We have had a chance to see what it really is like to not be bound to working in an office for 8 hours per day. Now is the time to re-set our thinking on this way of working. Each week we will try to have articles on challenging what was seen as normal in the past and which we now should be re-thinking.
The Economist recently had an in-depth article on the future of the office by Catherine Nixey. She writes for 1843, which is their sister magazine.
Without their permission I would like to share a few gems.
Firstly, where did the concept of “office” come from?
IN THE SPRING of 1822 an employee in one of the world’s first offices – that of the East India Company in London – sat down to write a letter to a friend. If the man was excited to be working in a building that was revolutionary, or thrilled to be part of a novel institution which would transform the world in the centuries that followed, he showed little sign of it. “You don’t know how wearisome it is”, wrote Charles Lamb, “to breathe the air of four pent walls, without relief, day after day, all the golden hours of the day between ten and four.” His letter grew ever-less enthusiastic, as he wished for “a few years between the grave and the desk”. No matter, he concluded, “they are the same.”
The world that Lamb wrote from is now long gone. The infamous East India Company collapsed in ignominy in the 1850s. Its most famous legacy, British colonial rule in India, disintegrated a century later. But his letter resonates today, because, while other empires have fallen, the empire of the office has triumphed over modern professional life.
The author of this article wrote:
We shouldn’t let sentimentality cloud us. Offices have always been profoundly flawed spaces. Those of the East India Company, among the world’s first, were built more for bombast than bureaucracy. They were sermons in stone, and the solidity of every marble step, the elegance of every Palladian pillar, were intended to speak volumes about the profitability and smooth functioning within. This was nonsense, of course. Created to ensure efficiency, offices immediately institutionalised idleness. A genteel arms race arose as managers tried to make their minions work, and the minions tried their damnedest to avoid it. East India House, in which Lamb worked, could give call centres a run for their money in the art of micro-managing. At the start of the 19th century, the company introduced an attendance book for employees to sign when they arrived, when they left and every 15 minutes in between. Not that it proved much use. “It annoys Dodwell amazingly,” wrote Lamb. “He sometimes has to sign six or seven times while he is reading the newspaper.”
It was interesting that the Romans did not have offices. Instead:
Their tablets and styluses were every bit as portable as our own, a feature that elite Romans took full advantage of. Two thousand years ago Pliny the Younger, an author and lawyer, wrote a letter to his friend Tacitus. He had found, he said, a splendid new method of working. Instead of going about his business at a desk, he had decided that day to combine it with a boar hunt. He sat next to his nets “not with boar spear or javelin, but pencil and tablet, by my side”. After expanding on the pleasure of his method for some time, Pliny (the office boar) concluded that this was a remarkably productive way to work since “the mind is stirred and quickened into activity by brisk bodily exercise”. He concluded by advising Tacitus, “whenever you hunt, to take your tablets along with you”.
The amount of time we waste in offices is enormous:
When time-and-motion studies examine offices today, their results can be dispiriting. Office-work takes up not merely the bulk of our time but the best part of it, the hours when we are alert and alive. Home, and its occupants, has the husk. Most managers spend at least 20 hours a week in meetings, according to a study by Bain & Company in 2014. Over the course of a lifetime that amounts to nearly five full years. Many of these meetings, in wistful retrospect, might have profitably been skipped.
Poets were scathing of office life:
John Betjeman wished for bombs to fall and “blow to smithereens/Those air-conditioned, bright canteens”. In “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot (who had once worked in Lloyds Bank) saw the crowds of commuters crossing London Bridge in terms of Dante’s vision of hell: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Walt Whitman sneered at clerks as men “of minute leg, chalky face and hollow chest”.
There is more than a dash of superiority in such attacks, but there are good reasons to be critical of offices. Many of the more recent examples are aesthetic embarrassments. Where Ancient Rome had the Colosseum, Renaissance Florence had Brunelleschi’s dome and Byzantium had the Hagia Sophia, we have endless, interchangeable glass-and-steel boxes. This, says Thomas Heatherwick, a British designer, is because the design of offices – indeed all public buildings – has been “lazy”. In the past, he says, workplaces “could get away with just being a desk”, much as shops could get away with “just being somewhere which had stacks of socks or stacks of underpants”. The digital revolution means that such complacency risks redundancy. Now, says Heatherwick, there has to be good reason for you to leave your home, otherwise “why would you go?” Time for the office to sharpen up.
We have discovered that sitting isn’t good for us, nor is it necessary:
Offices can be not just offensive to the eye but harmful to the body. Sitting isn’t quite the new smoking, but it certainly won’t do you any good. A life lived on one’s bottom increases the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some cancers and all manner of back problems. Offices also entrench social inequalities. The top dog is more likely to hire in his own image, perpetuating male privilege. In 2018 there were more men called Steve than there were women among the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. Offices even tend to be more physically unpleasant places for women than for men: as a recent study showed, the ambient air temperature is generally set to suit “the metabolic rates of a 154-pound, 40-year-old man” (probably called Steve). Men are just fine; women freeze.
Supporting families can be achieved by other means than pouring everybody into an office:
The office has further-reaching patriarchal ploys up its sleeve. Chief among these is its response to children. Or rather lack of it. For most of history, workplaces ignored children entirely (the run on deposits precipitated by the arrival of the Banks twins at their father’s place of work in “Mary Poppins” shows the dire consequences of offspring turning up at the office). The Angel in the House, as Victorians fondly referred to their wives, was assumed to handle all that. In the 20th century the angel lost her wings as women entered the workplace. Offices responded to this momentous social change by making no concessions at all. As a result, working women had to straddle the gap between angel and executive, a cause of immense and continuing stress. Even more tryingly, they had to endure endless stock photos of women in suits holding babies and tearing out their hair. A minor branch of the publishing industry sprang up offering books with querulous titles such as “I Don’t Know How She Does It”.
And what a wonderful thing that artifice can be. Now that we are all working from home, amid the children, the toast crumbs and the laundry, we are realising that the pretence of an orderly life at the office is also a liberation. It allows each day to have its own architecture, its rhythms of departure and arrival. Putting on a perfectly ironed silk shirt or a crisp suit and leaving the house may be contrived but it is also, says Kellaway, “one of the beauties of working life…It allows us to be a different person. And we’re all so fed up with who we are, the opportunity to be someone else, someone a little bit more impressive, is just so tempting.” When such an escape is denied us, that allure may only grow.
We do need, however, to be in touch with each other through offices:
Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing. After the initial joy of peering into each other’s houses on Zoom, we are confronted with people’s heads looming even closer than we see them across the desk at work, and we gaze in horror – half of it self-awareness that we, too, must look awful – at thinning hair and double chins. We become freakish specimens rather than people. No Skype chat can replicate what Heatherwick calls the “chemistry of the unexpected” that you get in person. Offices may not fill the pages of poetry anthologies but, says Kellaway, they “can be as moving as anywhere on Earth. Because what moves us is not sitting at our computer, it’s the relationship that we have with people.”
For all his grumbling, Charles Lamb believed something similar too. When Wordsworth seems to have grown a trifle too smug about the sublime joys of the natural world, Lamb snapped back. “I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life.” But he did care for the city and he certainly loved offices. All his complaints were, he wrote, mere “lovers’ quarrels”. Above all, he loved his desk. For it was that “dead timber of a desk that makes me live”.■