Show Hide image

A quick glance at our screens reveals the charade that is working in an office

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

The irony of the modern office is that people so often have to leave it to get any work done. Privately, almost everyone accepts this; publically, we deny it. So who does the office serve? Notionally, the bosses. Yet most bosses have experienced the great workstation fraud: eyes staring fixedly at the screen, neck craning forward apparently in deep concentration, noise-reducing head - phones on, facial expression frozen stiff, body language radiating passive-aggressive busyness – all meant to convey: “Don’t interrupt, I’m incredibly busy!”

But busy doing what? Determined to escape that stifling sociality, we seek solitude’s poor relation: anti-sociality. In doing so, we deny many potential benefits of office life: chance remarks, serendipity and left-field ideas.

Imagine the following experiment. At 12 noon on a working day, a photograph is taken of every computer screen at every workstation in every office. The images from this “universal screenshot” would be submitted to a team of social scientists to calculate the real preoccupations of the office. How do people pass the time? Which questions are they urgently trying to answer? I tentatively suggest that three subjects might well top the poll. First, what was the score of last night’s sports match? Second, would my bum look big in those jeans? Third, will this holiday house fit all of us next summer?

Making mischief

That’s not to say that nothing is achieved in offices – but it’s rarely the place where people feel receptive to new ideas. This is no secret. Yet the open-plan office remains predicated on the outdated principles of the scientific management movement of the mid-20th century. As Gideon Haigh argues in his superb book The Office, the working norm “has reflected a low-trust environment, the idea that workers not under panoptical supervision would malinger and make mischief”. So the unhappy compromise continues: faultless attendance without innovation, constant presenteeism without results. “We don’t measure our success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey put it in Yes Minister.

There is a counterintuitive solution to this arrangement. Most people require two phases to do their best work: interaction with interesting people and solitude to join up the dots and allow their thoughts to develop into proper ideas – and then space to execute them.

The open-plan office works against both. We shy away from interaction but are rarely alone. Yet not talking to people at the office is like being in a bookshop and not opening any books. If we set out to engage with colleagues, there would be a point to going to the office. But social receptivity is much easier when you know it will be followed by restorative solitude. Deprived of a proper balance, the temptation is to withdraw emotionally and intellectually. The result is a kind of listless, uncreative limbo.

So here is an idea: send people home (or at least to the local café) to work and invite them in to the office to refresh their ideas. Instead of apologising when they go out of the office, people should apologise when they come in to the office: “So sorry everyone, I had absolutely no ideas this morning, so I came in to see you lot. Anyone got any thoughts?”

Some projects clearly require groups of people to be working together all the time but most professional tasks require a balance. We need high-quality solitude and high-quality social interaction – not a perpetually insipid, watered- down mixture of the two.

Even those at the top rarely get the chance to close the office door. In the 1940s, the eco - nomist Sune Carlson tracked nine managing directors. Far from enjoying long periods of strategic thoughtfulness, they spent on average eight minutes at a time alone. Carlson had previously seen MDs as conductors of orchestras. He changed his metaphor to “the puppet in a puppet show with hundreds of people pulling the strings”.

Surely we need to be in the office to attend those apparently essential events known as “meetings”? This is another misconception. Most meetings have no correlation with decision- making. Meetings are devices to rubberstamp decisions that have already been made – the skill here being that of the convener, who must steer events towards the appropriate conclusion, no matter how inconvenient the preceding narrative. Most meetings are either pseudo-consultation or fake democracy. Like management consultancy, they provide justification for decisions made long ago (and usually out of the office).

Bored stiff

The twin frustrations of workstation limbo and pseudo-meetings explain why people complain that offices are so boring. The phrase “deathly boring” is uncomfortably apt. In 2010, the epidemiologists
Annie Britton and Martin Shipley published the results of a study of 7,500 civil servants polled in questionnaires between 1985 and 1988. Those who reported being “very bored” at work were two and a half times more likely to have died in the ensuing 20 years.

If it doesn’t kill you first, the ability to sustain boredom has its professional uses. David Foster Wallace captured this in his novel The Pale King: “To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air . . . It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

“Accomplish” in this context implies climbing the corporate ladder. Those with higher aspirations, however, may prefer the story of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. One morning, he arrived at a construction site to dis - cover a sign promising he would be available “through the day to discuss details”. He tore it down. “Frank Lloyd Wright,” he said, “is never scheduled.”

The modern open-plan office was designed to encourage collegiate brainstorming and creative energy. Instead, when you abolish physical doors and walls, people find ever more inventive ways of building psychological ones.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide