Rats in a Rage

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

This past November, a study released by a firm called Integra Realty Resources painted a picture of a stressed-out American work force increasingly prone to “desk rage,” manifested in shouting matches and even violence. Stories appeared in USA Today and elsewhere, and the issue resurfaces today in the Wall Street Journal under the headline “Increasing Incidents of ‘Desk Rage’ Disrupt Offices.” (Actually there was an earlier bout of publicity about desk rage as well stemming from an earlier survey in the U.K.)

So what is the culprit, what is causing all this anger and stress in the workplace? You’ll be startled to hear that one of the problems the realty company that commissioned this study found is limited physical space in the workplace. Apparently corporate America needs to increase its real estate holdings for the betterment of our civil culture. Reports about the study invariably pass along Integra Realty’s concern about the “Dilbertization” of the American workplace: a nation stuffed into small, identical cubicles, squeezing a stress ball and wishing for enough privacy to make a personal phone call or finish reading Moneybox without being accused of sloughing off.

Right, then: Who is to blame for this abomination, for the plight of all these white-collar workers trapped in a doorless, windowless, dehumanizing maze? Actually, according to the New York Times obituary of William Hewlett last week, desk ragers can grind their teeth at the legendary founders of the seminal American tech company. “Hewlett-Packard pioneered the ‘open plan,’ office in Silicon Valley,” writes John Markoff. “It was a way of organizing an open workplace without doors where employees were separated only by low-rise dividers.” And come to think of it, for the last few years, hasn’t practically every glowing report about this or that exciting new startup noted with approval the lack of walls, the teamwork-enhancing togetherness of the open floor filled with cubicles?

So much for that, I guess. Obviously there’s nothing funny or trivial about violence in the workplace, which I’m pretty sure is something that occurred long before realty firms started to study it. But there’s something kind of astonishing about the speed with which the trappings of the New Economy seem to be going from innovations to culprits in some societal decay. As with so many examples of the hype-followed-by-backlash loop that we seem to be trapped in, both attempts to generalize about the greater significance of cubicles seem a little overdone.

Now get back to work.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.