Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Office as a Prison

I was musing back on many an earlier job as now I end a rather extended period out of work for me, about twice as long as expected - hey it's the economy-stupid? Now I am in the running for several jobs I think again of the workplace.

Upon reflection, offices in particular, and working in them, bare a remarkable similarity to prisons and being incarcerated.

Firstly of course, there is recepetion, often a little beaurocratic and bemanned by officious, slightly snobby and occaisionally impolite women in their perimenopausal years or young, distracted bimbos. Managers of note get a nice smile, but new 'inmates' get treated curtly by which ever species. Venture further then down dull corridors to reach  the rows of office rooms or the emergence to a field of cubicles. Both have their draw backs. In a single person office you are shielded from most prying eyes, but also you are alone without any human face to face contact. Many are purposefully arranged such that your desk faces the wall and you are at a disadvantage when a boss walks in. They get to place the desk mid field and confront you with it. You sit defensively with them able to intrude your privacy at will from behind or at best from the side.

'Cube farms' can be better in that you may get some social contact but you are exposed to the same terror of the boss creeping up on you, but also all and sundry spying over your shoulder. Hence the little rear view goggle mirrors, which only announce that you are more of Facebook than you should be. Then though, there is the hum. Muted voices and clicking combine to a dull drone of background noise. Some are outright noisy places. Others are halls of fear like in a russian prison, with the inmates worst enemy being other inmates and their unexpected behaviour, and the apathy of the crowd.

The insidious thing about the reptilian american version of capitalist employment vis a vis exploitation of the office worker as the new prole, is that people end up being at work more and more of their waking, living, feeling hours and are bonded more and more to a live to pay bills and debt with an uncertain prospect of ever making any actual 'profit' in the whole deal of labour time for a wage. Bosses become made-men, with high salaries and also high pressure,  which they pass on down the shop floor, stress and knee jerk blame assertion. The workers are more and more like inmates whose time for family life, recreation and even rest and recovery is being erroded by an expecations culture of present-teism. I've been there beleive me. But the bosses have become like prison gaurds on double shifts, they are paranoid their staff will misbehave or not produce. They become chained in too, like white russian officers fighting for the empire.

You can choose your friends but not your colleagues. This is another basic denial of freedom of choice and expression., Some companies do though go to great lengths to employ sociable types who are both productive and actually fun to be around. Other companies seem to be on a death wish for negativity, people who think you have to be cruel and abrasive to get results. Some are simply highly disfunctional with extremely arrogant middle managers or other individuals over riding the powers of their superiors and making life and progress difficult for many of us. Where else do you turn up to and have to put up with people you don't know, don't like and don't even want or need to get involved with?

Now you have some more structural similarities to prison. Firstly, the canteen. Very like prison, you should keep to your own gang, your hoodies and only mix with other gangs when you know you are safe to be seen doing so. The class boundaries are nowhere in europe more apparent than in the single site canteen. Usually modern office blocks are under-toileted or have gone in for unisex cubicle affairs which are just embaressing. The one place the two sexes should not interact is over the sinks and under the mirrors of toilets where the mysteries of woomanhood play themselves out, while the boorishness of mandom are best hidden out of female view methinks. 'All company' meetings too, just usually a means of under communicating and patronising the workforce and avoiding actually answering any questions from the floor with platitudes citing  focus and importance. Like being called to the mess hall to hear the governor speak about expected conduct and how efficient the laundry is. Pat a few trustees on the back while the back benches sneer.

Then you have repitition, the drudgery, the monotomy. Knowing that you may be doing the same thing day in, day out or having to go through the same major yearly stock take, revision og accounts, quality audit and so on and so on.

Generally though we all rationalise it away. No one these days really does 40 years in an office and drops dead on their way out reception two weeks short of retiring. We all tolerate it for a while, until we can use our competances to get into a better life-work-wealth situation, sell up and down size, or start our own enterprise.  Usually in Europe that is when children arrive or at those arbitary life crisis points , 30, 40 , 50 and now there is the new 40, sixty years of age. In the USA it is more likely to be after a couple of divorces, personal or corporate bankruptcies or life threatening experience which finally overcomes the inertia to stop the semi custodial sentence which is the modern office.

I've had other jobs which are the reverse. Deliveries, window cleaning, money collecting and of course on the more career side , sales, and I have managed to hang onto that great escape from the office - business travelling- through most of my career. Some companies engineer business trips and of course confrerences, training and outright 'jollies' just to break the feeling of entrappment.

Then we get back to the reverse of it all. People by in large, are people' people! I found being a sales rep desperately lonely and ended up talking to myself on three hour drives. It left me feeling kind of empty. My interactions with people were transient. I became a kind of politeness envoy, scurrying between appointments to arrive with a face ready like an actor to deliver modest charm or a boistorous chivalry as the mood took me or the situation seemed to demand. Now I can be myself in the office. Grumpy or playful, demanding or considerate. I rarely have to be anything which I am not, and I dont need to act. I like being around people with whom I can to a large extent be myself, and being able to to have a larger degree of control over how I present myself to important people and in what ways I should prepare and modulate my approach and responses. I avoid big bosses actually. Fatal career flaw. Probably avoided a few more fatal career fails in so doing but still I get rolled over sometimes by people who have dared to play hard-ball with the bosses and end up getting my job or enough of my ass for me to feel the pain of keeping my head down and small.

You get a better judge of people you work or interact with by meeting them often face to face an. d going out of your way to talk with them such, rather than using e-mail. Meetings can be dreadful time wasters, especially of vocal americans or narcissistic english bosses. However they can be well structured, purposeful and with a collegiate set of participants who actually raise issues, new persepctives and so on. Most of all you all stand collectively informed and no one can deny that things were discusses there and then or left to be reported upon for the next meeting.

By in large also, offices offer one thing nearly all prisons deny us. Interaction with the opposite sex. We get to flirt and then let little fantasies simmer, with the occaisional fruitful office romance or networking mother-hen opportunity coming along. It is nice to flirt. Sexual tension abounds as people wiegh up each other in relation to their partners or previous lovers.

Offices then are not so bad. Sex, malevolence, monotomy, humility and fraternity all mix to make our waking hours better and worse after we stretch out our ID card through the swipe at turn-styles. Many of the old long timer prisoners start committing misdemeanours or avoid seeking parole in the USA because they are so afraid to come out into a society which has grown alien and unwelcoming in their minds. In offices we chain ourselves only metaphorically to desks and by in large we are our own enemy for creating uneeded over time by ineffective prioritisation, poor task-sequence management, socialising too much, attending non essential meetings, reading chains of e-mails, and not pushing back on bosses because that might mean we have conflicts, which we should have. Only we like our enprisonment.

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