Scientific Management in the Office
By the beginning of the twentieth century, offices had grown so large that some employers were becoming concerned over their inefficiency and lack of discipline. The amount of paperwork had mushroomed rapidly in many offices, and, in the eyes of some employers, the clerical workforce had become unwieldy. Consequently, schemes for reorganizing office work to eliminate inefficiency and extract a “fair day’s work” from the staff began to be promoted. Such plans were soon being called the “scientific management of the office,” which is not surprising in light of the popularity of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s principles among industrialists. And indeed the features of scientific management in the office had much in common with the scientific management of the factory.
In general, scientific management was the effort to develop “scientific” methods of measuring and managing work. To that end, tasks were analyzed and broken down into their component parts, after which “experiments” were conducted to determine how each could best be completed in the shortest possible time. Having determined the “one best way” to do a job, scientific managers then set out to impose these “scientifically proven” methods upon workers. For all the scientific terminology in which the new managers couched their ideas, it is well to remember that these ideas first developed within the context of capitalist production. Such being the case, it is helpful to think of their efforts as an attempt to arrive at the one most profitable way to organize labor. After all, scientific managers were not intent on controlling workers and the labor process for the mere sake of control; they sought control for the sake of higher profits.
The scientific management of the office hinged on developing quantitative measures for various tasks. Much like their industrial counterparts, office managers conducted time and motion studies on typists, stenographers, and other clericals with a view toward determining the optimal workpace. Armed with such “objective” measurements, scientific managers could then proceed to the next steps in reshaping the office. They could develop standards that would determine how long it should take to do various office tasks, and also break down these tasks into their component parts. This provided a detailed map of office work and the basis for organizing the office itself. They considered it essential to dictate the details of the entire work process, not just for workers but for managers as well. For in redesigning the office, they did not confine themselves to instructing typists how to type and file clerks how to file; they also told managers how to manage.
Another aspect of scientific office management was more directly concerned with maximizing profitability. This entailed assigning office tasks to the lowest-paid workers possible and trying to fit the right worker to the right job. According to this principle, the more highly paid stenographer should never do work that could just as easily be done by a lower-paid typist. It assumed that one could find clerical workers who were “naturally” suited to this or that niche, and that they would remain in it for the length of their job tenure.
Scientific managers paid close attention to the physical arrangement of the office. Their plans for rearranging the layout and purchasing equipment were guided by two objectives: to make the paperwork flow as efficiently as possible, and to encourage workers to concentrate on their tasks. Even when they discussed such physical improvements as better ventilation or lighting, they were more concerned with increasing output than with the intrinsic value of a healthy working environment. Finally, having reorganized office work, some scientific managers still found themselves faced with the problem of motivating clerical workers. Although they mainly handled this by setting standards and penalizing delinquents, they also used techniques for jacking up office morale.
The effort at making the office more efficient—so that as much work would be completed in as little time and for as low a cost as possible—led to changes that diverted control over the work process from clerical workers to managers. Workers and managers rarely referred to it in those terms, but control of the work process was very much at issue. It had been central to the changes in the organization of clerical work from the time when, to a certain extent, it resembled a craft, to the time when it had been degraded to a series of routinized, repetitive tasks.1 In the movement to apply the principles of scientific management to the office can be seen the crystallization of this change in the organization of clerical work.
The Need to Reorganize Office Production
In 1913 the Remington Typewriter Company published an eight-page advertisement that began with this story:
The President of a large manufacturing business had just returned from his semi-annual tour of the various plants of the concern located in other cities.
He felt in a very good humor with himself and the world in general, because his visit had shown very clearly that certain efficiency ideas which he had suggested on his previous visits had been successfully carried out. In one plant the output had been increased over 125 percent, at the same time that an actual reduction of about one percent in operating expenses had been effected.
Naturally, he was inclined to pride himself a bit upon his efficiency achievement.
As he passed through the outer offices on the way to his own, he was struck by the noise and confusion that seemed to prevail. It was 10 o’clock in the morning, yet salesmen were lounging about, gossiping with each other. One stenographer sat doing nothing, while the executive she was attending sat on the corner of the desk talking to a visitor from the outside. One stenographer was cleaning her machine, another was peeling an orange and joking with the office boy. Some of those who were working would puzzle over their notes a little while, then turn to their machines with a burst of activity, then stop and repeat the process.
Altogether, to the President, fresh from his efficiency triumphs, there seemed to be a most astonishing amount of lost motion, wasted energy and mismanagement somewhere—right in his own office. . . .
This instance typifies an anomalous situation in the business world.
Efficiency principles have been applied to industry, commerce, and even to other branches of office work, but not, as a rule, to the management of stenographic service.2
Since the company was primarily interested in selling typewriters, the ad concluded by pushing Remington machines as the key to stenographic efficiency. The manner in which Remington chose to approach prospective customers reflected a concern with “inefficiency” in the office that was quite widespread after 1900. This preoccupation with inefficiency was caused by two developments in office work: an extensive and rapid growth in the volume of office work to the point where the older methods of organizing office production simply could not keep up with the increased workload, and the inability of many employers to discipline clerical workers effectively. These problems were, of course, connected. If the amount of paperwork had not grown so large, a lack of discipline on the part of clerical workers might not have seemed so serious. For the purposes of analysis, however, it is useful to separate them. The response of most businessmen to these problems was either to hire more clerical workers or to replace those who were “lazy” or “insubordinate.” But there were also some employers, at first few in number, who responded by restructuring the office itself. By the second decade of the twentieth century, their efforts came to be referred to as the scientific management of the office.
The following gives a sense of the problems confronted by the manager of an office where older methods of office production prevailed.3
There are about 20,000 names on the mailing list, which was arranged in two massive volumes. The classification was alphabetically by surnames. Only the name and post office address were given. There was no provision to record the advertisement from which the name was secured; whether the bearer of the name ever sent in an order; or, in the case of such an order, how much the order amounted to. Thus it was impossible to keep weeding out the “dead” names. . . . The only signal for striking out “dead” names was that postmasters would sometimes take the trouble to report their inability to deliver the catalogue. . . .
The correspondence of the firm was filed in old-fashioned pocket letter files, dividing the alphabet into about twenty parts. There were about thirty of these files filled almost to bursting with retail mail orders, wholesale and jobbing orders, and all sorts of letters, including the manager’s personal letters, freight way bills, requests for the catalogue, and the like. Whenever there was a complaint from a customer, the manager very properly insisted on seeing the original order. During the busy season of about four months, two or three clerks were kept busy a large part of their time in hunting out letters and orders from the mass of papers. The correspondence amounted to about 60,000 pieces a year, and each year’s letters were kept together. Thus, with twenty divisions of the alphabet, there would be an average of 3,000 papers in each division, and to find a letter it was possible that the entire 3,000 papers would have to be handled.
The author attributed this chaos to the fact that the firm’s manager was ignorant of “modern business methods” and reluctant to give up on traditional ways of doing things. “When it was suggested to [him] . . . that the mailing list should be card indexed, he replied that he had never heard of a card index, or card catalogue; and it turned out that he was unfamiliar with vertical letter files and all other modern devices.”4 But the total breakdown of the old system during a Christmas rush persuaded him that some changes were warranted, and he agreed to install a card index system for the mailing list and a new method of filing correspondence. The former made it possible to record the dates and amounts of up to twenty orders for each customer, as well as the location of the advertisement that had brought in their business. “One of the valuable features of the cards is that they show who the good customers are, and these customers can be given extra good treatment.” The new vertical letter files separated out wholesale and jobber correspondence from that of retail customers, which was placed in folders that divided the alphabet into two hundred parts. “This reduced the average number of papers in each division to 200 instead of 3,000; but as the plan was to transfer the correspondence to storage files every six months, the average would be less than one hundred letters.”5
The advantages of this reorganization were manifold. There were monetary savings: the card-index system was said to save $2,000 a year and the vertical letter file another $1,000 in labor no longer spent in hunting up letters. Other advantages cited were “increased efficiency in many ways, a very great reduction in friction [presumably between clerks and their bosses], and the lessening of liability to errors in filling orders.”6
As the volume of office work multiplied, forcing employers to devise new methods of organizing production, so too did the problems entailed in disciplining clerical labor. Disciplining clerical workers involved more than ensuring that they came to work on time or were at their desks for the requisite number of hours each day, although that was part of it. It also covered such matters as specifying exactly how numerous tasks were to be carried out and keeping employees sufficiently motivated so that they would neither sabotage their work (unwittingly or otherwise) nor quit after a relatively short time.
The issue of who controlled the execution of tasks was often joined most sharply in offices where clerks had been employed in the same position for many years. A bookkeeper who had held his job for years, for example, would be loath to give up his own particular procedure for keeping accounts, even in the face of a rapidly expanding workload. An article published in 1906, “The New Science of Business: Making An Office Efficient,” described this conservatism:
We have had the same shipping clerk for more than twenty years. He is familiar with all of our customers, indeed, I think he knows most of them personally, and he used to carry their shipping directions in his head. Every now and then he would route his goods wrong, and there would be a dispute. No records were ever kept of shipping directions given by customers, but his memory which was excellent, was always relied upon in case of trouble. But we cannot afford to have continual disputes with our customers, even over trivial matters, and after a great deal of very hard work I got him to use a vertical file for shipping directions as they were sent in, so that we should be able to refer to the exact letter in which shipping directions were sent to us. . . .
I found the deepest conservatism among the bookkeepers. The men who handled the ledgers were the hardest ones to deal with that I ever saw. A loose leaf ledger was the first thing I began with. It took me three years really to get the loose leaf ledger system well established in our cashier’s department. I didn’t want to offend the cashier, because he had been with us a long time, and he had handled from seven to ten millions of money every year and we had never lost a penny—but he was quite certain that there were great dangers connected with the loose leaf ledgers which we should never be able to overcome. In fact, he thought that without the old-fashioned hard-backed ledger he really would not be safe—he was afraid somebody would run off with the leaves. And besides, it was a modern thing, and didn’t appeal to him. However, we got it in. We have four of them now, and even he would not part with them for a great deal.7
In both instances, the clerk was reluctant to relinquish methods that had been used for years and that, especially in the case of the shipping clerk, had afforded him a fair amount of autonomy. While the efficiency expert bemoaned the clerks’ conservatism, much as industrial engineers complained of “shop culture,” the control of the work process was clearly at stake. Such examples from 1906 hint that wresting control from the hands of clerks was not always easy, and there are indications that this struggle persisted. In 1922 another author complained that “most offices are still run in the ‘good old way.’” He also indicated that getting employees to cooperate with reorganization was not always an easy matter: “As a preliminary to eliminating this inadequate and obsolescent scheme of management, and placing office work on a controlled and planned basis, it is first necessary to make an analysis of what is actually being done. This information must, of necessity, come from the clerks themselves, and may be obtained by requiring them, for a period of one month, to make a daily memorandum report of what they did and how long it took to do each task. This requirement, it goes without saying, must be put into effect with a great deal of tact.”8 The last point comes as no surprise, considering that the clerical workers were being asked to submit to much closer supervision.
Many businessmen had trouble getting their clerks to work all of the minutes they were being paid for. William Henry Leffingwell, who was to the scientific management of the office what Frederick Winslow Taylor was to the scientific management of the factory, told how one company went about dealing with this problem.
First, an effort was made to get everybody in the office to put in a full day in the office. There is a manifest tonic in punctuality. But this organization, which as I have already indicated, was at least up to average standards, taking it by and large, not only started late, but stopped early. The employees were getting ready to quit from 15 to 30 minutes before closing time, and there were other losses almost as great around the noon hour. So instead of the nominal 7-1/2-hour day, there was in effect something like a 6-1/2-hour day.
The management first of all handled this situation with this notice to employees:
“1. The hours will be changed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and every employee will be expected to be on time.
“2. At the telephone desk on the ground floor will be placed a time sheet which each employee is to sign upon arriving, the first employee to arrive to sign on the first line, the second on the second line, and so on. At 9:00 a.m. an employee delegated by the office manager will draw a blue line below the last name written up to that time. At 9:15 a red line will be drawn under the last name at that time. The period between 9:00 and 9:15 will be considered the period of grace. Those names appearing below the red line will be considered late. Those whose names appear in the ‘period of grace’ (between 9:00 and 9:15) twice in one week will be considered as being late both times.
“3. At 9:30 this sheet is to be taken in by the office manager. Any employee who fails to sign the time sheet will be considered as absent and subject (in the discretion of the office manager) to have the time deducted from pay. If an employee arrives after 9:30, he or she is to sign a special sheet to be obtained from the office manager.
“4. Once a month the names of those having a perfect record for the month will be posted in all departments. Those whose names appear on this bulletin will be considered the employees who are cooperating with the company.
“This applies to all employees.”9
While Leffingwell boasted that such an inspirational missive eliminated tardiness, the fact that employees ran the risk of having their paychecks docked was probably just as important as pure exhortation. The disciplinary problems typified by this example were hardly subtle: clerical workers shaved minutes here and there, and their employers were just as determined to stop them. In this case, as in many others, the clerical “soldiering” brought a very simple punishment—you don’t come to work on time, we don’t pay you as much. Period.
A related problem was described by the director of the Independent Efficiency Service in an article of 1916 on office efficiency: “By alternating the positions of slow and fast workers, a total net gain is reached, as the rapid clerks by spirit and example hasten the sluggards. Two girls who naturally gossip and chew gum should not be located alongside each other—granted that they belong in a business at all.”10 The problem here was how to keep clericals at work while they sat at their desks; the remedy was manipulation rather than outright punishment. Instead of having a supervisor constantly oversee the staff, the article recommended that managers manipulate their workers into silence by structural means.
A third problem was the absence of “employee motivation.” While many employers traced workers’ slothfulness to laziness or insubordination, some attributed it to low morale. Just such an assessment was made about the fifty employees in the bookkeeping department of one large firm:
It was found that most of the girls were dissatisfied. . . . A short talk with one of the best girls brought out the reason for this, and it seemed ridiculously simple on the face of it. Leaving out the head of the department and her assistants, the rest of the girls were just a large group of just so many bookkeepers. There was little or no chance for an individual to distinguish herself. If her work was well done, she did only what was expected of her. But if she happened to slip up just once, she soon heard of it, from both customers and department heads.11
The manager recommended reorganizing the department along the lines of “the Army system of management.” He was quite pleased with the results of separating the “girls” into six squads, which were set up to compete against each other. Not only did the bookkeepers now each belong to a “distinctive group,” but they also had the chance to win a paid half-day off if their group finished its work by the deadline. Furthermore, the proliferation of ranks within bookkeeping—there were now a “captain,” two “lieutenants,” six “sergeants” and six “corporals”—had increased opportunities for promotion. The manager claimed that this reorganization, together with pay and vacation incentives, increased morale and forged a dutiful labor force.
Extent of Scientific Management
It would be difficult to determine precisely how many offices had been reorganized along principles of scientific management at any particular time. Nonetheless, two points about the extent of the scientific management of the office may be made. First, many firms remained relatively untouched by scientific management by 1930. Most of these firms were relatively small, but there were also many larger businesses that simply continued to increase the number of clerical workers rather than reorganize the ones they already employed along more efficient lines. Second, although scientific management did not affect all firms, it represented a concerted and self-conscious drive by a vanguard among businessmen. It did not consist simply of the sum total of various unrelated schemes to reorganize office production. Rather, it was pushed forward in part by a group of capitalists and managers who saw their role explicitly as spreading the gospel of scientific management in order to make capitalism in the United States more efficient and profitable.
Some firms remained unaffected by scientific management because employers often blamed low productivity or even financial failure on individual incompetence rather than on poor organization. The very fact that proponents of scientific management in the office were so evangelical indicates that many capitalists and managers were either ignorant or skeptical of their methods. Recent analysts of work relations within the office have also been skeptical. They argue that scientific management as practiced on the factory floor was in general not appropriate to the office. The majority of English offices, David Lockwood argues, had not, by 1958, been greatly affected by the rationalizing trend in office management; people have been fooled into thinking otherwise because “the most advanced developments in the field are likely to divert attention from the normal division of labour.” Only the very largest offices, he claims, which in England accounted for merely a small proportion of all clerical workers, could afford to invest in machinery, such as the “Hollerith machine,” that lent itself to scientifically managed work organization.12
Lockwood’s warning not to overestimate the impact of scientific management on the office is well taken, since it would be silly to ignore the fact that many offices, particularly small ones, even now remain quite traditional. On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that he overstates the case, particularly if one extrapolates his view to offices outside of England. There is evidence, for the United States at least, that offices did not really have to be all that large for techniques of scientific management to be introduced.13 A manager convinced of the superiority of a scientifically managed office would not need to wait while his office staff of fifty grew to five hundred before reorganizing office production. As the literature promoting scientific management shows, an office manager bitten by the bug of scientific management was just as prepared to “rationalize” the work of one or two clerical workers. Furthermore, scientific management did not apply exclusively to those clerical workers using office machines. Quantitative measurements and production standards could be prescribed for a wide variety of office chores. A file clerk, for example, who worked solely by hand, might be expected to meet certain production standards, whether these involved filing a sheaf of letters or retrieving documents from the filing cabinets.
Lockwood’s work commands our attention because it represents the received wisdom about the nature of office work. His arguments—that the small size of the office and the very nature of the tasks performed in clerical work made it impossible for employers to devise quantified, routinized criteria—are ones often cited to deny the popularity of scientific management in the office. But the literature on the topic indicates otherwise. It was not only scientific managers themselves who concluded that the “rationalized” office was the wave of the future. In 1929, at the meetings of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Grace L. Coyle stated that “in many offices today, scientific management is being applied to all the clerical functions. . . . The actual extent of such scientific office management is no doubt proportionately small, but it is significant in that it is in the van of those movements which are likely eventually to affect the entire clerical field.”14
Coyle was certainly right: a movement had begun to bring about the scientific management of the office. Its foremost proponent was William Henry Leffingwell, who churned out numerous articles and two long-winded studies, Scientific Office Management (1918) and Office Management: Principles and Practice (1925). A self-proclaimed missionary in the crusade to bring enlightened office management methods to a benighted business community, Leffingwell wrote in the preface to Office Management:
a pressing need exists for a thorough understanding on the part of business men in general, and office managers in particular, of the fundamental principles underlying the work of that pioneer of scientific management, the late Frederick Winslow Taylor. . . .
I have attempted in this work to explain the scientific basis of office procedure, and at the same time accord to the profession of office management the dignity and position it deserves. I am not aware that any writer has previously attempted this task.15
Leffingwell assumed the mantle of proselytizer because he was persuaded that few people understood the importance of the office manager’s job. He was convinced that office management was the wave of the future, if businessmen would only realize that a scientifically managed office would bolster profits.
There is . . . a brilliant future for those office managers who have arrived at the recognition of the office as a major function of business and the equal importance of the work of office management with every other business activity. When these men set themselves to discover the range of possibilities of scientific office management, and make it their profession, they will substantially advance the interests of their company, effect large savings, and thereby greatly add to the profits of the business, while at the same time forcing the more or less reluctant admission of the vital importance of their work from other executives.16
Leffingwell was only one of many writers who pressed for adopting Taylorism in the office. Their writings were published in two magazines: Industrial Management, which promoted scientific management in both factory and office, and System: The Magazine of Business, “a monthly magazine devoted to the improvement of business method.” Founded in 1900 as a compendium of short articles explaining a wide variety of office techniques, System seems to have enjoyed a fair amount of success, since it soon became larger and fancier. For thirty years it published articles about all aspects of business management, but concentrated on managing the office workforce at both the executive and clerical levels. In September 1929 it became a weekly, and changed to its current name, Business Week.
The existence of such publications, as well as Leffingwell’s studies, indicates that scientific management had a growing readership in business circles. Capitalists and managers in increasing numbers took it for granted that the scientific management of the office was desirable. Indeed the concerted efforts of Leffingwell and his colleagues had an influence on the business community that was disproportionate to their numbers.
Despite the relative coherence of the movement towards scientific office management, there was no clear pattern to office reorganization. Office managers and “efficiency experts” usually tailored their schemes to the requirements of the individual office. The wealth of literature on the subject mainly consists of a series of detailed descriptions about the changes made in one particular office or a list of helpful hints about the minutest details of office procedure.
Several larger areas of concern emerge out of this welter of detail. A primary problem was to determine exactly how long it took to complete specific tasks. Some employers boggled at the prospect of making such calculations. Leffingwell described the typical dilemma of an office manager: “The nature of the work, being so varied, did not make for great speed, and it was a simple matter for a clerk to show all appearances of being diligently performing her work, when as a matter of fact she was not accomplishing half the work she should. No amount of watching would have discovered this. As a matter of fact, with two girls who were working side by side, we found that one did fifty percent more than the other. The slow one said: ‘I have all of the “stickers.”’ Before we set standards, we had no means of disproving her statements.”17
Such soldiering on the part of clerical workers led management to conclude that the quantitative measurement of office work was the necessary first step in the drive to get more work out of its employees. In 1913 a method for measuring stenographic output was described in System:
By beginning with the machine [the typewriter] and making a continuous record of its operation, it will be possible to learn how much time is lost, the causes, and what can be done to remove them. As often as not, the causes of inefficiency will be found to be conditions over which the stenographer has no control—particularly if her work is the taking of dictation from a department head with “many irons in the fire.”
Such a record of the work of a typewriter for one full day of eight hours is shown at the head of this article [The record consists of a circular paper graph, marked off by the hour and minute, on which the times during which the typewriter was in use are recorded by an ink line.] The forenoon record is for correspondence only. The stenographer who did the work ranks high at dictation and machine operation and for a long time has been the personal stenographer for the head of a department in a large manufacturing concern, hence was perfectly familiar with the work. At the noon hour all the work given her had been completed.
Her full time ran from 8 a.m. to 12 m., four hours. The record shows that nothing was done on the machine except to open and put it in order (see short line at 8:34) until 9:15, when one envelope was addressed and two others at 9:25. Real work on the machine was not started until 9:54, her time until then being taken up in opening and sorting mail, and taking dictation.
From 9:54 the machine was kept going steadily until 10:59, one hour and four minutes. Then there was a stop of forty-two minutes (three envelopes being addressed in the meanwhile) for more dictation. The work was resumed for fifteen minutes, until 11:57, when the machine was closed for noon.
The only possible way to prevent the recorder from tracing an accurate history of the day’s operations is to close the contact at the machine, thereby causing the pen to make a continuous heavy line on the chart. Its smooth edges and even width make it quite different from the broken and wavy heavy line made by the typewriter when the operator is working fast and hard.18
This description raises some interesting points. The subjects of quantitative study were usually the more efficient or loyal employees. Thus office managers often did not rely on abstract notions to set the work rate. Instead they based their estimates on the output of clerical workers from whom they thought they were getting “a fair day’s work.” Moreover, office managers assured themselves of trustworthy results by using recording devices that could not be rigged.
Managers were especially concerned about wasted motion. As one of them, campaigning to streamline the work of his typists, put it, “the preliminary survey revealed also that the girls were doing work foreign to their principal operation of typing. These operations interfered with the operators’ speed; and they could easily be done by somebody else. The next step was to relieve the girls of these details—on the same general principle by which a hodcarrier relieves a group of bricklayers from the fetch-and-carry part of their work.”19
Having identified his problem—an insufficient division of labor—this manager then set out to solve it. First he had an office boy assemble the sheets of typing and carbon paper. He figured that each typist had been losing up to a minute per letter in collating the sheets and the carbons. Although it was still the typist’s job to separate the carbon paper from the completed typewritten sheets, the manager tried to eliminate any “waste motion” in this task by using carbon sheets larger than the sheets of paper. “The operator grasps the sheaf of copies with her finger and thumb at the trimmed corner, grasps with her left hand the projecting lower edges of the carbon sheets and pulls all the carbon sheets out with one motion. The little time-saving counts; but the bigger, really worthwhile saving comes through not breaking the girl’s typing pace.”20 Finally, he reduced the time typists had been “wasting” in fetching their own dictation cylinders (there were no tape recorders in 1920) by having the supervisor deliver them. This also relieved a typist of the chance to “choose the [cylinder] she considered most easy.”21 After completing this reorganization of the division of labor, the manager smugly surveyed the benefits:
Having combed the work of unessentials and reduced the job entirely to typing, unhindered by details foreign to it, we were ready to spend the second week in finding out what each individual girl could do under these conditions. So we had a measuring and recording device attached on each machine. As the speedometer on your car ticks off the miles, so the speedometers on the girls’ machines tick off their accomplishment. The difference between the reading on any girl’s machine at the opening hour and at noon gives the number of points of work she did that morning. There is nothing indefinite about her record now, no way to mistake the truth about the good or bad work.22
Despite the fact that some office managers got quite carried away with measuring the work of their clericals, so that the measurement sometimes became an end in itself, the drive to quantify clerical work was only a first step. Once an office manager had developed and taken the quantitative measurements, he proceeded to the second stage of setting work standards and then figuring out methods to enforce them.
Since office procedures varied greatly, writers were hesitant about prescribing a specific standard. Instead, they tended to concentrate on the principles and general method of setting standards, as did this author in 1917:
The next step is the determination of the standard. There are dozens of conceptions of what a standard is. At one end are those maintaining that the standard should be the unattainable ideal of absolute perfection, while at the other end are those who maintain that standard should be a point to be reached by honest and ordinary effort. To my mind, standard is that point in production representing the highest figure which can be reached, and which with conscientious and true effort can be maintained. It makes no great difference what method is selected, but pick the one best meeting your needs and ideas and stick to it. Standard is, of course, the 100 percent figure of efficiency; your workers may exceed this figure or not. Theoretically no one should ever be able to exceed 100 percent, but practically it makes no difference and there is a psychological something in making it possible for the high average worker to reach this figure which outweighs the inconsistency of having a very few exceed it.
Determine next, therefore, what plan the standard will be classified under, then by a study of past records, by intimate knowledge of the work, by time study, and by any other means in your power determine this figure. Check it and counter check it—take no chances—spend all the time necessary at this point; a wrong standard is a dangerous thing. If too low, you will be unable to make an attractive offer to the worker, and this might necessitate raising the standard which is a disastrous proceeding.
On the contrary, if the standard is too high, workers will make little money and will become discouraged.23
The author was very careful to set standards that would not need to be changed in the future. This concern, it seems plausible, resulted from the difficulty of getting clerical workers to accept or adjust to new standards.
For enforcing standards, office managers resorted to variations on one basic strategy. This amounted to rewarding clerical workers monetarily if they attained the standard, and docking them monetarily if they did not. The office manager of a rubber company, for instance, described his method:
It is assumed that each clerk will equal or better the standard on every task assigned to her. At the beginning of each week the supervisor credits her with the maximum bonus, which is $3 for the week. Each time she fails to equal or better the standard on a job the supervisor debits her one point, meaning that 10 cents will be subtracted from her $3 bonus.24
Sometimes employers found it necessary to pressure employees to meet the standard. A favorite tactic was to foster competitiveness—as among stenographers in a Chicago office: “Every morning the number of lines each has written the day before is posted on the bulletin board to foster the spirit of friendly rivalry in the department.”25
Forcing clerical workers to meet management-dictated standards was an essential step in the scientific management of the office, and one that some employers had difficulty in making. For instance, the managers in Leffingwell’s office had set a standard of 200 square inches per hour for each typist, and promised to reward those who met it with a bonus of ten cents for every hour that they held to it. (Weekly wages varied from $7 to $15). None of the typists thought it possible to attain this level, since they had been averaging 127 square inches per hour. Even after the managers conducted “rest and fatigue” studies and decided to institute two twenty-minute breaks every day when “all employees [were] encouraged to go outside and play . . . the girls all insisted that the standard was too high.”
At about this time one of the girls who had been below the average in speed was offered a prize of one dollar for the first hour she reached the standard. The very next day she came down to work determined to win that dollar. After several hours spent in the attempt, she won the prize. That broke the ice. It was possible, after all. The same prize was offered to all the girls in the department and thereafter, day after day, one after another won it until finally reaching the standard became a habit.26
By inducing one of his slowest workers to meet the standard, Leffingwell employed one of the basic tactics of scientific management. Those familiar with Taylor’s work will no doubt recognize it, since he used the stratagem in manipulating the famous worker, Schmidt.27
The managers also addressed the work process itself. This included every sort of detail from organizing the filing system, to arranging office furniture, to “efficiently” employing the labor of a skilled stenographer. Office managers sometimes directed their attention to the most minute detail in dictating exactly how clerical workers should execute their tasks.
After several days of patient teaching, a young man persisted in making a large number of useless motions. I walked up to him unexpectedly, grasped his hand and held it for the time usually occupied by his useless motions. Then I pointed out the result. I had not interfered with his work.
He grasped the point and one or two days thereafter reached the standard. So well had he learned that the best work is accomplished by a minimum of motions that he studied his job intently and soon with very little effort earned the maximum bonus given for 120 percent effectiveness. Formerly he had become tired out trying to perform 50 percent of the task set.28
Leffingwell did not always interfere so directly, and generally contented himself with simply telling clerical workers how to do their work. He urged typists to operate their machines “slowly and deliberately” rather than in erratic spurts, in order to eliminate time lost in erasing mistakes; instructed them in the “one right way” to insert pieces of paper into the typewriter; explained the correct method for sitting at their desks, which was “to sit well back in the chairs, with the feet placed squarely on the floor and head and shoulders erect”; and encouraged them to remember twenty-five words or so from a manuscript each time they looked at it, so they would not get a crick in their necks from constantly turning their heads back and forth.29 Other “experts” had their own pet directives. George A. Ricker, for example, had “two fixed requirements for our stenographers: first, they must use pens instead of pencils, for a pencil is a poor substitute for the ever-sharp pen point; second, they must operate the typewriter by the touch system, for this adds much to their speed.”30
What is striking about these directives is their specificity. They indicate that precious little was left to the clerical workers’ discretion. Here is Leffingwell, for instance, on how to attach sheets of paper to each other:
The pinning or clipping of papers is another problem that comes up in nearly every office. Few clerks, it seems, know how to pin papers so that everything but the top sheet can be read without unpinning. Often the sheets are pinned two or three inches from the top. The next person who must read the papers has to un-pin and re-pin them.
It is simple, with a bit of study, to see that the pinning is done right in the first place. Different classes of papers, of course, may have to be pinned differently. Some require the envelope on top, some on the bottom, some demand a particular sequence, and so on. The problem is worth careful study, for the thousands of papers handled in the average office have to be pinned on an average of five or six times, if there is no general rule of pinning right in the first place. This means a loss of possibly from .05 to .10 of a minute for each pinning. If 1,000 sets of papers are handled in a day, and pinned and re-pinned half a dozen times, this amounts to from three hundred to six hundred minutes a day—a total loss.31
Leffingwell seems to have been at one extreme in this drive to control the clerical work process. Not all advocates of scientific office management dwelled on the finest details of the work process. Somewhat more subtle were the managers at the Curtis Publishing Company who “found the workers continually adding small details, often unnecessary, in their routine. [These] girls . . . would fight hard to retain their individual pet ideas.” Management was content to let the “girls” keep their “pet ideas,” confident that their bonus system would lead them to reject “inefficient” methods and to implement only those that increased production or had managerial approval.32 Homer Pace, acting deputy commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, faced with the problem of reorganizing his 1,000-person staff to process tax returns more efficiently, did not—unlike Leffingwell—concentrate on the details of the work process. Rather, he encouraged his division heads to reorganize themselves and, pleased with the results, he stated: “The new methods are substantially what I should have chosen. But there is a tremendous weight of public opinion behind them that would not be there if they were my work alone. Exactly the same plan might easily have been a flat failure if I had promulgated it by myself.”33 It should be emphasized that such autonomy in reorganization was granted only to the division heads, and not extended to the lowliest office worker. Furthermore, the incentive offered to middle-level managers for innovation was not simply a pat on the head, for, as Pace explained, “When I convinced myself of the value of most of our division and section heads, and began to talk to them about the chances of getting more work done, I began talking at the same time about getting them more pay.”34
The vast majority of scientific office managers were determined to exert increasing control over the work process. Their efforts were often cloaked in terms such as “eliminating waste motion,” “increasing productivity,” and “improving efficiency.” Such terms were invariably invoked in the struggle over reassigning tasks to the lowest-paid worker possible. Put differently, this involved fitting the worker to the job. As one manager said, “In an office of over 100 employees I would never recommend having the mailing and filing handled by the same person. . . . While both require accuracy, mailing requires special despatch and filing special neatness. These two qualities can seldom be found in the same person.”35 Some writers assumed that it was natural to fit the worker to the job; others pointed out that it was profitable. In an article directed to business executives, Floyd Parsons stated that “great waste results from doing little things that can be done just as well by lower-priced employees. Successful executives never write a letter, sharpen a pencil, carry on a telephone conversation, or see a caller, if anyone else in the office whose time is worth less can do it just as well for them.”36 Leffingwell echoed this view. In “What ‘Scientific Management’ Did for My Office,” he described the “memory clerk,” who relieved the office executive of the tiresome chore of having to remember appointments, meetings, and other details. Anyone who needed reminding of something in the future left a note to that effect with the memory clerk, who maintained a central file and alerted the executives to their tasks and appointments at the appropriate time.37
The interests of scientific managers encompassed laborsaving machinery, and a fair amount of management literature contained advice on how to use this or that device in the most profitable way. Floyd Parsons argued that “in this day of modern labor-saving appliances, it is unnecessary as well as unwise to permit employees to put nervous energy and brain effort into tasks that could be done better, cheaper, and more speedily by dictating, duplicating, billing and computing machines. Such devices pay for themselves in a remarkably short period of time. Mechanical devices are more accurate than humans, and never get tired.”38
Another aspect of office modernization was the establishment of a proper sexual division of labor. Gender-specific jobs were taken for granted. As a matter of course, executives were referred to as “he” and clerks and stenographers as “she.” But on occasion a writer addressed the question directly. For instance, a 1922 article on cost-cutting, by a director of the National Association of Office Managers, advised that “jobs should be classified and those that should properly be filled by male workers segregated from those that should be filled by female workers.”39 Although the author did not elaborate, it seems clear that he considered a sensibly organized office to be one in which men and women were in their proper places.
The well-run office, in which all the workers were suited to their jobs, had to find employees with the right “attributes.” At the Curtis Publishing Company in 1913, “the problem was to pick out workers who were temperamentally fitted for the duties of the department and who had adequate training, and to establish a standard day’s work and a bonus system of payment.”40 At Curtis, things were organized to such an extent that there was an entire department—the “Employment and Instruction Department”—devoted to the selection and training of employees, and it was to this department that others turned for recruitment. They sent their specifications for a new worker and it then selected the candidate from its file of applicants. This new employee was sent to the “Instruction Division Training School,” where she was trained and observed. “Frequently, the girls who have passed the preliminary test and have entered the school are rejected as unsuited either by training or temperament to the work required.”41
Curtis’s procedures prefigured the objective tests for prospective clerical workers that were in full swing by 1920. Its proponents had no use for those who questioned their counsel. As two enthusiasts affirmed: “The evidence is clearly against the old methods of selection by chance, by hiring and firing, by personal opinion, by individual ‘hunches,’ by unstandardized examinations. There is no going backward for the employer and his employment manager who prefer the old ways. They will be eliminated.”42
The tests administered by scientific office managers fell into two general categories: general intelligence tests, and tests of specific clerical skills. There was considerable debate over which was better. One writer did not “believe that office work has any special abilities that have so far been demonstrated,” and preferred the general intelligence test.43 Another argued, however, that “it is usually true that clerks with more intelligence, broader information, good social personalities, and quicker reactions will be able to demonstrate better clerical ability than their less developed fellow-workers. But it is wasteful to attempt to measure clerical ability through such indirect channels as general information, or by mental gymnastics, when it can be measured directly with specific clerical tests.”44 The experts seemed agreed that the best way to judge the efficacy of a test was to administer it to the clerical workers already employed in an office. For example, the Charles Williams Company tested its clericals to see if the results “correlated well with the actual work accomplished. If so, the tests would be useful in selecting future typists.”45 Although it was admitted that the usefulness of these tests had not dawned on all businessmen,46 scientific office managers were confident that more and more would see the light. They based their confidence on what they considered to be the inherent scientific rationality of fitting workers to their jobs, as well as on a conviction that this part of scientific office management could only serve to improve the Human Condition. After all, it sought to find out
what line of activities each one most enjoys, and so far as possible assigning him to that line.
Suppose a girl secures an office position involving faculties which in her case have not been developed. She probably does not make a success of the work, nor does she enjoy it, and if opportunity offers she probably solves the problem by resigning while the management is still hoping for some less drastic solution. Such experiences, too common to every office, increase the office turnover, involve economic losses in fruitless training of transients, and discourage applicants.47
Advocates of scientific management assumed that each person was endowed with certain “natural” capabilities that automatically suited him or her to a certain type of work. The ideal office workforce would be one in which the “natural” differences between the employees determined their clerical niches. Given this assumption, it is not surprising that they advised keeping certain workers in particular positions. Even when discussing promotions, they meant moving workers into their appropriate slots. They saw substantial promotions as a way of getting office workers to their “natural” level rather than as rewards that every employee could normally expect for conscientious effort.
Testing and placement was part of the process whereby clericals were stripped of control over their work. Since it was assumed that an employee was “naturally” suited to his or her job and only to that job, it was unlikely that he or she would be given the opportunity to learn much about other positions or be permitted the chance to work at them. The consequent segregation of each worker into a narrow scope of activity deprived him or her of the opportunity to grasp the wider operations of the firm or how the employee’s job fit in. As was pointed out earlier, this amounted to a diminution of the control clericals exercised over their work.
Just as businessmen and office managers were advised to make the most efficient and profitable use of their employees’ labor, they were also counseled on how to use their office space and furniture efficiently. Leffingwell advised office managers to make a map of their office layout and then to “draw lines showing the passage of the work from desk to desk. . . . Nothing will show you so clearly the wasted steps which your employees may be taking.”48 Discussion of physical arrangements usually centered on two objectives: placement so that the paperwork travelled efficiently from desk to desk and so that clerical workers would not be distracted in their work. The desks of one office were all arranged facing away from the door, which “brought about a marked increase in the output of work. Where formerly the employees faced the door or to one side and for the most part looked up from their work whenever anyone entered, they are no longer disturbed.”49 Distractions, after all, made for inefficiency.
Office managers were not concerned only about efficiency. They also cared about control. Writing in 1923, Floyd W. Parsons advised that “if possible, desks should be placed that the workers will be back to back. Cliques destroy team-work and waste time gossiping. Clannish workers should be separated and placed in different parts of the office or in different departments.”50 And in an account of how distractions were cut down in a stenographic department, the merchandise manager of the Greenfield Tap and Die Corporation claimed that the elimination of distractions made it easier to keep stenographers fixed on their chores. Their desks faced the door and the supervisor’s desk, so that the comings and goings “broke into [their] concentration. So we turned the operators around, with the girls’ backs toward the supervisor. Now a visitor never comes under the view of the operators. The supervisor transmits all orders, choosing her time so as not to break in upon a girl who has struck her pace. Little distracts the operators.”51 Homer S. Pace put the point even more bluntly. According to him, the managers responsible for reorganizing the office “decided that the desks should all be set facing one way, with the supervisor in the rear. That at once permitted more effective supervision and made close attention to work easier.”52 It might also be pointed out that this arrangement ensured that a clerical worker would never know when he or she was being watched, and would therefore be more inclined to diligence. The issue of control even arose in the choice of office furniture. One industrial engineer thought that the flat-top desk was preferable to the more old-fashioned roll top, for “the worker is at all times visible to his superior.”53
Most of the literature on the physical arrangement of the office focused on designing a “rational” work flow and eliminating distractions. But every so often there was a suggestion for office design that on the face of it seemed to have the simple purpose of making a more pleasant place to work. For example, one writer in 1906 described the lunch room that had been part of his office for six years, where the clerical workers ate at the company’s expense. But the manager did not only have the convenience of his employees in mind when he praised this facility. “We have easily halved the noon absence of our organization,” he boasted. “Better yet, the women instead of going out and drinking a little tea, are sent back to work with something substantial in their stomachs. The men, instead of going to a free-lunch counter, and coming back with the smell of beer on them, have clear heads and we think we can do very nearly as good work in the afternoon as in the morning.”54 At a collection agency in New York City, pains were taken to make the office “artistic” with flowers on a stenographer’s desk and pictures on the wall. These interior decorations were justified by the increased productivity they allegedly elicited from employees, who were said to produce 25 percent more than the average stenographer and to be “more amenable to discipline” under the influence of “pleasant surroundings.”55
Good ventilation and lighting, one might think, would be provided for the simple purpose of keeping clerical workers healthy. But, as an industrial engineer from General Electric indicated, scientific managers were as concerned about productivity as health: “Whether ventilation is for the purposes of giving comfort or of getting additional production, it is mighty important.”56 In another case, an office manager delayed improvements in lighting until worker output was tested under better lighting conditions.57
Scientific managers were also worried about getting their clericals to do their work well. As we have seen, profit was the incentive to foster motivation. Leffingwell, for example, suggested that “the worker be encouraged and coached. . . . An employee must never be scolded for not reaching the standard, nor accused of ‘stalling.’ Once let her get the idea that she is being driven, and the chance for really effective work is destroyed. Almost always, I have found, more can be done by coaxing than by driving.”58 One Michigan office manager, also seeking to encourage his workers, catalogued eight methods for “gingering up office work.” Some of his techniques, such as regular exercise periods and an “open window drill” to keep fresh air in the office, were intended to combat fatigue. He also proposed an “efficiency register,” which evaluated each worker with ratings based on “application, mental ability, productivity, personality and health” as a means of fostering “a spirit of friendly rivalry.”59 Such methods for maintaining clerical productivity were not unusual. But he also had some less orthodox suggestions. “Workers—especially girls—respond to the inspiration of mottoes,” he found, and posted short “mottoes for the week” on a blackboard in full view of the staff. ‘“Never Late’ cut down tardiness eighteen per cent in a week. ‘Be Friendly’ had the effect of breaking up an office feud that had perplexed the manager and hindered office routine for many weeks.”60 He also recommended putting flowers on each worker’s desk and playing music periodically, in hopes of improving performance. “Sometimes, when a sudden rush of work has tensed the entire organization and errors due to high speed are becoming apparent, a soothing violin solo, or an old fashioned melody, will relieve the tension.”61 Finally, he offered two suggestions for the discussion of office matters. One was a forum: “A general council is held every Monday morning. All workers gather in a large assembly room. Questions are asked and answered. Every one is given an opportunity for frank expression. Knots of tangled routine are straightened and a more sincere cooperation is instituted.”62 There was also a weekly social club—the “All Pull Together Club”—that sometimes featured outside speakers who addressed such issues as morale and the office routine.63
That there were meetings at which clerical workers discussed their jobs contradicted the advice of most office management. Scientific managers generally frowned upon such gatherings and thought even less of soliciting workers’ opinions. The Michigan office meetings, however, seemed to have served largely as safety valves that had no effect on the way in which office work was organized. But the very fact that they took place at all, and were supported by an office manager, indicates that management could not always depend solely on bonus plans and premium payments to keep productivity high—that non-monetary forms of encouragement might also be useful. By and large, however, flowers, mottoes, and meetings were the exception, material incentives the rule.
The Significance of Scientific Management
The movement to reorganize office work, so central to scientific management, had begun even before scientific office management became a coherent movement during the first two decades of the twentieth century.64 And, judging from the missionary enthusiasm that still characterized articles promoting scientific management in the late 1920s, there remained converts aplenty to be won over. Office modernization, then, did not commence abruptly with the scientific office management movement. Nor did the full flowering of that movement put those changes into universal effect. Nonetheless, modernization trends may be seen with particular clarity in the drive to apply principles of scientific management in the office.
One of these trends was the elaboration of the division of labor in office work, which owed its particular form to the fact that it unfolded under capitalism.65 Scientific management crystallized the specialization of labor within the office. Scientific managers studied and measured the component tasks which constituted any particular clerical job. Breaking down office jobs into their component parts, they endeavored to make “efficient” use of the workforce, which involved employing the cheapest possible labor. In the case of the manager who claimed he had “saved 42% on routine work,” for example, the division of labor prompted him to have a lower-paid office boy do the job of assembling sheets of typewriter and carbon paper in order that the more highly-paid typist would not waste valuable time on such a mundane task.66 As far as managers in capitalist firms were concerned, “efficient” was synonymous with “inexpensive.”
This division of labor in office work was enmeshed with a second major trend—the diminution of control by clericals over their work. For many office employees, the minute division of labor meant that the scope of their work was reduced to the repeated performance of limited tasks. The clerk in the mail-order house who spent all day opening envelopes and arranging the orders alphabetically; the office boy who did nothing but assemble sets of blank typewriter and carbon paper; the typist who typed letters from dictaphone cylinders from one week to the next, were not in a position to do more than a small fraction of the work that went on daily in a large office. Because their activities were so restricted in scope, they did not have the opportunity to grasp other office procedures or to see how their particular task fit into the work flow. Thus deprived, they could not determine whether their particular tasks had been organized in the most practical way. Denied through their ignorance the possibility of changing the design or scope of their work, they were forced to work as their superiors prescribed.
Furthermore, scientific managers advised controlling clerical work in very direct and explicit ways. From a Leffingwell who grabbed a young man’s hand to prevent him from “making a large number of useless motions,” to a Charles M. Ripley who arranged his workers’ desks so as to prevent their being distracted by passersby, scientific managers were intent on dictating the details of clerical work and removing control over that work process from the hands of clerical workers.
However, the scientific management of the office was not directed at all the people who worked in an office. Scientific managers tended to aim their plans for reorganization at lower-level clerical workers: office boys, shipping clerks, file clerks, typists, and stenographers. The responsibilities of one major category of office worker remained relatively untouched by modernization dicta. That office worker was the private secretary.