future. Much more important than offices in the movie is what is happening in Jack Lemmon’s apartment itself.

Lemmon – CC Baxter in the film – lets it out to his superiors for them to have affairs in, usually with women from the office. ‘The only problem’, he says just 10 minutes into the movie, ‘is that I can’t always get into my apartment when I want’.

‘Baxter’s superiors take over not just his home, or even his home life, but his private thoughts…’

There’s the rub. It is not just, as another reviewer has summarised it, that ‘Baxter sacrifices his home life – quite literally in this case – for the sake of his career prospects’. It is not just that ‘the rate of women entering the workforce tripled after 1950, and The Apartment doesn’t shy away from this… The casual sexism of the bosses at Baxter’s firm and their sexual exploitation of female employees are key themes in Wilder and IAL Diamond’s script’.

The further point is that middle management, in the shape of Baxter’s superiors, and The Boss in shape of J D Sheldrake (MacMurray), take over not just Baxter’s home, or even his home life, but his private life and his private thoughts – at work, too. And, right from the start of the movie, they speak of him to their girlfriends as ‘some schnook who works in the office’.

Corporate smash-up of private life

People overlook that Sheldrake isn’t any old boss: at Consolidated Life, he is head of Personnel, the department in which Baxter works – the department that would now be called HR. When Sheldrake demands use of Baxter’s apartment, MacMurray says in a brilliantly smarmy and sinister manner: ‘Look, Baxter, I’m not stupid. I know everything that goes on in this building – in every department – on every floor – every day of the year.’

When Baxter later resists a superior’s demand for his apartment, it’s with the protest: ‘After all, it’s my apartment… not a public playground’. To that, the superior replies: ‘Listen, Baxter, we made you and we can break you’.

So The Apartment is not just about Sheldrake telling Baxter that his eventual promotion now means not just a bigger office, but also lunch in the executive dining room – and, he is careful to add, the executive washroom too. If the film was just about this, it would concern merely homogeneity and hierarchy. But The Apartment is also about the corporate smashing up of private life.

When the elevator attendant Fran Kubelik (MacLaine) lends Baxter her cracked vanity mirror for him to check how he looks in a new hat, Baxter not only realises that Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress, but also has to take a demanding call from Sheldrake himself. He tells Kubelik to leave the office, because ‘this is sort of a personal call’, when it is in fact a call exercising droit de seigneur.

The phone adds to confusion

If the apartment stands as a symbol of an invaded private life, throughout the movie the phone serves to confuse the private world with the professional one. When word from Baxter reaches Sheldrake on his home phone that Fran has attempted suicide, and his wife, overhearing a little, becomes suspicious about an affair, Sheldrake dissembles to her: ‘One of my employees had an accident’. Later Sheldrake’s secretary Miss Olsen, another ex, listens in on Sheldrake’s call to Baxter and Kubelik. Later still, Sheldrake asks her for Baxter’s home phone number.

In short, there is no hiding place for employees. Office life extends into the home, with unpleasant consequences. HR is all-powerful. Telecommunications becomes an important mediator in mixing up the professional with the personal.

It sounds trite, but open offices are, after all, open, not closed. Unlike the managerial occupants of cellular offices, people in open ones are on view: posture, attentiveness, degree of calm, facial expression, degree of engagement. They can also be heard and overheard quite easily. It is reasonably clear who they are talking to, for how long, and in what kind of voice.

The line of sight that management may have on workers can often determine whether they are there at all. So, yes: it was, for decades before Covid-19, fashionable to criticise ‘presenteeism’ in workplace culture. Yet the fact is that with the open office came distinct benefits for management, which it would have been foolish to ignore.

Opening up the personal

At first, the open-plan office was no doubt founded on the economics of scale and scope. But as early as The Apartment, it was clear that something else was an issue: not so much a conspiracy to conduct surveillance as a much broader trend toward opening up the personal, personality tests and Myers-Briggs included.

Within a few years of the film, the rise of consumerism outside the office put ever greater emphasis on the Self. The result was that offices tried to build in still further efficiencies, but also become more accommodating, less regimented and more protean, as business concerns broadened from economics into the sociology of workstyle, work dress, status, and the arrival of millions more women workers, most of them with home responsibilities.

Eventually, the Space Race spread of project teams meant that many senior managers came down from their cellular offices and, in newly partitioned open ones, exposed their Selves to their subordinates as never before.

‘An office without borders may sound great, but a home without them is a terrible idea…’

The future of the office, then, is not just about different kinds of open plan and other arrangements, occupational density and all that, important though these are. Nor, sadly, will the future see too many amendments made to the woefully weak productivity of offices, especially those of SMEs. No, in the future, we expect the design of offices and of WFH arrangements to be met with a growing debate over worker supervision, privacy and autonomy.

In this debate, designers should, in their work, vigilantly defend and design for the distinction between the public and the private realm. An office without borders may sound great, but a home without them sounds like a terrible idea. Workers will need their own moments and spaces for self-reflection. In the quest for this, designers will find that their allies will be facilities managers, perhaps even IT mediators, certainly office workers; but they should be careful what HR wish for.

The Apartment, then, was not so much a sardonic comment about the gleaming, uniform Cold War office. The year 1960 was, in fact, very near the apex of the Cold War, and things moved on very quickly. Through its subtle portrait of the corporate destruction of private life, The Apartment spoke not of the 1950s, but of the future – and, even more, of our future today.

James Woudhuysen is a writer and broadcaster, and Visiting Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at London South Bank University. He was a keynote speaker at WORKTECH Munich 2018
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