Sunday, 6 November 2011

Under the office

I’ve posted before about Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s wonderful book, The Office, a novel-cum-essay published in 1970 which is really more like a prose poem about those ‘minute rhythms like the slow breathing of the IN Tray, emptying and filling, filling and emptying’. Jonathan wrote to me to tell me that he has now written a play, Under the Office, based on this earlier book, which is to be performed at the Stahl Theatre at Oundle School between 24 and 26 November. It’s a bit far for me to go but if any quotidianist is reading this and in that area …

Office life is never news because, however unfulfilling it might be, it seems unproblematic and apolitical. Office politics are not real politics; they are petty, gossipy, personal, unchangeable. Office life is invisible to anyone who isn’t a part of it. According to the sociologist Ulrich Beck, the dynamics of modern, deregulated economies are increasingly hidden in this way: ‘The place of the visible character of work, concentrated in factory halls and tall buildings, is taken by an invisible organization of the firm.’ City-centre offices might serve as the company’s brand statement, with their high-rise towers, mirror-glass walls and welcoming atria. But the essential drudgery takes place where land and labour are cheap: in anonymous, shed-like buildings in out-of-town office parks, surrounded by parking lots and security barriers, without even a logo outside identifying the company.

Since this kind of mundane existence is how many people fill their days, it is odd that we reflect so little on its history and politics. With a few exceptions, like C. Wright Mills and David Lockwood in the 1950s, sociologists have steered clear of office life, preferring to focus on more obvious forms of social inequality. It has mainly been left to creative writers to cover this terra incognita. In Joshua Ferris’s novel, Then We Came to the End, rituals like ‘the great unsung pastime of American corporate life, the wadded paper toss’ continually subvert the managerial insistence that our working lives be creative and meaningful.

After World War II, William H. Whyte noted the rise of a management style that sought moral legitimacy through its emphasis on the employee’s ‘personality’ and ‘soul’. Whyte’s ‘organization man’ was suspicious of authoritarian leadership and viewed the group as the appropriate space for negotiating and resolving problems. But as Whyte noted perceptively, ‘if every member simply wants to do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything’. He invented a term, ‘groupthink’, to describe the forms of irrational collective psychology that developed in office cultures in which the overriding aim was consensus.

By the early 1980s, human-relations management had mutated into an evangelical new concept: corporate culture. In their book In Search of Excellence (1982), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argued that the best companies had strong cultures, in which all employees felt part of the firm and bought into a common ideal. This book, the first management text to make the New York Times bestseller list, appeared at an opportune moment – in the middle of a recession in America, when the Japanese work model of company songs and other rituals of belonging seemed to be the future. Britain was also going through a recession at this time, as well as supposedly suffering from the more chronic ‘British disease’ of mediocre management and demotivated workers. Fostering a strong corporate culture, particularly by urging workers to have a positive, can-do attitude, soon became a ruling motif in transatlantic business life.

But the decline of formal office hierarchies comes at the cost of uncertainty about where work begins and ends. The academic Andrew Ross, who spent several months in a trendy, Manhattan media firm in the late 1990s, calls it ‘no-collar’ work. Its first-name etiquette and dress-down culture tend to blur the distinctions between the office and our social lives, reframing work as an ‘existential challenge’ and enlisting ‘employees’ freest thoughts and impulses in the services of salaried time’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘An unreasonable world, sacrificing bird-song and tranquil dusk and high-golden noons to selling junk – yet it rules us. And life is there. The office is filled with thrills of love and distrust and ambition.’ - Sinclair Lewis, The Job

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