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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 Yet the open-plan office remains predicated on the outdated principles of the scientific management movement of the mid-20th century.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

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.