Why this girl's heart is always in the office

For two years, I worked as the Daily Telegraph's television critic. I had to stay inside all day, glued to my armchair and the box. With no husband or child to relieve the solitude, I often found that, by the end of my working day, I had spoken to no one but the postman and the bikers in their Darth Vader helmets who delivered my videos. It got so bad, I started hanging around the door, hoping to waylay the bikers and chat about EastEnders and Frasier.

How I rejoiced at my return to that place of gossip, arena of influence, conduit for human contact - the office!

Yet it would seem that there are men and women out there who feel differently. The Work-Life Balance 2000 survey found that a quarter of men already work at home and another 38 per cent would like to do so. As for women, 16 per cent work at home and 33 per cent would like to do so. And why? No, it was not because of childcare or out of the green instinct to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Most of the people surveyed claimed that staying at home would make them better employees.

Never. Work at home, and your time is not your own; instead, it belongs to Kilroy Silk, to the postman who needs a neighbour's signature on a special delivery but will make do with yours, to the guy upstairs who needs a pint of milk and stays for coffee. Work at home, and you'll be useless to your boss because you'll be restricted to your family and friends to fertilise your mind; you'll stay in your nightie till midday and put on weight because of it - and then get the blues.

No, no, no. The office - with its ever-broken photocopier, ever-empty spring-water dispenser, and plants so wilted that we suspect asbestos must be rife - is a little piece of heaven. It is a civilising influence that keeps us from slopping about within four walls, harbouring no plans and no ambitions, and having no shape to our lives other than mealtimes.

The office is not only good for you; it makes you good. Working at home, whether as a writer or a housewife, leads to social autism; spending your days on your own breeds solipsism. The office employee, by contrast, is forced into regular social exchange the moment he or she steps through the door. A few pleasantries may not bond you into blood brethren, but they force even the most antisocial animals out of their "me me me me" shell, and turn the odd one out into a team player.

Now that "community" is a buzzword rather than the real thing, singledom commonplace and the family more likely to be disjointed and broken than tight-knit and cosy - where else but in the office do we practise a spirit of collaboration? At home, everyone is an island; in the office, we are forever building bridges, or mending them. The sociologist Richard Sennett wrote, in his The Corrosion of Character, that with the passing of job security, traditional allegiances - not just trade unions, but the various professional ties - and loyalty have gone out of the door. Yet even the newly fragile professional ties we now forge in the open-plan world of the office teach us something about mutual ties and accountability; indeed, for the increasing number of child-free adults, the office environment is the only place where they feel responsible to someone other than themselves.

You may hate office politics - but as you carp about, and undermine, someone in the office, you are not just taking part in the age-old ritual of climbing the greasy pole; you are recognising an authority in the midst of a society where an ever-decreasing number believe in a God or vote for a prime minister. And in taking up your rung in the pecking order, you are bringing some order to the chaotic flux that is our modern existence. The office also serves as a market place for ideas, with colleagues providing you with inputs that will influence your political stand, your relationships, or even just your wardrobe. Make no mistake about it, the office is where the heart is.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth