Gideon Haigh is the best known for his outstanding writing on cricket, but he also has a sideline in writing about business. He brings the same eye to this—informed, always slightly sceptical—as he does to his cricket books. And, as with his cricket coverage, he wears his learning lightly.

I missed his book The Office from the early 2010s, so I was pleased to stumble on his more recent book on the same subject, The Momentous, Eventful Day, which charts a 200-year history of the office, mostly in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The title is from a novel by William Howells, published in 1885. And this is really the first clue to this short and readable book: it is, first and foremost, a cultural history of the office. Architects and designers get their share of the story but so do novelists, artists, and filmmakers.

Office work

The book was prompted by the pandemic, and I’ll come back to that, but in many ways the early history of the office is more intriguing. Most of the elements we see in the modern office are also seen in its 19th century origins.

It is a history of gender and control, as much as it is a history of economics and technology.

The office worker starts to appear in literature from the 1840s onwards, for example in The Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, as capitalism starts to become more complicated. The notion that this was, somehow, not real work followed along quickly enough. Haigh quotes the 1907 book, Robert Thorne: the story of a London clerk, in which one of the characters asks:

(D)on’t we lose our manhood? What do we see of real life? What do we know if the world? We are a small breed. We aren’t real men (p. 21).


The arrival of the mechanical typewriter brought women into the office (both women and machines were known as “typewriters”).

Haigh is clear-eyed about why this happened: women were much cheaper to hire than men. But this brought endless complications in a world where gender relationships were otherwise tightly controlled.

Bosses created different male and female entrances, staggered male and female starting times, and cordoned off work and luncheon areas… But such gestures at segregation crumbled before the necessities of efficiency. To get work done effectively, men and women simply had to occupy the same spaces (p.29)

One of the effects of this was to recreate in the office the rhythms and routines of the home. Secretaries became the ‘consort’ and the ‘ally’ of the boss. The odious phrase ‘office wife’ was the title of a 1930s novel. In this context, Haigh references Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting, ‘Office at Night’:

A tight dress hugs the secretary’s curves, while in alabaster pallor stresses a boss’s chaste self-mastery, as a single piece of paper falls between them. A door and a filing cabinet are open a little… The frisson is palpable (p. 32).

(Edward Hopper, ‘Office at Night’, 1940)

Lonely or domesticated

Yet women are almost effaced from stories about the office in the 1950s.

William Whyte’s book, Organisation Man, doesn’t have much space for organisation women, and the business women who appear in the films of the 1950s end up lonely or domesticated. Betty Friedan’s pioneering 1963 book The Feminine Mystique addressed this issue specifically:

In almost every professional field, business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens. It would be a great service to tell girls who planned to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable and discrimination – tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it (p.50).

But the biggest selling books of the time on women and work, by Helen Gurley Brown, suggested that women should use

your sex appeal and femininity to get ahead on a job.

Human relations

As with the factory, the office had also been the subject of experiments in Taylorist ‘scientific management’, but it didn’t really stick. Office work is harder to measure and manage. Mayo’s ‘human relations’ school emerged in the factory as a response to Taylorism, and it was only a matter of time before it also migrated to the office.

Haigh is sceptical of both Mayo’s research and of the motives of the ‘human relations’ school.

On the first, it seems that the research was designed in such a way that “the experimenters saw what they wished to see”. On the second, they changed little of the underlying power structures of the office:

The differences between the alternative schools of management were more of form than content. They were hierarchical, invested in the executives wisdom and benevolence, and in the workers’ infantilised need to be led; they had the same ends, and sought the same docility (p.36).


Haigh notes that the most popular of the ‘human relations’ manifestoes—Chester Barnard’s Functions of the Executive—managed to talk about respect and fairness in one breath, and recommended all kinds of exclusion, or exclusiveness, on grounds of ‘fit’, in the next.

Haigh’s assessment of the human relations school is that it foreshadows the modern human relations department:

all those cloying rituals of bonding, motivation, and morale boosting, all those vague vacuities in mission statements about companies ‘putting people first’ that are essentially the substitution of manipulation for authoritarianism (p.37).


One of the most engaging sequences in the book is about the introduction of the despised office cubicle – which was intended as a positive idea to open up the office, not as the cot cost cutting measure satirised in Dilbert cartoons and the film office space.

Haigh summarises the challenge of the office designer like this:

The office designer faces one of the designs supreme challenges: the reconciliation of management to wish to supervise with their need to delegate, with workers impulse to cooperate and their desire for privacy. No two people have quite the same way of working, meaning that at a certain point every office configuration will be on satisfactory to a proportion of its occupants (p.55).

Office design took a great leaps forward in the 1950s, through Raymond Loewy’s humane design for the New York Lever building, and for the low-rise headquarters of Connecticut General, the forerunner of the office campus.


In Europe, German designers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle developed the idea of the burolandschaft. The brothers brought the principles of cybernetics into the office, designing fluid spaces that could follow patterns of interaction.

If Lever House and the Connecticut General building preserved the privilege space of its executives, the Schnelles wanted to “eliminate the hierarchical order and unite the entire staff from its head down to the last typist”. It was a vision of the business as egalitarian, organic, even social democratic.

Their work was popularised in the US by Robert Propst, in an influential 1966 article. Haigh sees Propst as the office equivalent of the atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer, and if that seems overblown, Propst was also

an idealistic thinker whose invention was put to purposes at odds with his hopes.

Action Office

Working with George Nelson, Propst created the Action Office, a modular furniture system designed to allow privacy and interaction appropriate to every style of working. The designs received enthusiastic reviews, and sold badly.

Action Office II followed quickly, now with padded partitions.

In his writing about the office Propst talked about the counterculture, about social change, and about technological revolution. After all, this was the 1960s. And Action Office II was far more successful. Haigh adds a cautionary note:

(I)t wasn’t because they were listening to Steppenwolf or Simon & Garfunkel that corporate treasurers liked Action Office II: not only were the partitions tax efficient, but they also made for incontrovertible savings in horizontal space, accommodating more workers (p.68).

(Action Office II, as intended by the designers. Action Office, via Dezeen.)

A box

In his 1968 book The Office, Propst showed the partitions as honeycombs connected together at 120°. In practice they were invariably used at 90°, replicating traditional office designs. As the designer Francis Duffy observed,

It took five seconds for Action Office to turn into a box.

While Haigh describes his book as ‘a requiem’, but he also makes it clear that it is not an obituary. It was a written during the pandemic, at his kitchen table, at a time when there were widely divergent views on the future of the office.

Since then I think, we have learnt that people hate commuting more than they hate the office, but they really hate commuting.


The twin ideas of the ‘home office’ and of ‘telecommuting’, run almost exactly in parallel over half a century. Communications technologies, personal computers, and business models such as outsourcing (invented and named by Ross Perot’s company EDS in the 1970s) had been eroding the traditional idea of the office for half a century.

The conventional office has been under attack for almost as long. Philip stone and Robert Lucchetti published their article ‘Your office is where you are’, as long ago as 1985, in which they proposed that the office was “an activity rather than a place”.


One of the less remarked effects of all of this has been the shrinking of office space, from 25 square-foot per employee to 10 square feet—which also requires an open plan office.

And the idea that space and privacy matters in the office runs right through the book. Towards the end Haigh surmises that one of the reasons why workers welcomed working from home when the pandemic arrived was that they got their privacy back:

(N)o need to worry about being overheard by the wrong ears, or staff on the desk inviting prying eyes; no need to feel hot or cold according to the temperature is regulated by others; no need to print and print for a day on display.

The final chapter has a crisp review of some of the recent research on work and the pandemic.

Corporate power

For me three things stood out from reading this short history.

The first is the role of office buildings and projects in corporate power:

(T)hose grandiose pleasure domes of Facebook, Apple, and Google, embodying the founders’ vision and the shareholders’ wealth, speak to sensations as old as time. As Louis XIV’s great Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert noted: “nothing marks the greatness of princes better than the buildings that compel the people to look on them with awe” (p.115-16).

The second was the sense of the office as a place that shaped our social relations, and in ways that do fulfil social needs:

In excitement at its dissolving, we are in danger of forgetting needs that the divide of work and home satisfied… In elegantly defending her former office life, Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway describe this as the greatest loss she felt and working from home: suddenly she felt like the same person everywhere, and it was a boring’ (p.118-19).


The third is a reminder the office work isn’t going away, what ever happens to the office. This is Elizabeth Patton, who wrote a history of the home office:

(W)orking at home in your favourite T-shirt or pyjamas is still labour.

Haigh is an enviously elegant writer. For me, the cover price of the book was justified by his description of the Harvard Business Review as the place “where the conventional wisdom goes to audition”. Or his summary of Michael Jensen’ insidious article ‘Theory of the Firm: Managerial behaviour, agency costs and ownership structure’ which did far more than Milton Friedman to launch the long cycle of short-termism created by ‘shareholder value’ and executive enrichment. It was, Haigh notes, “dense with mathematics and unexamined assumptions”.

This is a rich book but also an easy read. It covers a lot of ground, and much of it unfamiliar, without ever seeming dense.


There’s a short interview with Gideon Haigh (18 minutes) by Danae Gibson about the book on RTR radio.


A version of this article was also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.